Norway is relaunching cod farms in Europe’s ice-cold northern waters after mass escapes and failure to thrive condemned its earlier attempt to become the first country to try large-scale breeding of a species declining in the wild.
The handful of companies raising Atlantic cod in pens in Norwegian fjords said they have learned lessons from a wave of bankruptcies of cod farms earlier in the millennium as well as the success of Norway’s multibillion-dollar salmon business.
They are hoping to emulate that success with cod at a time when wild Atlantic cod are seeing mixed fortunes.
While stocks off Iceland and in the Barents Sea are sustainable, those off Canada, the US, Ireland and the UK are low, as are those in the Baltic Sea and the non-British part of the North Sea.
Norcod, the biggest of the new farms, is raising 1.8 million fish along the craggy Norwegian seacoast and plans to begin sales in the second quarter of next year.
“We are targeting northern and western Europe first,” Norcod commercial director Christian Riber said, adding that the firm had also seen interest in their product from US customers.
The company aims to produce an initial 6,500 tonnes next year, rising to 25,000 tonnes in 2025. That would exceed the high of 21,000 tonnes recorded in official statistics across the country in 2010 before the industry collapsed.
“They used wild fish for breeding and the cod was escaping by biting into the nets,” said Oeyvind Hansen, who heads the national cod breeding program at Nofima, the only research institute that works with the selective breeding of cod.
About half of all the fish raised in a pen died, including from cannibalism, he said.
Growth rates were also slow and the 2008-2009 financial crisis starved companies of credit. By 2015, Norway produced no farmed cod at all.
Nofima continued the research into cod breeding it had conducted since 2002-2003 thanks to public funding from a Ministry of Fisheries keen to develop new industries around fish. It has now bred five generations of farmed cod.
“Through selective breeding, the fish has adapted to farm life. It has become more domesticated,” Hansen said. “We have learned a lot about the biology and we have selected the fish best suited for fish farming.”
Mortality rates in the pens are down to about 15 percent, there is less cannibalism, faster growth and the fish no longer try to escape, he said.
“We are benefiting from the huge improvements in equipment for the salmon farming industry in the last decade,” Riber said.
Salmon farming has grown in two decades into a US$8 billion dollar industry that exports 1.1 million tonnes of fish and is now Norway’s third-largest export after crude oil and natural gas, with logistics to match.
Not everyone is pleased about the revival of cod farming.
“We have sustainable cod stocks in the wild in many areas in Norway that are thriving,” said Arnold Haapnes, who heads the biodiversity program at green group Friends of the Earth Norway. “So why should we use [public] money to compete with the wild cod?”
Farmed salmon regularly escape during storms and mate with the wild salmon, he said, causing introgression, the mixing of genes between wild fish and farm fish.
This eventually lowers the amount of genes available in the wild population and makes it more vulnerable to disease and environmental changes, which are on the increase.
Norcod said it was able to prevent escapes, including in bad weather, by using suitable equipment and with good routines, with frequent inspections of the nets to ensure there are no holes.
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