Onshore fish farms: untested and unwanted


Onshore fish farms: untested and unwanted

21 February 2024
Animal Equality
In onshore farms, or Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS), aquatic animals are crammed into unnaturally crowded conditions, simply so the industry can line its pockets with profits. These artificial environments place great trust in machinery and workers, leaving the animals in an especially vulnerable position since, much like in any factory farm, an accidental flick of a switch can have catastrophic effects.

This opinion piece was written by Abigail Penny, Executive Director of Animal Equality UK.

On 29 November 2023, history was made in the English port town Grimsby, yet for all the wrong reasons. 

The local Council gave the green light to a super-sized salmon farm, earmarked to become one of the most enormous of its kind in all of Europe and the first entirely onshore salmon farm in the UK. In setting a precedent, it could encourage other countries to follow suit and create waves around the world.

Animal Equality is fighting tooth and nail against what we believe to be unlawful construction of this controversial facility. In a bid to halt these disastrous plans, we have instructed legal representation and have applied for Judicial Review. 

From the 120 or so similar farms that exist globally, there is no doubt that these facilities fail routinely. Take Leroy Sjotroll in Norway, where 1.9 million fish died due to gill disease, or Sustainable Blue in Nova Scotia which reported 1 million fish deaths due to a system failure.

And, while fully onshore farms don’t currently exist in the UK, similar on-land fish hatcheries do and they perform dismally. Inchmore in Scotland saw a staggering 2.1 million deaths last year, in August alone Applecross Hatchery was responsible for 1.5 million fish deaths after a system failure caused the water in the tanks to become acidic. Tragically, these are not isolated incidents: in 2023, over six million fish died in freshwater salmon farms, reaching record death levels.

It begs the question: given the undeniable risks, why would anyone ever turn to onshore RAS fish farms? 

The salmon industry is in a state of crisis. In 2022, over 16 million salmon died on Scottish open-net sea farms and 2023 reports fare no better. Forced to contend with ever-warming waters, predation, disease outbreaks, lice infestations and more, it is in many ways a wonder that any fish survive. With no solution in sight (other than the glaringly obvious: to stop farming Atlantic salmon entirely) some companies are scouting for new ways to operate. Enter onshore farms.

RAS are heralded by some as a way to rid farmed fish of the flesh-eating lice outbreaks that are all too common in sea loch nets. But onshore farms are no panacea. These environments try to simulate natural sea lochs but they lack the resilience of natural open-air environments, leading to fungus growth and unforeseen disease risks. Sea lice will be replaced with other challenges: think swine flu and avian flu. It’s merely a matter of time.

Not only are onshore RAS farms deadly to the farmed fish, they are also an environmentalist’s nightmare. In these facilities we see a heavy reliance on water and energy usage, so as to keep pH, temperature and oxygen levels stable, and to clean the tanks of emerging diseases. 

It is estimated that a farm rearing 5,000 tonnes of salmon would require the equivalent energy used to power 3,200 homes, and would use 7,000 litres of water every minute. A single salmon fillet would require as much freshwater as a human would drink throughout an entire year. A farm of this size would also produce the same volume of effluent waste as 400,000 humans. 

A single failed treatment pump could lead to toxic runoff, wiping out local wildlife and causing a total collapse of the neighbouring ecosystem. The mind boggles.

Evidently, it's not only animal advocates who should be concerned about onshore RAS farms, but environmental activists too. Indeed, anyone who hopes to sustain our planet for future generations to come.