As a consumer product, very few types of seafood are able to compete on the same levels of supply and international demand as farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). The global exports of this fish totalled 2.3 million tonnes last year with a value in excess of €13 billion ($14.7 billion).
The salmon farming industry is led by Norway, which produces around half the Atlantic salmon sold in the world and exports more than one million tonnes annually. The other main producers include Chile, the UK, Canada, the Faroe Islands and Australia.
Pittman Seafoods sources its Atlantic salmon from Norway as well as Chile, where it also has its own production unit.
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Norway’s salmon industry earned €5 billion ($5.7 billion) from exports last year. This record total was largely thanks to strong demand growth, particularly from the Scandinavian country’s neighbouring EU markets, twinned with unprecedented supply. Furthermore, the weakened Norwegian krone (compared with the euro and the US dollar) enabled prices to soar in the closing months of 2015.
However, Norway’s salmon export prices have continued to rise this year – reaching their highest level in 30 years – and this increase will have a knock-on effect on prices for consumers. Seafood market analysts also say prices won’t just escalate for salmon of Norwegian origin and that the other producing nations will follow suit.
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The obvious questions centre on why this is happening to the salmon sector, and why don’t salmon farmers simply produce more fish to solve the price issue.
A year ago, the global industry was forecast to produce between 2.4 and 2.5 million tonnes of salmon in 2016, with Norway accounting for a large proportion of the increase. However, all has not gone to plan and the harvests from Norway, Scotland and other key farming areas are expected to go down this year. One of the main contributors to this production decline is sea lice, a naturally occurring parasite that currently costs Norway more than €300 million ($340 million) each year.
No bigger than a common fly, salmon lice can cause skin lesions and increased susceptibility to infections. They do this by attaching themselves to the fish skin and eating the protective mucus and skin layers, causing wounds and suppressing the immune system.
To make matters worse, the parasites have become resistant to most of the pharmaceutical treatments used by the industry. As well as direct losses, some farmers have been harvesting their salmon earlier and at smaller sizes to allow contaminated production sites to be cleaned. This has also resulted in less volume being available to the market.
It is important to stress that there is absolutely no human health concern associated with salmon lice and that affected products don’t appear in the supply chain.
Although there are no official records of the volume of farmed salmon lost due to salmon lice challenges each year, many of the world’s leading producers have been citing these infestations as the main reason for significantly increased production costs.
As an industry, salmon farming can’t completely eliminate salmon lice, as they are endemic in the wild. But with so much at stake, there is considerable incentive to finding natural and sustainable approaches to fighting the problem, and multiple scientific programmes are underway. Research areas include the selective breeding of lice-resistant salmon; anti-lice feed ingredients, and the deployment of farmed wrasse as a cleaner fish to control infestations in farm sites.
For the time being, though, salmon lice remain an unwanted force to be reckoned with. Analysts say the market should therefore be prepared to pay more for salmon in the future, as global production will most probably not increase for another two years.