The life of farmed salmon in New Zealand

Around a dozen salmon are swimming alongside each other. Their surroundings, including how many other salmon there are, cannot be seen due to the murky water.

What is life like for salmon in New Zealand farms?

Currently, over 90% of global fish stocks are either overfished or are being fished at the maximum sustainable level. As fish become increasingly scarce in the oceans, finding and catching them becomes too expensive for many fishing companies to make a sufficient profit. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the farming of fish has recently become the fastest-growing agricultural industry in the world. Fish, crustaceans, and molluscs can be raised in cages which removes all the costs associated with finding and catching these animals in the wild. Today, over 100 billion aquatic animals are farmed annually across the globe.

New Zealand has a unique part in this global industry. Salmon farming is one of the largest sectors in the farming of aquatic animals. Of the many different species farmed, Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) is by far the global favourite. However, even though New Zealand’s largest aquaculture industry is salmon farming, the country only farms a different species called Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). In New Zealand, this species is also commonly referred to as King Salmon – Hāmana in Māori. 

Only 0.7% of the world’s farmed salmon is Chinook and a single New Zealand-based company, King Salmon, produces over 50% of the world’s supply of this species. King Salmon farms over 8,000 tonnes of Chinook salmon annually, around 60% of which is eaten by the population of New Zealand.

The scale of the Chinook salmon farming industry in New Zealand is hard to describe. Just as the population of humanity tells us nothing about an individual’s life, the numbers that show the vastness of this industry tell us nothing about the lives of the farmed Chinook salmon. Thus, to take a glimpse into what salmon farming in New Zealand is like, I will follow the life of a single Chinook salmon, Chinny. Her story represents the typical life of a farmed Chinook salmon in New Zealand.

What are the conditions like in a salmon hatchery?

Around twenty baby salmon are swimming alongside each other. By their size, they are likely less than three months old.

Chinny is born in Tentburn Hatchery, about 20km south of Christchurch, on a tray that carries 8,000 other young Chinooks. The hatchery will be her home for the next six months, where she is fed calorie-rich food to promote rapid growth, sorted according to her size at various stages, and vaccinated against pathogens she may come into contact with when she is moved to a sea cage. 

The first couple of months are relatively peaceful: there are no predators, the other Chinooks are not aggressive, and there is sufficient food. However, as she grows, Chinny starts to feel stressed. Chinook salmon are migratory and their instinct to migrate is strong enough for them to sometimes take life-threatening risks in an attempt to escape their cages. Chinny has nothing to compare her life to as no other world is familiar to her, but her instincts tell her that something is wrong.

After six months, the young fish in her ‘batch’, which comprises the 8,000 others she was born with, have grown enough to be moved to sea cages. 

Chinny weighs 90 grams when, unexpectedly, the freshwater tub that she has spent most of the last six months in begins to move. The fish change their swimming patterns due to the sudden shock from this change; Chinny joins the others in swimming around the tub rapidly as they try to avoid whatever danger may be causing the motion. 

Chinny realizes the motion is not an imminent threat and slows down but remains stressed by this sudden change. The motion continues for about ten hours, leaving Chinny in a state of disorientation and on constant alert as she tries not to collide with the others. Unknown to her, she is being transported 250 miles north to one of King Salmon’s eight farms in the Marlborough Sounds.

During the journey to the sea cage, Chinny’s tub is plunged into darkness and jolted around on the winding roads and on the boat. By the time the 250 mile journey is over, Chinny is exhausted. She has arrived at the sea cage where she will spend most of the rest of her life.

What are the conditions like in the sea-cage?

What are salmon fed?

This image shows a grotesque pile of the heads, legs, and other body parts of chickens. These are the unused body parts of chickens farmed for meat that comprise a significant portion of what is fed to farmed salmon.
Chicken heads and legs are used in the food fed to farmed salmon.

Chinny is moved from the freshwater tub in which she spent the first six months of her life to a sea cage that has the saltwater of the Marlborough Sounds flowing through it. She will grow by 2,000% in the next 18 months to reach a weight of 4 kilograms.

To achieve this staggering growth rate, Chinny is fed calorie-rich meat, but to maximise profits, King Salmon uses the cheapest meat they can find. They collect the by-products of land-animal slaughter in abattoirs (feathermeal from slaughtered chickens and bloodmeal from cattle, pigs, and sheep). While the salmon are marketed with various welfare certifications, the abattoir by-products come from farms with much lower standards. King Salmon also feeds the fish vegetable oils and vegetable-derived proteins as they are cheap sources of fats and protein.

