…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
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