I was blackberrying the other day in the fields above our house. The gleamingly ripe berries were destined for a crumble, but I was reminded of alternative uses. Maybe to make the perfect seasonal sauce to accompany grouse. Alas, that’s now a great gustatory treat forsworn. This particular game bird is off my menu. For ethical reasons.
According to Chris Packham, since 2018 in the UK there have been 101 illegally killed hen harriers, plus tens of thousands of eagles, kites, buzzards, hundreds of thousands of foxes, stoats, corvids all killed, and vast swathes of upland have been ecologically damaged by burning. And all the while, I understand, grouse moor owners have been granted tax concessions.
I’ve been equally wobbly about that other traditional emblem of the hunting, shooting and fishing lobby – salmon. Except wild with its remarkable story is very much the exception these days. It is the industrial scale horror of fish faming that fuels my concerns.
The conservation charity Wildfish claims (and I have no reason to doubt them) that a reported 900,000 Scottish farmed salmon died between June 1 and 30 2023, bringing the total for the year so far to an estimated 5.6 million. That’s 1.6 million more fish compared with the same period last year.
It’s a wake-up call about the environmental, sustainability, and welfare issues connected with open-net farmed salmon. And since Wildfish launched its Off the table campaign encouraging restaurants to take such produce off its menus there has been a strong support from the likes of Fergus Henderson’s St John Restaurant in London and Michelin-starred Old Stamp House in Ambleside, The Palmerston and Fhior in Edinburgh and Silo in Hackney. More than 100 destinations are now listed on an international directory of ‘refuseniks’.
Tim Maddams, former Head Chef of River Cottage says of the farmed salmon industry: “It’s inefficient, misleading in its advertising, it’s polluting, and it endangers the already massively threatened wild salmon. There are plenty of better, tastier, and far more sustainable options.”
In brief Wildfish’s damning claims about the Scottish farmed salmon industry
• Mass production: intensive salmon farming creates a breeding ground for diseases and parasites. According to a WildFish report, in 2022, a single Scottish salmon farm can be infested with as many as 5 million parasitic sea lice at any one time – juvenile lice spread out from the farms, risking potentially fatal infestations in wild salmon and sea trout.
• Impact on wild fish: it’s estimated that 440 wild fish are required as feed to produce one farmed salmon OR around 2.5kg (wild-caught fish as feed) per 1kg (farmed salmon). The industry relies on wild fish such as wild herring, anchovies, and mackerel for this feed; 90 per cent of which could be directly eaten by people.
• Contamination: despite farmed salmon often being labelled as “responsibly produced”, the Scottish salmon farming industry is the only UK livestock industry to report increasing antibiotic usage trends), according to the UK Veterinary Antibiotic Resistance and Sales Surveillance Report published in 2022. The industry also continues to use chemical pesticides, toxic to marine life, that can spread as far as 39km away from the farms. According to an analysis by Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots, Scottish salmon farm waste is equivalent to the volume of sewage produced by half of Scotland – approximately 35,000 tonnes per year.
Making a decision on what salmon you’ll buy. Go Faroe!
I accept the fact that most supermarkets and even traditional fishmongers don’t have access (or don’t seek access) to ethically reared fish, while punters may not care to splash out the big bucks for the wild stuff when it’s available, but, as with free range chicken, it is worth going the extra mile in your quest for salmon.
You can find wild salmon on occasions on the slab at one of the UK’s finest fishmongers, Out of the Blue in Chorlton, Manchester. They also regularly stock what many would claim is the king of sustainably farmed salmon from the pure waters off the spectacular Faroe Islands (above, out in the North Atlantic between Norway and Greenland,).
Faroes’ surroundings are the natural feeding ground of wild Atlantic salmon, which travel out from the rivers of Europe before heading back to spawn. Perfect environment also for fish farming with a conscience. No antibiotics to treat disease have been used for 20 years. Resulting product, off the back of a couple of OTB purchases, offers a rich buttery taste with a firm texture, the roseate colour the result of naturally occurring carotenoids, not dye. These come primarily from the healthy pigment astaxanthin, derived from a diet of microalgae and shrimp. And it has a high omega-3 content. Herring and eel are also part of the diet, helping build up that healthy fat content and his protein levels.
One obvious benchmark – it is sushi-graded, so can be safely consumed raw. Whatever you do with such quality salmon don’t over cook it. My personal preference is to smoke it gently with beech or cherry wood chips in my Cameron’s stovetop smoker.
- To plan a visit to the Faroes visit Guide To Faroe Islands.
Or maybe head down the Iceland route (and I don’t mean the supermarket)
We had to pass through the Cotswold town of Burford en route for Oxford recently, which meant visiting its glorious church to pay our respects to the three Levellers leaders executed there on Cromwell’s orders in May, 1649. His troops had first penned them inside St John The Baptist along with 340 other rebels who shared their ‘socialist’ beliefs. There’s a plaque to the trio in the churchyard.
Two miles away was the other object of our pilgrimage – The Upton Smokery, which has featured in the Financial Times top 50 places to shop in the world. We dropped in to purchase smoked eel. As with the great Jeremy ‘Quo Vadis’ Lee, who created his signature sandwich to showcase its delights, it is a passion of mine. And Upton smoke it on site.
They also stock arguably the world’s most sustainable land-reared fish sourced from Icelandic aquaculturists Silverscale.
Upton founder Chris Mills says: “I have been caught in a trap of supporting an industry (salmon farming) which I simply don’t believe in. Open cage salmon farming at sea is an environmental tragedy with such a low level of husbandry that, if people really knew what happened below water, they would never eat salmon again.
“Silverscale is changing that so I am thrilled to be part of this new initiative. Only good husbandry, pure water and zero chemicals can produce an end product to match its wild cousin. Wild Atlantic salmon is an incredible species in terrible trouble. Open caged salmon farming at sea is having a dire effect on their very existence and the only responsible and sustainable form of salmon farming has to be done in a controlled environment on land. Iceland is the obvious place to achieve this.”
Still in development, Silverscale expect to harvest 500-1000 tons this year increasing to 30,000 tons plus from salmon brood stock entirely raised in Iceland from egg.
You can buy smoked Icelandic salmon and char online from Upton.