Must fish fly?

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Salmon are meant to swim, not fly!

With these words Atli Gregersen, owner of the Faroese fish farming company Hiddenfjord, sparked off a major debate inside the industry after he stopped shipments by air, deciding instead to move everything by sea.

He conceded that salmon farming has a low CO2 impact compared with other proteins, but noted that, at the end of the production process, when the fish is loaded onto an aircraft its greenhouse gas emissions – measured by weight of salmon produced – are doubled.

Hiddenfjord, which has achieved a 94% cut in emissions in just 12 months, says it can still get its salmon on store shelves within 10 to 15 days.

Yet on the same island archipelago, Bakkafrost – whose CEO Regin Jacobsen is equally passionate about the environment – is purchasing its own aircraft to fly salmon to the US and beyond.

So who is right? Depending on which (scientifically factual) side of the argument you take, the answer is probably both.

This year, with climate change once again high up on the league table of global concerns, the salmon debate has taken on a new significance.

Fresh fish is a highly perishable commodity so it makes sense to get it to its destination as soon as possible, particularly when long distances are involved, which means air freight.

Iceland has proved, however, that sea transport can offer a better and cheaper alternative on short and medium routes.

Earlier this year shipping company Eimskip launched a fresh salmon service from Reykjavik to the US and Canada, following a series of trials.

They were so successful they have now expanded into a regular weekly consignments, and now includes whitefish such as cod and haddock.

Eimskip reported at the time: “Quality tests have passed all comparisons and the parties have already begun to look at distribution to places at a greater distance from the ports of discharge, even as far as Miami and Los Angeles.”

CEO Vilhelm Már said the service was creating value for its customers and providing a more environmentally friendly option at the same time.

However, Iceland (and to a lesser extent the Faroe Islands) is within a reasonable distance of North America. Norway and Scotland are further away from that market – and from their markets in the Middle and Far East. At the moment air transport is the only practical option for fresh salmon for that kind of distance.

This hasn’t stopped leading Norwegian salmon breeder and processor Roger Hofseth praising Hiddenfjord for its principled stance.

He told online financial journal E24 Næringsliv that the company deserved a lot of respect. “We share Hiddenfjord’s visions and its move will help change the market in a more environmentally friendly direction,” he said.

Hofseth has some interesting and unorthodox ideas on the environment, such as putting a fish farm inside a mountain or an abandoned mine to reduce some of the issues around traditional farming methods.

Hofseth also believes the widely held belief, particularly among consumers, that fresh is superior to frozen is quite wrong.

New technology has revolutionised the quality of frozen fish in the last few years, he told E24.

It is the main reason why he bought the company Icefresh, which has led the way in this development. Icefresh, Hofseth says, freezes the fish directly after slaughter; the fish is then sent to the market and thawed by the customer.

He considers products treated with Icefresh technology to be of a higher quality than airborne-shipped fresh fish.

“It is about the fish being ‘blood fresh’, which allows us better control of the bacteriology during shipping,” he argues.

Frozen fish could be transported by sea, so if customers on the other side of the world can be persuaded to accept Hofseth’s argument, then the number of flights could be dramatically reduced over time. But it may not be that easy.

Bakkafrost’s Jacobsen believes aircraft will always be necessary and says by investing in its own cargo aircraft, the company will reduce total air freight emissions by up to 50% through lower weights and other means.

He says Bakkafrost can fly chilled salmon directly to its processing plant on the US east coast, avoiding truck emissions to and from the port and at hubs such as Heathrow in the UK.

Thus, a salmon alive in the Faroe Islands in the morning can be served on a Manhattan dinner plate the following evening.

The arguments over how much environmental damage is caused often comes down to semantics. Ships are not always light on pollution either.

And most cargo planes carry other goods as well, so if salmon is not on board it will be replaced by something else.

Norway sends around 100,000 tonnes of seafood by air every year and it may be possible to reduce eventually that figure by up to half if customers are prepared to accept longer journeys.

For his part the Hiddenfjord boss believes there is nothing more to prove, with the first results showing a 94% reduction in CO2 emissions.

Gregersen said: “It was a challenging decision for us: we knew it could mean lower prices and a much higher risk because of reduced flexibility in reaching faraway markets.

“But ethically it is absolutely the right decision. If we claim that we want to be a truly sustainable company, we must take responsible actions.”

He admitted some customers had been sceptical, which he expected, but sales figures were continuing to grow, which was encouraging.

Hiddenfjord farm