From the comfort of our sofas, we have been drawn to a oceanic feast of spectacles on Blue Planet II. Outside, closer to home, in cold roaring waters, another spectacular is under way.
Atlantic salmon are moving at the moment. Migratory instincts demanding the fish drive forward, bashing against rocks, jostling at the foot of waterfalls, ramming through woody debris across narrow channels, tails flapping as they power, their backs exposed, through wide shallows – a muscled sliver of coloured silver (cliche alert) majestically thrashing its way upstream to breed at any cost.
It’s cost krill their life to bring salmon to this condition: millions of tiny sea going crustaceans, prawn-like in shape, that give wild salmon its pink flesh (compound called astaxanthin) and a key species within the ocean food web. While I’ve hunted prawns from rock pools, I’ve also been very lucky to have hooked a handful of salmon in Scottish rivers. Slow thumping take, bend of the rod, reel screaming to catch up (second cliche alert), slippery rocks with hidden dark holes as you stagger, midges biting, to move with the fish on its first furious run…
A large trout on a small rod is one thing. A small salmon on a big rod is another thing. Different for an intangible reason – perhaps just out of raw natural flow interrupted by small hook and gossamer line – as hunter and prey interact.
Many salmon are returned but, now and again, as sort of control-freak otter, one is killed for the pot – then if lucky again, play, carefully unhook and hold the fish in the flow to feel it regain its strength, swish its powerful tail and return on its journey.
Away from the wild fish, farmed salmon is big business. Big as canapes smoked on brown bread, cheapest in the biggest supermarkets, and bigger healthy good news for fish oil* nutritionists.
Even farmed, once a rare delicacy (do I remember £20 a 1lb?), its retail cost has tumbled over the years as improved farming techniques have yielded efficiencies passed on through our food chain. Unfortunately not without negative impact on other food chains.
Krill, alongside other small sea-fish, are hoovered up to be used as fish food (it’s that vital omega 3* again) while sea lice infestations in salmon cages ‘overload’ wild fish passing up sea lochs on their migratory journey.
Consumer hunger for this tasty healthy ‘cheap’ protein is not going away. Aqua-culture is globally set to become the biggest source of protein and new technology must play a vital role in enabling fish farming to keep pace with reducing its environmental impacts. Fish meal from genetically modified camelina would avoid depleting wild fish stocks, as would fish meal protein manufactured from methane, and ultimately, although vastly more expensive, closed contained onshore tank would keep farmed away from wild salmon – especially if the former are GM salmon.
To save wildlife, let’s farm smarter. As a hunter naturalist, I’m all for keeping intensively farmed systems – organic or otherwise – at arm’s length from nature which then enables nature to keep hunting krill, and for us to hunt the odd wild salmon.