Chinook salmon are carnivorous which presents a number of issues to their farming. One such challenge is that huge numbers of fish are caught and fed to the Chinooks. These smaller fish can be caught with an even lower standard of welfare than the farmed salmon. Also, the catching of wild fish to feed farmed Chinooks depletes wild fish populations, which is one of the issues fish farming is supposed to tackle. 

Due to the high costs associated with catching wild fish mentioned earlier, only one-fifth of what King Salmon feeds the Chinooks consists of other fish (including fish oil). The remainder is cheaper vegetable oils and proteins. 

Due to this unnatural proportion of vegetable-based food, Chinny’s body would become a dull grey colour, as opposed to the bright pink that is characteristic of wild salmon. To prevent this, her food is supplemented with astaxanthin, a pigment that turns her flesh the usual pink that customers expect.

Salmon are crammed into a cage

Dozens of young salmon are seen swimming around the surface of the water on a farm. The water is a murky green that no detail and only the salmon on the surface of the water can be seen. A large poll seems to be in the middle of the salmon

Automatic feeding systems throw the food into the sea cages, allowing the fish to fight for it amongst themselves. Chinny, being a solitary animal by nature, finds this competition highly stressful. Many of the smaller Chinooks in the sea cage get bullied, killed, and eaten by larger individuals. Chinny must be cautious so she avoids the larger fish and lives with the sole intention of getting enough food to sustain herself.

Chinny does not know it, but she has more space than some other farmed fish.  If she were on an Atlantic salmon farm overseas, she could be stocked in a sea cage at a density of 25 kg/m3. In these extremely cramped conditions, salmon often end up with sores and fin damage due to the constant knocking against each other that they endure. 

King Salmon’s farms are reportedly not stocked this densely although there is no way to know this as the standards do not specify a limit. The standards written by the fish farming industry itself, simply say that stocking density “must be maintained at a level that reduces the risk of physiological stress and minimises external damage to the fish”. Even these vague standards are not enforced. Instead, the regulators put their hope in “good faith”: “farmers will also be required to self-report their compliance with these New Zealand Farmed Salmon welfare standards.”

Much of the legislation that determines the livelihood of Chinny has not been updated since the 20th century despite new research showing that fish experience pain, suffering, and other emotions in ways we did not understand twenty years ago. Legislative changes have occurred, such as the 2019 strategy for New Zealand aquaculture which aimed to make the industry more “sustainable, productive, resilient” and considered salmon farming’s “environmental effects, social effects, economic effects, cultural effects”. Nowhere in these changes was the wellbeing of the millions of Chinooks like Chinny considered.

Chinny is treated as a product – she is replaceable, and her individuality and suffering are ignored.

Some salmon escape from the cages

A salmon farm in the Marlborough Sounds, comprising six sea cages, is seen from above the surface of the water. The extent of the cages below the surface of the water cannot be seen but they likely contain thousands of Chinook salmon in highly confined spaces.

One day, a freshwater farm in Canterbury, further south than Chinny’s farm, has a malfunction and one of its cages begins to break apart. Around two thousand Chinook salmon escape into the surrounding lake and nearby canals through the hole that is created. Some are caught quickly by local anglers who received news of the escape, but many swim out into deeper water. In the wild New Zealand waters to which they are not native, they predate on some native species and compete with others for resources. 

While the lucky escapees experience the open water for the first time in their lives, Chinny continues her circular route of the sea cage in which she is trapped. Her instincts to migrate, find a mate, and produce the next generation become increasingly strong and she experiences significant distress at the inability to satisfy these urges.

Farmed salmon suffer from health problems

Three young salmon lie dead in a row on the ground. The image focuses on the salmon in the middle. Its eye and mouth are open, and it appears to stare into the camera with an expression of desperation.

Chinook salmon are less at risk than Atlantic salmon from life-threatening viruses, sea lice, and other pathogens. Therefore, Chinny is not fed antibiotics which are routinely given to Atlantic salmon. 

However, three months into her life in the sea cage, Chinny develops the most common health problem that affects up to 40% of farmed Chinooks in New Zealand: spinal curvatures. Chinny suffers as her spine progressively curves inwards. A lack of research means that the cause of this disease in farmed Chinooks is unknown. Chinny progressively loses her swiftness in the water and, as it worsens, finds certain movements painful.

