Food & Drink: And now: green salmon
Orkney salmon farmers have gone organic - so now there'll be plenty more fish in the sea.
Saturday 28 August 1999
Strung out on the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, these remote, green islands feel a million miles away from the relentless grind of feeding the country. The elements rule this small, tough community of 20,000 people.
It takes ingenuity to ensure a secure living, as Robbie Rendall, an Orcadian from Westray explains: "When my father, Stewart Rendall, had three sons, he realised that the family business of sheep and cattle farming was not going to be enough to sustain everyone, so in 1988 he decided to diversify into salmon farming by using local government grants." Others had already begun to feel that a future in salmon farming was preferable to fishing or agriculture. All low-volume producers, they decided to form a small consortium called the Orkney Salmon Company Limited.
Unlike the mainland Scottish salmon farms, who cage their fish in lochs, the Orcadians decided to anchor their large-netted fish-pens offshore, in the midst of the strong rip tides of the converging seas.
Their young smolts had to swim energetically in their pens as the fast, clean tides roared through their cages. They matured into svelte, muscular fish - far closer to wild salmon than their chubby cousins farmed on the Scottish mainland. And after a little research into agriculture standards, the Orcadians realised that they could market their fish as "conservation grade" for a healthy premium.
But the food world moves as fast as the Orcadian tides. Food fears and a plethora of different labels began to make it harder for the Orkney Salmon Company to maintain the high profile they had established.
"We began to question whether the "conservation grade" really meant anything to people," remembers Kirstie McCallum of Mainland Salmon on Rousay (another member of the OSC). "It seemed to us that only organic products were being clearly differentiated."
Discussions ensued with the salmon smokers Ghillie and Glen, who bought much of their salmon, and Sainsbury's. The latter maintained that the only way to ensure full creditability was to be certified by the Soil Association. "The problem," explains McCallum, was that in the mid-Nineties "the Soil Association didn't have any working standards for fish farming. I think they were a bit suspicious that we were trying to pull a fast one on them, because they were not used to the idea of working with the sea as a natural environment for animal husbandry. Worse still, salmon are carnivorous hunters, so the source of their feed was going to be a problem."
Francis Blake, Standards and Technical Director of the Soil Association, had already been wrestling with the problem of whether fish farming could be organic. "We had first looked at it in the late 1980s, but there wasn't sufficient interest for us to pursue it until 1996," he states. "There were several critical issues that we had to address. Firstly, the Soil Association's standards were designed for a sustainable soil-based agriculture cycle." In other words, you put in as much as you take out by introducing a nitrogen cycle from plant to animal to soil, and so on. "Secondly, could we find a sustainable source of fish feed, given that most comes from fish fry and sand eels specially caught for animal feed? The depletion of such stocks must surely affect the food chain of larger fish and birds. And thirdly, salmon are an undomesticated, migratory species, so is it ethically correct to put them in a cage?" They thought it better to tackle the problem, however imperfectly, rather than dismiss it as too difficult.
Slowly, through constant discussions with fish farmers, the first general standards for organic fish farming were drawn up. They had to encompass fresh-water farmed trout as well as salmon. Every aspect of the salmon's life had to be assessed. Artificial lighting had to mimic the Orkney daylight as the tiny salmon (parr) grew in their freshwater tanks. Photo-period manipulation for controlled growth was strictly forbidden. Handling was minimised to reduce stress. The water from the local burn had to be rigorously filtered before leaving the farm. All the waste was to be sold to local farmers as manure. The feed had to be specially developed. Shrimp shells replaced artificial colouring, while the off-cuts of white fish sold for human consumption were to replace whole processed fry. The salmon were to be stocked at half the normal density of large conventional fish farms, taking up just one per cent of their water.
With the uncertainty of a new feed, Sainsbury's and Ghillie and Glen agreed to jointly underwrite the Orkney company's first organic salmon trial for pounds 60,000. "We had never suffered from sea lice or lethal infections like Furunculosis as we already conformed to many of the Soil Association's standards" states McCallum, "but we didn't know how the salmon would fare on their new food, or whether their colour would be acceptable to the public."
They needn't have worried. At last there is a credible alternative to wild salmon, which has recently suffered from a steep decline in its numbers through, amongst other things, increased illegal netting in river estuaries. Too many people are insisting on eating its wild flesh. The first organic salmon have just arrived in Sainsbury's. Their pale pink flesh somehow looks more natural, and it tastes wonderful.
Fresh (pounds 6.89 per 450g) and smoked organic Orkney salmon (pounds 4.59 per pounds 125g) is available from Sainsbury's. The latter is also available from Waitrose, along with organic brown trout from mid-September
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Emma Watson on Jennifer Lawrence naked photo leak: 'Even worse than seeing women's privacy violated is reading the comments'
- 2 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 3 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 4 Cee Lo Green: It is only rape if the victim is conscious
- 5 Katie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge: ‘I hate fat people for making me do this’
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
North Korea threatens Britain over 'mud-slinging' Channel 4 thriller focusing on Kim Jong-un's nuclear weapons programme
Olivia Colman and Mary Berry top Radio Times' female power list
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain