An Arctic Fish farm at Dýrafjörður, Westfjords

Iceland - Thousands of salmon escaped an Icelandic fish farm. The impact could be deadly

Aquaculture is bringing jobs and money to rural regions, but a huge escape of farmed fish in August could devastate local salmon populations

Clad in black waders, Guðmundur Hauker Jakobsson jumps into the River Blanda, whose freezing waters run down from the Hofsjökull glacier. Armed with a net, he casts around the ascending pools of the river’s fish “ladder”, built to aid wild salmon migrating up this powerful waterway from the sea.

Within minutes, he pulls out a 15lb silver fish, which thrashes and writhes against the net, then another, then another – five in all. The wild salmon of the Blanda here in north-west Iceland are some of the largest and most athletic in a country where the rivers are considered among the world’s best. King Charles has fished for salmon here, as have David Beckham and Guy Ritchie; Eric Clapton is a regular.

But these, says Jakobsson – known as Gummi, who is the vice-chair of the Blanda and Svartá fishing club – are not wild fish.

“Look,” he shouts above the howling wind whipping our faces, pointing at one salmon. “It’s an intruder.”

Sure enough, it has a rounded tail and torn fins: signs of a farmed salmon. He suspects it’s a fugitive from an open-net pen where just last month, on 20 August, thousands of fish grown in pens from a Norwegian strain escaped. They have since been found upstream in rivers, endangering the wild salmon population and hitting the headlines in Iceland.

Suspected escapees have now been found in at least 32 rivers across north-west Iceland, according to unconfirmed social media posts, one of which showed fish covered in sea lice, a parasite that can be lethal to wild fish. Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MRI) confirmed the farmed fish have been found in multiple rivers.

The escape – at a pen in Patreksfjörður owned by Arctic Fish, one of the country’s largest salmon-farming companies, which is owned by Norwegian salmon giant Mowi – has reignited calls from environmentalists, sport fishers and some politicians to restrict or ban open-pen fish farming. It is not the first big escape: just last year, another salmon farming company, Arnarlax, was fined £705,000 for not reporting an escape of 81,000 fish in 2021.

Gummi and his father, Jakob, 73, have captured 44 farmed salmon over the past fortnight, after closing the ladder to stop them swimming upstream. At a garage next to his house in nearby Blönduós, a coastal village a short drive from the river, they point out what sets the farmed fish apart for their wild cousins: worn gill covers, shortened and disfigured snouts, and missing or torn fins. Gummi has sent 11 of the fish to MRI for analysis.

“This is an environmental catastrophe,” he says. “If they breed, the salmon will lose their ability to survive.”

Indeed, studies have shown interbreeding between farmed and wild fishproduces offspring that mature faster and younger, undermining the ability of the species to reproduce in nature.

There are three reasons, scientists say, this escape is so disastrous: the fish are entering many rivers over a large area; there are in greater numbers than ever seen before; and a high percentage are mature, ready to breed.

Last week, Iceland police opened an investigation into whether Arctic Fish has breached laws governing fish farming. Specialist divers, paid for by Arctic Fish, are hunting down escapees; the firm’s CEO, Stein Ove Tveiten, who along with board members could face up to two years in jail if found guilty of negligence, has apologised for the incident.

Iceland’s open-net salmon farming industry is in its infancy compared with Norway’s, which produced 1.5m tonnes in 2021 – or Scotland’s (205,000 tonnes) – but it has grown more than tenfold since 2014, from under 4,000 tonnes to 45,000 in 2021.

The NAO report confirmed what conservationists have been saying for years. The industry has been given a free ride

Jón Kaldal, Icelandic Wildlife Fund

However, the speedy growth has brought problems. Iceland’s national audit office found regulation patchy and weak and the industry largely unsupervised. It found that the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority did not consider additional monitoring necessary, despite serious and repeated breaches of regulations.

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