Amy Clark: Elvar, this is ultimately a hopeful moment, and we’ll get to this, but first let’s hear the bad news. What are you seeing with the Atlantic wild salmon?
Elvar Örn Fridriksson: Wild salmon numbers are down 70% from four decades ago—we estimate 50,000 fish remain in Icelandic rivers. These fish have a special story and have adapted to their home river for 10,000 years, since the last Ice Age, so they are very precious. North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) started 30 years ago, and we have always tried to focus on the most important threats to these fish. When we started, it was high seas salmon fisheries, prompting a focus on commercial buy-outs. That’s still a priority, but now aquaculture has become the biggest human-made threat.
Clark: What is salmon aquaculture and why is it a problem?
Fridriksson: What we’re talking about here is fish farming with open net pens—basically giant nets in ocean waters. The industry now operates at a large scale, farming an estimated 20 million fish in Icelandic waters alone. The problems are several. First, open pens don’t hold the farmed fish, all of which are fertile, selectively-bred farmed fish—so some escape and breed with wild salmon. You can’t stop this from happening and it’s devastating to the wild stock. Then there is general polluting caused by chemicals used to treat sea lice and other parasites that plague the farmed fish. All these chemicals along with all the waste go straight into the ocean. So far this year, some two million farmed fish have died in pens, not because of accidents, but because the conditions are so bad. The companies factor into their business plans 20% mortality rate. What other industry would be allowed to do that? Imagine a farmer has 100 cows, and assumes that 20 of them die just due to poor conditions. Would such a farmer be allowed to continue? Of course not.
Clark: Right. How is the industry organized in Iceland?
Fridriksson: Two Norwegian companies are majority owners of the farms here. They also own fish farming companies in Norway, Scotland, and Chile. In Iceland, they have set up pen nets in the East and West Fjords. If you’ve visited Iceland, you will know these are pristine areas, many of them remote. The companies are operating in many fjords and they’re constantly trying to get new licenses so they can expand. But who is left with the bill? It’s Mother Nature, and increasingly Icelandic people whose incomes are displaced, or will be displaced in the future, as a result. Some estimates pin a cost of $47 billion globally to this industry. That’s if you factor in negative externalities and downstream costs of, for example, pollution, loss of income of fishing families, and loss of tourism revenue due to a degraded environment.
Clark: Do Icelanders know that salmon are being farmed like this?
Fridriksson: They are starting to learn. The biggest positive is the growing awareness among Icelanders of all ages and walks of life. Before, it was mostly the angling community that was caring. But recent footage from inside the pens is having an incredible impact. Even people with no connection to salmon or fishing or rural communities are talking about this. I mean, when you look at images of the farmed fish, you realize something is very wrong. Some of the fish have half a head. Or they are infected with sea lice. Or they are dying or dead. Icelanders are speaking now with an awareness that it’s not only wild salmon at stake, but just the purity of our nature. On top of this, people are asking more and more about where their food is coming from, what the production methods are, and what the carbon footprint is. A lot of school kids have become very aware of this in the past few months especially due to the footage being shared on social media.
Clark: What sparked this awakening?
Fridriksson: It’s an interesting story that I love to share because it shows that we all have roles to play. In 2019, a woman called Veiga Grétarsdóttir had recently undergone gender reassignment—she is a trans woman—and decided to celebrate her journey by kayaking the 1,300 mile circumference of Iceland, counter-clockwise and against the current. Some of our waters are strong and choppy and so this is first of all an amazing athletic feat. She released a documentary about the experience called Against the Current, which has been receiving prizes. So Veiga started her journey in this different place. But then it evolved: As she kayaked, she saw more and more plastic waste in the ocean and along the shores, even in remote places where no one lives. She’s from the West Fjords—aquaculture country—and there she encountered open net pens. She started noticing dead birds in the pens, because there are nets on top and birds get tangled there. She saw dead fish. So at that point, she researched more and reached out to us at NASF. She introduced herself and told me that she was very concerned about where this was headed. She asked, “What can we do?”
Clark: Interesting! How has your collaboration evolved?
Fridriksson: At the time, I advised Veiga to check what’s inside the pens because that’s what nobody sees except the farm employees. I pointed her to similar footage from Scotland and Canada. She already had a GoPro because she’s often filming while kayaking. I went out and bought the longest GoPro stick I could find so it would reach into the nets. I sent it up to Veiga. She started filming along the edges of the nets, in the open water. She got really passionate about this issue and decided to go public with the footage of these farmed fish—misshapen, infected, sick—and we supported her. We built a campaign around the images, included infographics for more context, and posted to social media. And we amplified her story: She was just doing what she loved—kayaking—and then saw the effects that humans are having on our pure waters and our pure nature and wanted to do something about it. She found an outlet and that outlet was NASF.
Clark: Looking ahead, what do you hope will be different in the next, say, 5 years?
Fridriksson: You know, the last thirteen years have brought heavy air traffic and a lot of people to Iceland. We saw a sudden surge of tourists following the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2008. That seemed to fuel the imaginations of many and put Iceland on the global destination map. This kind of tourism is not a great solution for the country because it happened quickly and we weren’t prepared with the right infrastructure. So when I look ahead, I think: What if we emphasize a new kind of tourism that lets people enjoy this beautiful place without ruining the local ecosystems? I hope we can create incentives and a good infrastructure for businesses to do sustainable work here—so that nature doesn’t have to foot the bill. I don’t want people in rural communities to loose their jobs. That’s not what I want, even though a lot of people think that’s what I want. Bringing this back to the salmon: Ok, so we let the open net pens in. They’re here. What can we do to reverse this? How can we be better? If we want to do fish farming, let’s build on what we have and do it thoughtfully. Iceland has clean, renewable energy. We have wide open spaces. We probably have the best circumstances in the world to have land-based fish farming. It’s not without its flaws, but at least there are no fish escapes, there’s no sea lice and you can control the waste—if you’re a responsible company and the regulatory environment is strong and there’s transparency with the public.
North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) was founded in 1991 by Orri Vigfusson, an entrepreneur, angler, senior Ashoka Fellow, and lifelong advocate for the Atlantic wild salmon. Vigfusson pioneered the use of commercial buy-outs to reduce over-fishing of the Atlantic wild salmon. Based in Reykjavik, NASF is composed of quasi-independent teams in countries across the North Atlantic—from USA to Iceland to Norway and Russia—who work together on strategies to save the salmon and champion the health of our planet. Elvar Örn Fridriksson is the Program Director for NASF-Iceland. He grew up in a household where, he says, “Salmon was always king. My parents both fish for salmon. Every summer when we were on vacation, we would go all over the country. There would always be a fishing rod in the car. And I was taught all the rivers. I knew all the rivers when I was just a kid and I was just brought up respecting these fish. When I was seven or eight, all I could think about was salmon.”