Leading chefs urge public to forgo smoked salmon this Christmas, as mortalities on Scotland’s salmon farms hit record highs

Top chefs and restaurants across the UK are urging consumers to forgo farmed salmon this Christmas, in a bid to curb the environmental and welfare “catastrophe” unfolding across the salmon farming industry in Scotland.

The call comes as news emerges that the industry suffered its highest ever proportion of mortalities in October – 4.82%, equivalent to an estimated 2-3 million fish deaths.[1] This brings this year’s running mortality on Scottish salmon farms to almost 14 million; 2.5 million more than over the same period last year.[2]

Smoked salmon has become an uber popular choice for Christmas celebrations – but almost all salmon sold in the UK, smoked or fillets, comes from the open-net salmon farms that line Scotland’s west Highlands and Islands.

Concerns have long been raised about the negative environmental, welfare and sustainability impacts of these farms – including the transfer of sea lice parasites to endangered wild Atlantic salmon, the spread of chemicals from the farms which are toxic to other marine life, and the untreated sewage waste created by the estimated 77 million farmed salmon directly being discharged into the surrounding water bodies.

Dead Scottish farmed salmon. Copyright Corin Smith.

Neil Forbes, head chef at Edinburgh institution Café St Honore, said: “At Café, we unequivocally reject the unsustainable practice of open-net salmon farming. Our commitment lies firmly with advocating for and supporting sustainable, environmentally sound food production systems.Additionally, the report documents numerous examples of farms breaching the standards required by its certification, but remaining certified – including four salmon farms which breached ASC sea lice limits earlier this year, but did not lose their certified status. Salmon from these farms can still be sold as ASC certified.

“It is of paramount importance that each one of us takes proactive measures to safeguard the vulnerable wild fish and their precious habitats along the majestic Scottish west coast and its surrounding islands.”

Neil Forbes, head chef at Edinburgh institution Café St Honore

There is a growing call across the UK and internationally for the hospitality and retail sector to move away from open-net farmed salmon on account of these issues. More than 160 chefs and restaurants, as well as 50 community groups, charities and NGOs, are supporting the Off the table campaign powered by the UK charity WildFish, which asks chefs and restaurants to take farmed salmon off their menus.[3]

Chef supporting the Off the table campaign to not serve farmed salmon. Copright WildFish.

Supporting chefs and restaurants include the Michelin-starred Old Stamp House in Ambleside, Cumbria, where chef patron Ryan Blackburn remains committed to keeping farmed salmon off his menu.

Witnessing the decline of migratory fish in our waters, he said:

‘’The more I delved into the topic the more it was clear that the science was pointing towards issues linked specifically to marine-based fish farms in terms of severe illnesses and mutations, hybridisation and other issues that are having a massive impact on wild fish stocks and on marine eco-systems. As a result, I can’t consciously support a trade that is in effect severely impacting on the wild population.”

Dr Matt Palmer, Off the table Campaign Manager at WildFish, said: “Make no mistake, this year has been a catastrophe for the Scottish salmon farming industry. A combination of warming waters, bringing jellyfish and plankton blooms, alongside increasing issues with infectious diseases have plagued the Scottish salmon farming industry again in 2023. 

Scottish farmed salmon with sea lice damage. Copyright Corin Smith.

“High mortality on salmon farms reflects an environmental disaster, as well as being an animal welfare scandal – from high levels of sea lice, harming wild Atlantic salmon, to widespread disease; both of which require toxic chemical treatments, which can kill other sea life and degrade ecosystems around Scotland’s shores.

“The huge number of reported fish deaths in October is even more concerning considering that almost half of the sea farms in Scotland were empty by the end of September, possibly in anticipation of the disease and water quality issues that warming waters bring towards the end of the year.”

Three chefs supporting the Off the table campaign have shared recipes for salmon-free alternatives. To try the recipes for yourself, head to this link: Off the table Christmas recipes

Dr Palmer continued: “These recipes show that it’s entirely possible to celebrate Christmas without farmed salmon. With its terrible environmental impacts, including on the majestic -and now Red-Listed – wild Atlantic salmon, its inherent sustainability issues and its increasingly poor welfare performance, the price we pay for farmed salmon has become just too high. That’s why we’re calling on consumers to try something new this festive season.”

To find out more about Off the table, visit: offthetable.org.uk

[1] Salmon Scotland. Monthly Mortality Rate October 2023. Available from: https://www.salmonscotland.co.uk/reports/monthly-mortality-rate-october-2023

[2] Finfish farm mortality data published by the Fish Health Inspectorate. Available from: https://www.gov.scot/publications/fish-health-inspectorate-mortality-information/

[3] For the full list of supporters, visit https://offthetable.org.uk/