There’s always been a problem with lack of fish. If I go back to the 1980s we were concerned about over-fishing in the open seas. I thought that the fish farming industry was going to solve everything, because now they could leave the wild fish and do their thing with the fish farms and everything would be good. But pretty soon we understood that the fish farming industry had a different impact on the fish than we thought.
Fish farming today is by far the biggest threat to our wild salmon stocks. Firstly, the open net fish farms work as sea-lice factories. The sea-lice population explodes and kills the smolts on their way to the spawning grounds. Also, farmed fish escape and mix with the wild stocks causing gigantic genetic pollution. The total amount of escapees amounts to more fish than all the wild rivers of Norway produce.
A 2016 genetic examination of Norway’s rivers showed that fish farming escapees changed 60 per cent of the river salmon’s genetic status, 20 per cent probably beyond rescue. Some of Norway’s most famous big-fish rivers have been destroyed, such as Vosso and the famous Bolstad river. The industry went out of control, the fjords show collapsed ecosystems with dying beds, disappearing cod and prawn populations. And it’s not only here in Scandinavia. The same Norwegian companies have destroyed the Chilean coast, the west coast of Scotland, and now they are going for Iceland.
I’ve been fighting against open net fish farming for the last ten years or so. It’s a really difficult battle, but now we’re making some progress. I recently worked with clothing firm Patagonia on a film called Artifishal about wild and hatchery fish. I wanted to focus on the Alta in Norway, first of all because it’s the best known salmon river in the world and it’s also the river where I personally have a lot of information. My records show that the fishing has changed over the years. We went out onto the Alta with three photographers to where the open-net fish farms are. I don’t know what I expected. I’ve seen a million fish in my life but I’ve never seen so many fish in such a bad state. Such a big percentage of the farmed population were really, really sick. I thought they would have some fungus and maybe there would be too many in a small area, but this was really ugly. Some of them had big wounds and they were blind and starving. It was absolutely terrible. I think when you go and do something like that, and you share what you have seen with your own eyes, that’s really important.
I didn’t know I would be arrested for the filming, but I did know I was breaking the law. The laws are really there for the boats not to harm the cages and the pens or spread diseases, so we were really careful. We were all in brand new wetsuits, we were parking the boat very far away. We were extremely cautious not to do any harm, we were only there to collect information. During my trial, there had never been more people in the courtroom of Alta. It shows how much the community care and how important it is. I was given fine of €1,500 and I paid it a few days ago. Even though I was convicted I look at myself as the winner here because of all the press and the awareness we got.
I believe we can fish for tourism, recreation and for personal joy without threatening wild stocks. I used to be a swimmer and then a sailor and now a fisherman. It seems like water and sun is life and it’s hard not to get addicted. When you fish like I do, you go out in waders with water up to your hip and you become part of the river. To be waiting in a fast river in clear water, it’s like being in the middle of a fire. You have to be alert and yet still, you enter into a kind of meditation.
We can use catch-and-release, which means that we handle the fish and then take the hook away and let them go and spawn. The damage we can do as the sport fishing community is to say that we need to catch more fish and that we need to add hatchery fish to these rivers. Yes, it’s nice to be able to take a fish home – I normally say that all kinds of fundamentalism are bad. But I would like to have a stock where people can take away maybe one fish a week, or a day, or even one fish a year. We need to place priority on the ecosystems and the wild fish and not on our freezer.
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