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Dear Patagonia: Here's what you don't understand about salmon farming

'Have a little more faith that the entire aquaculture world is working on the same mission as you.'

The following letter was sent from Tony Chen, CEO of Bergen, Norway-based sea lice monitoring start-up company Manolin.

Patagonia, in part, inspired us to start our company. Yvon Chouinard showed that it was possible to build a successful company while staying mission driven for the environment, and we set our goals to do the same within aquaculture.

For the last few years, we’ve been committed to helping aquaculture grow sustainably, starting with oysters and now with salmon.

With everything we’ve learned, it’s disappointing to hear the stance that Patagonia has taken on banning salmon net pen farming, which is referenced in their recent documentary “Artifishal.” Banning net pen salmon farming will remove the most innovative segment of aquaculture and only stiffen the world’s ability to utilize our oceans sustainably because:

  • Aquaculture is necessary to feed the world’s growing population
  • Growing sustainable aquaculture requires ubiquitous innovation across technology, infrastructure, and policy
  • Norwegian salmon, despite its faults, still sets an example for how to operate across the above areas
  • Targeting the salmon industry will remove one of the key players capable of guiding entire aquaculture industry forward

Aquaculture is necessary to feed the world

Cultivating and harvesting sustainably from the ocean is critical as the world’s population increases. It's estimated that our world will grow to around 10 billion people in 30 years and continuing to overfish our depleting global fish stocks simply will not work. We must find new answers, and aquaculture still has great potential to help supply the growing demand for protein.

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In Patagonia’s defense, it supports certain aquaculture segments such as bivalves and other filter feeders, and that’s a topic that hits very close to home for us. Oyster farmers in the Chesapeake Bay first introduced to us how important aquaculture is for both the oceans and our global food demand. They taught us about the complex challenge of producing food in our oceans. The world needs to eat species lower on the food chain such as oysters and mussels, but there are larger problems than influencing consumers to change their habits.

The challenges facing aquaculture

Aquaculture, and farming in general, is a game of unknowns. Over time, the industry has improved its understanding of the impact farming has on the environment, but it’s impossible to predict the totality of the effects. The best we can do is monitor the changes and continuously make improvements.

Continuous improvement, however, is challenging when profits are unpredictable, and harvests are never guaranteed. In the United States, small farmers continue to face an uphill battle working with policy makers to help grow their businesses. For example, the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association has lobbied for many years to get oyster farming included in the US Farm Bill so that farmers get access crop insurance. Crop insurance enables farmers to turn their profits into investments for the future without the fear of losing harvests, and therefore profits, to events such as algae blooms or hurricanes. The group is making progress, but it has taken many years.

In an ideal situation, the industry collaborates with policy makers in a cohesive manner. This allows both sides to identify the most critical areas of improvement, and then implement the necessary changes as fast as possible by utilizing the available resources and infrastructure.

Aquaculture at commercial scale is a young industry. These complex systems of checks and balances largely don’t exist yet and will take time - with the exception of salmon farming.

Norwegian salmon: the good and the bad

Salmon is Norway’s second-largest export, and as a result, governments, researchers and farmers all pay close attention to the activities in the industry. This attention over the last 40 years has helped develop the Norwegian salmon industry and meet consumer demands. As a result, the Norwegian aquaculture industry doesn’t just set the standard for the salmon industry, but it’s the epicenter of innovation and new ideas for all of aquaculture.

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Achieving scale, however, comes with consequences. Norwegian salmon has had large issues with feed, antibiotics, and waste in the past, and currently the industry is combating significant challenges across sea lice and fish welfare.

As the entire industry continues to look for solutions, the efforts taking place are oftentimes overlooked and seldom celebrated. Take Norway’s recent approach to treating sea lice: In place of chemical and in-feed solutions, the country’s salmon farmers use cleaner fish and well boats. The cost of combating lice has recently risen to account for ⅙ (17 percent) of all production costs. These methods are new for the industry, but within the span of 2-3 years, the ENTIRE industry has been able to shift their supply chain to support the new demand.

The speed at which the industry was able to deploy a huge fleet of well boats and cleaner fish farms is impressive. Could you imagine the entire clothing industry completely changing 15 percent of their supply chain in a few years?

Their ability to adapt is a testament to the scale the industry has achieved. The Norwegian salmon industry is capable of funding new research to mitigate health issues such as lice and has the infrastructure to supply farms with resources such as high-speed internet. These efforts have enabled the entire industry to remain agile, and that will be needed across all aquaculture segments moving forward.

Where do we go from here

At the end of the day, aquaculture needs everyone's help. The entire industry is facing an uphill battle, and team players are a necessity. Aquaculture must grow but grow in the right way. With this in mind, I ask Patagonia to:

  • Remove your petitions banning salmon net pens and instead redirect your support on effective policy that supports new aquaculture segments
  • Help build the infrastructure that aquaculture needs to overcome unforeseen challenges
  • Continue to educate consumers to eat more filter-feeders and to understand their food choices

All in all, Patagonia, we ask that you have a little more faith that the entire aquaculture world is working on the same mission as you. We’re the same fishermen, farmers, and environmentalists as you, just trying to save the oceans.

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