Christmas is a time of year when everyone reaches for smoked salmon, and until recently you could shop for the smoked stuff without a care in the world. So long as your pocket stretched, you were guaranteed a guilt-free Christmas treat. Not any longer. Although the cost of smoked salmon may have gone down, the environmental cost has grown.
Salmon farming has been fraught with issues surrounding over-use of antibiotics and toxic chemicals, effluent discharges and errant salmon who merrily escape to infect their wild cousins. Efforts have been made to overcome these problems; for example vaccinating fish instead of using antibiotics and positioning salmon farms in fast-moving tidal waters where effluent is flushed away. The first global study on the environmental effects of salmon aquaculture, however, was damning.
The 2008 study by Nova Scotia researchers Jennifer Ford and Ransom Myers found that wild runs near salmon farms suffered population losses of at least 50 per cent each year. The wild runs were being attacked by parasitic sea lice, multiplying in their millions around caged salmon. Ford and Ransom concluded that the scale of loss to wild stock was unsustainable.
In terms of sustainability there is one other issue – feed. Salmon are carnivorous and fed fish protein made from small marine species with no commercial value, which are unintentionally caught as bycatch. This is supplemented with fish oil, again from wild fish. The question therefore remains, just how sustainable is that Christmas canape?
Before we all shake our heads in despair and become vegetarian, there is a note to add, and that is about a positive fishing revolution, or renaissance, that I myself had the pleasure to watch in action. I am talking about the re-branding of the Cornish pilchard. No longer a small, tomatoey bony thing, the Cornish sardine is bigger, fatter and, apparently, more in demand than ever.
I took a trip out into Mounts Bay with Sam Lambourn, a Cornish fisherman, who has turned his hand to fishing for Cornish sardines. That means using a method called ring netting to pounce on sardines, found using sonar. Sam also uses a type of pump to suck the fish straight out of the net and onto ice, without so much as a scale out of place.
Sam chose to fish for sardines after spotting shoals in the waters off Mounts Bay five years ago and realising that in today’s Omega-conscious world there is, once again, a market for them. Instead of always processing the sardines into tightly-packed tins there is, now, an emphasis on getting fresh juicy fish from sea to plate in 24 hours. Moreover, ring netting means that the quality of the fish is better than ever before.
Sardines on toast anyone?