How Does Shetland Salmon…

…get to my plate? A question not many of us have, as we may be seated in front of a plate of “Grilled Salmon with Hot Cheese Roulade”, “Char-broiled Salmon Steaks” or a classic “Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict. Still, having lived a landlocked life, it’s a question I’ve had in my head the many times I picked a plastic-wrapped piece of pink salmon meat out from the grocery cooler and toss it into my shopping cart.

Shetland salmon farm in North Atlantic waters

Shetland salmon farm in North Atlantic waters

Background
The world’s wild salmon supply has been slowly depreciating through the years and has necessitated an increase in salmon farming. Already in the 1960’s, salmon farming was being introduced as a new form of rural business with new employment opportunities in Scotland and saw its potential grow in the mid-eighties. Parallel to this, and most recently, salmon was being hailed as a food high in vitamins and proteins and has become a recommended food for better health.

The fish first hatch as eggs, then grow to smolts in a freshwater environment the first 10-15 months. Later, they are placed in saltwater cages another 12-18 months to grow to a desirable harvesting weight of 3-4 kg. According to the Scottish Agriculture College, Scotland produces over 130,000 tons of salmon every year at a value of an estimated £300 million.

The Shetland Salmon Farming Association started in the mid 1980’s. Statistics show a membership of 46 salmon farms and 6 smolt hatcheries directly employing over 370 people. In 2003, Shetland farms produced over 59,000 tons of salmon at a value over £90 million.

Photo: Shetland salmon awaiting harvesting in saltwater cages

A Practical Experience

But, How does salmon really get to my plate? Recently, I had a first-hand educational opportunity to meet the people, see the work involved and understand some risks taken with harvesting salmon in the North Atlantic waters of Shetland. Together with a good friend, I headed out for a “something entirely different” adventure and found out how life as a salmon farmer can really be.

After an early 25 minute boat ride, the crew came to a barge with some 10 salmon cages. The barge was like a floating factory with its own electricity, powered by diesel generators, several silos full of many tons of fish food, dressing room, kitchen and all the equipment necessary to lift, haul or repair in a self-sustainable working atmosphere. Outside the windows were the fish cages, each covered with a thin netting to keep the birds from getting in. The barge had a modern computerized feeding center.

Photo:Underwater TV monitors reveal how the fish react during feeding

Using boats for short transportation rounds, the crew prepared for a harvesting this day. One man stayed inside the barge to direct and control feeding the cages through fingers of polyethylene pipes, floating out to each cage, and to keep a safe eye over the crew working outside.

Harvesting required the crew to stretch out a skimming net in the cage collecting some of the 54,000 fish. This net is a Shetland invention and allows a natural selectivity of sizes. With this done, the harvesting ship came and, with an large hose, sucked fish into its hold, passing a computerized counter which immediately weighed, counted and tallied this information on a computer. This way, the harvester knew how many and how heavy his load would be in order to fulfill the previously agreed sales contract. In our case this day, we had to skim the cage twice to deliver the needed amount.

Photo: A special Shetland net is used for a natural selection of fish

What I learned was that, while fish are harvested, they are introduced into colder water. The ocean water had a temperature of approx. +12C but, by putting them into +5C water, the fish move around less and are easier to handle later at the fish factory. I also learned that “consumer shelf-life” for fish, starts at the moment of harvesting. So it is imperative that fish are taken to the factory, cleaned, packed and distributed as quickly as possible for consumers (me) to get them as fresh as consumer laws allow.

Everyone in the crew must have a food and hygiene certification, since they are handling a consumable foodstuff. The fish must sustain a high consumer quality. Therefore, fish farming is constantly finger sensitive to disease and parasite control and this adds a greater responsibility on the shoulders of the crew and harvester. An example of this was when crew members immediately walked through a disinfecting bath before boarding the boat in the morning.

Then, I experienced and understood the risks involved for the crew. Immediately before leaving shore, life jackets and wet weather clothing were downed and kept on. With this particular cage, the crew worked on two polyethylene pipes about 80 cm apart and, with only one mistake, could slip into the ocean. I can personally guarantee that walking on this made me very very nervous. Especially knowing that the water was cold, 30 meters deep and risk of getting caught in netting seemed apparent.