Others around Chinny exhibit even greater pain from their spinal curvature. Some simply give up and show signs of depression, while others die from an inability to compete for food.

Over the 18 months that Chinny lives in this sea cage, one quarter of the Chinooks she lives with die. These Chinooks are waste products for King Salmon, so Chinny watches as their bodies are collected and removed. Once they are removed, Chinny continues her endless jostling for food and avoidance of the larger fish. Unknown to her, her dead cage-mates have been transported from Picton to Bluegums Landfill in Blenheim where they are dumped along with the rest of this year’s failed stock, totalling between one and two thousand tonnes.

Chinny lives during a typical year. However, the last couple of years have not been typical for King Salmon with respect to premature deaths. Climate change has caused the sea temperature to rise during the summer months which can be lethal to the Chinooks. During the most recent summer alone, King Salmon dumped nearly 1,300 tonnes of dead Chinook salmon and other waste. It is possible that the coming years will see greater mortality rates due to the salmon overheating. Those that do not die will have to endure highly uncomfortable sea temperatures which they are not adapted to.

Salmon are starved and dragged out of the sea-cages

 This image shows salmon thrashing about on the surface of the water. They are so tightly packed together that we cannot see any space between them. The water is being sprayed, likely from their movement.

Chinny is now two years old. Her life has been characterised by pain from her bent spine, confusion about her environment, and stress at her inability to carry out her natural drives. At the end of this life of unfulfillment comes a final period of even greater physical suffering.

Having been fed by an automated timer-based system over the last 18 months, Chinny now knows when to expect food to be deposited in her cage. However, one day the food does not come, or the next, or the day after. Each day without food increases the stress and confusion for Chinny and the other fish. The fish around her become aggressive in their desperation to eat.

After a week without being fed, Chinny’s body begins to slow down in an attempt to conserve energy. The initial stress and increased aggression due to the lack of food have passed and now the fish all swim slowly and mechanically around the cage. Suddenly, on the eighth day without food, the fish in front of her change direction and begin frantically swimming towards her. As they swim past her she sees a large net being swept through the cage. She instinctively turns to swim away from this potential danger. As the fish attempt to escape the net, they are concentrated into one corner of the cage. Chinny becomes completely wedged between the others around her and, unable to see what is happening, feels the weight of her cage-mates pull her out of the water.

After a few seconds out of the water, Chinny becomes submerged again and the fish above her swim upwards to space themselves out in the net. Chinny is now in a holding tank where she will remain until her slaughter.

Over the next couple of hours, Chinny swims around the densely packed net, bumping into others as she tries to escape this more confined environment. The fish farming industry standards state that “appropriate stocking densities during transport must be used to reduce fish damage and stress”. Due to the lack of quantifiable restrictions, these regulations are hard to enforce. The result is not just stress, it is often death.

As Chinny swims around the net she sees dozens of fish lying dead at the top of the net. Some have been crushed, others suffocated, others have died from exhaustion. Eventually, Chinny tires and, like the others, slows down and swims steadily around the net. Her attempts to escape have failed and she no longer has the energy to swim dynamically through the crowded net. As she slows down, her spine becomes more painful from her desperate exertion as she attempted to escape the net.

How are farmed salmon killed?

This image shows a pile of dead salmon with various body parts surrounding them. Blood can be seen on the floor underneath them.

Three hours after being hauled out of the sea cage, things begin to change again. The water in the holding tank is pumped out, pulling the helpless salmon with it. Chinny is sucked upwards into another container. A few minutes later, a strong electrical current is passed through the vessel. Chinny and almost all the others float unconscious on the surface of the water. Her limp body is passed down a funnel where she is picked up by a worker and the blood vessels in her gills are severed. She is placed in another funnel as she bleeds to death.

In a supermarket in Auckland, Chinny’s journey comes to an end. Her body is wrapped in a Regal Salmon package that proclaims a recommendation by ‘Ocean Wise’ and a certification of quality by the Global Aquaculture Alliance. 

Despite the stress and suffering in Chinny’s life, no animal welfare laws were broken. Chinny’s story is simply the truth of what people are paying for if they choose to purchase farmed salmon.

A picture of Marlborough King Salmon meat in a blue packet. Various gold labels appear to state information about the product, but it is not possible to read them.

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