In Britain, we eat a million portions of salmon every day. It is the second biggest Scottish export after whisky. And virtually all of these million portions will be farmed salmon. Wild salmon is no longer fished commercially anywhere in the UK. Most salmon rivers now require anglers to return fish to the water after weighing and, of course, taking that photo for social media.
This is a far cry from the 19th century when indentured apprentices near rivers such as the Tay and the Tweed had a clause in their contract stipulating that they weren't to be fed salmon more than a certain number of times per week. A paper on the subject in 1896 reveals that in Berwick the price of salmon was 2/- (10p) per stone. And that's Scots measure, a stone being 17lb 8oz (nearly 8kg) as opposed to Imperial measure of 14lb (6.4kg)
I'll wager that many of you will never have eaten the wild stuff. It has a much firmer consistency and a superior flavour. That's hardly surprising. If you have ever visited Buchanty Spout or Linn of Tummel in Perthshire in the leaping season, you will have considered it a miracle that any of the fish ever make it back to their spawning ground. In fact wild Atlantic salmon have a survival rate of just 1 to 2%.
With such supreme athleticism, it's hardly surprising that they have more muscular bodies than their farmed cousins, who simply swim around in giant cages. This of course is not new, so why am I writing about it today? The answer is that I believe all is not well in the salmon farming industry.
According to figures released by the Fish Health Inspectorate, mortality rates in Scottish fish farms in 2022 were double those in 2021, and nearly treble the 2020 figure. It's working out at about 25%. As more than one commentator has remarked, imagine going for a country walk and seeing one sheep in four lying dead. There would be an outcry. Producers will blame external factors such as a huge rise in the jellyfish population, but there is no doubt that much of it is down to overcrowding, pollution in the cages and failure adequately to deal with parasites such as sea lice.
I've always tried to be careful when buying salmon. I use a reputable fishmonger and avoid like the plague any bits which are white and fatty at the edges. But that's no help when you're buying the smoked stuff. So I sought advice from an expert.
Fife's Food Ambassador Christopher Trotter knows a thing or two about fish. He expressly deals with the topic of wild versus farmed in his most recent book, Coasts & Waters: The British Seafood Cookbook. I hate to go for imported food over local, but many now turn up their noses at any farmed fish. What about wild Alaskan? I asked. To my surprise Christopher told me that this stuff is dyed before it goes on sale, giving it that unnaturally red colour. Hmm.
Any advice then? His reply? I wouldn’t touch anyone’s salmon except the Native Hebridean which has its own quality label and has the highest sustainability standards. It's farmed in the clear, clean waters of the Outer Hebrides and Shetland. As he points out in Coasts & Waters, fish being farmed in the sea (as opposed to in a relatively calm sea loch) have tidal movement to swim against and thus develop muscle. The more innovative farmers are using organic methods to combat parasites, by introducing wrasse, a small fish that feeds on sea lice.
As with any food shopping these days, be careful, and ask questions.
Christopher is Fife’s Food Ambassador. He has produced an invaluable series of pocket sized vegetable books in addition to Coasts and Waters. The vegetable books make fantastic stocking fillers, and are available at a reduced price from 1 December.
For more information see his website. In addition to his writing and media work he runs cooking classes and workshops of all sizes and to all specifications.
Image of Christopher is courtesy of Fife's Greatest Photographer, Caroline Trotter.