Photo: A piece of kelp, poor boots or a wrong step working hurriedly can quickly put a worker into the sea

Fish feeding must be done daily and in all weather. One of the crew warned of the weather conditions. Once, when he was working another cage, a large ocean swell came from behind and hit him waist high. He held onto the cage for dear life so as not to be swept away. Thinking of the notorious Shetland gales, these men were becoming my saltwater heroes.

Summarizing, I learned a lot about how my salmon gets to my plate. I thoroughly enjoyed being with the crew that day and I have gained great respect for them working cages, the risks they take and their unique knowledge and experience. My experience was so positive and the crew members so Shetland friendly that I could think of going back and helping another day. An experience that will be considered every time I buy salmon at the groceries!

Photo: As I hang onto the cage, the harvester ship sails away with its load

Motion och igelkottar.

Vi vandrar omkring en hel del på kullarna och stränderna, minst en rejäl promenad om dan. Men man kan ju skaffa sig motion på flera sätt och för mig är ju spinning ett sätt att få igång hjärta och lungor. Så idag besökte vi det fantastiskt fina Clickimin Leisure Complex för att undersöka deras utbud. En mycket trevlig dam i receptionen hjälpte oss på alla sätt och vis och jag bokade in mig på ett spinningpass redan i morgon. Detta center erbjuder allt från pensionärsgympa till häftigaste aerobics. Här finns en jättefin pool och ett hälso “spa” med tillgång till bastu, bubbelpool m.m. Så om vintern blir fuktig, blöt och kall så kan man i alla fall få värme och motion där.

Tim besökte några grannar upp efter vägen i går kväll, när han kom hem hade han fått sällskap av en igelkott. Herr eller fru igelkott vankade omkring på vår uteplats och såg lätt förvirrad ut. Helt obekymrad om att vi stod bara några decimetrar bort. De är fantastiskt söta men tyvärr hamnar många av dom under ett bildäck när dom av någon anledning bestämmer sig för att korsa en väg.

Till sist, jag har börjat jobba, tro’t eller ej men jag hyr ut bilar!

My Saami Walking Stick…

…was a subject for comment today, as we were preparing to jump into Jeppe and take a walk on Houss, the southern point of East Burra, Shetland. A local resident came by and, as I was putting my walking stick in the vehicle, the person said something like, “Well, ya taking your spear with ya?” My first thought was, “Spear? What spear?”, but understanding that he didn’t know about it, I quickly mentioned it was a Saami style walking stick.

Afterwards, I felt it was high-time I wrote about a Saami walking stick. Perhaps other Shetlanders, who see me walking around with it in my hand on walks, or a portion of Swedish or international readers, would find this topic interesting. The walking stick and its use has been superbly developed by the Saami for thousands of years. So, let’s take time to explore the wonders of, what I call, the Saami walking stick.

Photo: In the Swedish mountains, the Saami walking stick means safety and friendship when alone

Photo: In the Swedish mountains, the Saami walking stick means safety and friendship when alone

Construction and Use
Basically, the material is birch. Birch has the qualities of an intertwining fiber, making it exceptionally strong, and considerably lightweight when dried. When choosing a stick, one wants a young tree specimen, as uniform in thickness along its length as possible, but thick enough to support the weight of its user plus the weight of a backpack. It should be as straight as possible with few branches, so it isn’t so knotty or rough. When these ingredients are had, the total length defined should be at least a little more than the length of its user.

Since birch is abundant in northern Sweden, it can be smart to choose several walking stick specimens until you understand and recognize what is best for you. If needed, ask permission from the landowner.

Once chosen, you will shave the birch bark off the stick. This helps with the drying process. A new green walking stick will be soft and flexible. After removing the bark, it will dry and become stiffer and harder during the summer. Also, cut and smooth away the branch parts. This should leave the stick smooth and allow your hands to glide along the length of it.

Once made, the Saami Walking stick is to be carried, either in a hand or cradled like a rifle, and used to give support to the upper weight of the user with a backpack or when wading across deep rushing streams, which is why it should be a little longer than the user. The thicker end of the stick points downwards as you use it. This allows for a more gentle swing, weight at bottom, with a back to front movement. It is to be used to keep balance on stones or uneven ground to prevent slipping or twisting an ankle, which can be a life or death situation when in the Swedish mountains.

