As Salmon Deaths Double, Will Scotland Address Its Fish Farm Catastrophe?

New statistics reveal that mortality rates among farmed Scottish salmon are higher than ever before


4 Minutes Read

Farmed salmon have been dying on Scottish farms The Scottish government is being urged to take action - Media Credit: Karen Appleyard / Alamy Stock Photo

Last week, it was revealed that 2022 saw the highest farmed fish mortality rates on record, with approximately 15 million salmon dying prematurely on farms across Scotland between January and November 2022. This number is double that of 2021 and triple that of 2020. 

What these figures mean is that 15 million animals, who were farmed for human consumption, died and were discarded before even reaching slaughter. 

MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) have dubbed these numbers as “horrendous” and “alarming.” They are now demanding immediate action from the Scottish Government, including an urgent inquest.

Ignoring this new information comes at our own peril. These fish mostly died as a result of disease, treatment, and poor gill health – issues that arose because of the conditions they are kept in. 

Salmon are the second most factory farmed animal in the UK, after chickens. The industry contributed £760 million to the Scottish economy in 2021 a rise of 20 percent since 2019. As the industry grows, so do the issues that come with it.

The salmon deaths should serve as a reminder that the government must crack down on the unethical and environmentally disastrous salmon farming industry.

Salmon farms in Scotland
Adobe Stock Salmon farming is big business in Scotland

The environmental cost of farmed salmon

In today’s climate, we are all well aware of the importance of sustainability. And, that we must be careful with the planet’s limited resources. But it seems there is an elephant in the room – or, perhaps, 15 million Scottish salmon.

It’s fair to say that Scotland already has enough to contend with where the climate crisis is concerned. Over the last three decades, temperatures in Scotland have risen by 0.5⁰C on average, winters have become five percent wetter, and sea levels across the coast have grown by up to three centimeters every decade. 

Commercial fish farming of species such as salmon can have heavily detrimental effects on the environment. For example, waste from fish feed and feces can pollute the water around intensive fish farms. And disease can be widespread, leading to increased chemical and pesticide use, further contaminating the area and impacting local marine life. These factors are likely to only worsen if we continue our “business as usual” approach as a society. Can Scotland really afford this current salmon catastrophe?

A cruel industry

This is all without even considering the welfare implications of these dire mortality rates on salmon farms. With up to 77 million fish farmed every year in Scotland – and millions more dying before they even make it to the slaughterhouse – this is mass death on a grand scale. 

The facts have been laid bare for all to see. Yet the Scottish Government continues to allow millions of salmon to suffer and needlessly die. 

Salmon on ice for sale at fish market.
David Ibinson / Alamy Stock Photo Salmon farms nearly 80 million fish every year

By confining Atlantic salmon in tight or unnatural spaces, not only are these animals susceptible to various diseases and lice breakouts, they are also unable to carry out many of their natural behaviors. These territorial animals – who would naturally swim hundreds in miles in the wild – also suffer psychological consequences, becoming stressed and developing aggressive tendencies toward one another. 

This melting pot of issues plays a key role in the ever-increasing mortality rates on salmon farms. Swift action must be taken.

Recognition of fish sentience

I have hope. 

In 2022, the Scottish Government made inspections at fish slaughterhouses in Scotland mandatory for the first time ever, following a first-time exposé of the slaughter of Scottish salmon by Animal Equality.

Months later, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 completed its final passage through Parliament by receiving Royal Assent. The Act covers Scotland, as well as England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and has been celebrated widely. It includes fish, as well as decapod crustaceans (such as crabs, lobsters, and prawns) and cephalopod molluscs (such as octopus and squid), firmly recognizing that these animals have the ability to feel pain and can suffer, much the same as other animals in all the ways that really matter.

It is hopeful that these steps forward will lead to real change for farmed fish. It’s clear: salmon mortality rates must be curbed, for the sake of the animals and environment alike.

So can the Scottish Government logically ignore what is right in front of their eyes? Cross-party politicians are joining together to declare absolutely not. And they are now urging the Scottish Government to take immediate action to address these issues.

The Scottish Government has listened and acted in the past. But the state of the environment and animal welfare very much depends on if it will now.

It’s not too late now, but it might well be soon.

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