The New Fish

by Scott Sadil

Speaking of books.

In the October, 2023, issue of Gray’s, Chris Camuto, who writes so insightfully about sporting literature for the magazine, reviewed The New Fish, a “brilliantly written narrative account,” offered Camuto, that “tells an equally exciting and troubling story” about the origins and history of salmon farming in Norway and around the world. 

I hurried to the computer and ordered a copy.  Now and then, I’ve found, it’s a good idea to listen to the experts.

The story, of course, is more than just a cautionary tale.  Authors Simen Sætre and Kjetil Østli show their hand in the book’s subtitle: “The Truth about Farmed Salmon and the Consequences We Can No Longer Ignore.”

If you’ve ever bought or eaten farmed salmon, which usually means Atlantic salmon raised and fed and de-loused and all but fumigated in pens, the book may well give you pause before going that route again.

I was especially taken by the practice of employing a color wheel, like the one you get at your local paint store, for marketing specialists choosing the shade of salmon flesh they feel sells best at places like Costco or Safeway.  Farmed salmon, note the authors, “is grey, pale, can be white or tinged pink, all depending on what it has eaten.” Pigments, therefore, must be added, and much analysis and debate goes into which choice is made so that the color we see at the supermarket creates the illusion of wild fish harvested from nature.

Yet artificial coloring is but a very small part of much bigger issues the book raises.  The long battle fought by salmon farmers in their attempts to control lice, which attack and infect and often destroy salmon crowded into pens, is a harrowing tale of the wholesale application of dangerous, unregulated pesticides, bringing to mind the use of DDT when I was young. 

Since so much salmon farming takes place in fjords and other tidal waters just outside river mouths, it’s only obvious that fishery managers would begin to question if salmon aquaculture, with the ever-increasing use of chemicals it employs, just might have something to do with our diminishing runs of wild fish.

Then there’s the matter of feeding penned salmon.  In one of the book’s most disturbing sections, the authors tell how traditional fishermen in other parts of the world are now selling their harvests to salmon farmers in more developed nations, depriving local populations of one of their main protein sources.  While salmon farmers claim their industry can help fight hunger in the modern world, we learn it takes up to twice as much harvested and exported fish protein from other nations as we actually get from a farmed salmon—an equation that means, among other things, as the journal Nature once commented, “Families—especially children—of artisanal fishers across Africa and Asia are suffering because of demands of the aquaculture industry.”

This pattern of claims and counterclaims, however, may well prove the most important thematic element found in this and so many other stories today. The salmon-farming industry, we learn, has made many people very rich, while at the same time engaging in orchestrated attacks on anyone who has raised questions or concerns about either the practices or ethics of fish farming and the dangers of consuming diseased and chemically-treated fish.  The authors describe industry-wide efforts to denigrate and discredit the work of real scientists, following a playbook previously used by the tobacco industry, lobbyists for the DDT I grew up with, deniers of acid rain and, currently, the causes of our changing climate.  

Sadly, the game goes on.  If you’d like a firsthand account, find yourself a copy of The New Fish.

Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil is quick to admit he has never visited Norway.