The stick is not supposed to be used as an “elbow warmer”. In other words, it isn’t supposed to be held upright in your hand and mark-off every other step as you’re walking/hiking. You can shift hands or positions while hiking. Should you twist an ankle, the walking stick can be your “third leg” to safety. So, take care of it as a good friend.

On Shetland
Now, Why did I take a Saami walking stick to Shetland? Well, there are a few good reasons.

Shetland doesn’t have any trees and there isn’t anything natural around to lean up against. My Saami walking stick allows me something to lean and rest on at shoulder height. It often helps me keep balance as I walk the countryside, since I look around a lot and not pay attention to the ground. Shetland is littered with hundreds of rabbit holes half-hidden in the grass. I also have use for it as a portable monopod when I use my binoculars or camera instead of finding a suitable rock to crouch down at. My walking stick is 2 mt and I can use it as a measuring tool.

Photo: Whale Wick, with its cliffs and jagged rocks, is one example of Shetland's coastline

Photo: Whale Wick, with its cliffs and jagged rocks, is one example of Shetland's coastline

And finally, I knew that Shetland has a shoreline of rocky cliffs with strong winds. So, besides the function of making walks or climbing easier, I wanted the safety of a three-point base when near the edge of Shetland cliffs during wet windy weather. Don’t want an unnecessary newspaper article, do we? .

So, anybody out there wondering why I carry a “spear” around with me, it’s O.K! I understand. I just know that I’m in safer hands with my Saami walking stick than if I was without, and I’m glad that the chances of getting hurt or falling while walking alone are less when I carry it with me.

Ocean Garbage…

…is a fact that inlanders hardly are aware of. Possibly, when visiting a coastline during vacation, through a television program or the isolated article in the local newspaper, people living away from salty shores may get a small insight of all the refuse and waste that exists in the oceans. It wasn’t until I started walking the shores along Shetland that the variety and amount of floating scrap became apparent, and I earlier wouldn’t or couldn’t conceive how the world is polluting the seas until coming to this tiny group of Atlantic islands.

And, the garbage is very real! While taking walks along a nearby part of Shetland’s shores, the beachcomber comes out in me. Eyes pointed downwards, I search the deposits of freshly washed up kelp for some special seashell, piece of wood, hunk of amber or rare maritime artifact but, after a short time, realize that a large percentage of beached debris is manmade polyethylene.

The garbage becomes more apparent as I glance higher up along the beach or shore, where many years of accumulated crap can be found. It’s mind-boggling with the ropes and netting material, plastic containers and water bottles that are pushed on shore or slowly disappearing into the sands. One distressing thought is the seals, dolphins or birds that can, and do, get tangled into this junk.

Occasionally, I can consider who’s to blame for this mess. It isn’t Shetland’s fault that somebody else’s garbage blows up on its shoreline! It’s hardly the fault of the people visiting the beaches, though in some cases the odd soda can or forgotten shoe can be had. And, can one really blame the ships or fishing vessels out to sea, when fighting heavy winds as their fishing nets are torn away or loose equipment wash overboard?

If I remember right, about three times more garbage is thrown into the seas than the amount of fish taken. And, there is so much debate about EU fishing quotas and so little said about keeping the ocean clean…? It just seems baffling. Where are the champions for keeping our oceans clean?
Photo:Meal Beach

In an attempt to suggest something positive, I want to highlight that Shetland sets aside time and money to clean-up its shores. Each year, residents are invited to participate in a road and shore clean-up and literally hundreds take time to handpick scrap off of the beaches etc. The council provides and allocates funds for pick-up and hauling of the collected garbage.

I think this is commendable! Both the council and especially the volunteers need to be patted on their backs for this great effort. Unfortunately, the crap keeps blowing in from the seas at a regular pace and almost defeats the purpose.

Think, if more and more of us would refuse using non-degradable polyethylene where possible? One idea that I try to practice, is to pick-up some beach scrap and carry it home for disposal each time I go for a walk. Think if everyone did this as they visit Shetland’s shoreline? Could be a great habit and good idea?