The Norwegian seas are home to the country's world-class salmon farming industry. Hannah Thompson braves a boat ride to discover more about the fish
We're standing on a small steel box-shaped ship in the middle of a cold ocean, listening to a rather eccentric bloke explain the importance of individual fish vaccination. This is a typical day for Ola Braanaas, founder of one of the most successful salmon and trout farms in Norway, and we're here with the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) and UK salmon supplier Seaborn to learn about how the country's farmed salmon is among some of the world's most cared-for fish.
Around every 20 seconds, the box loudly dishes out a carefully controlled portion of deeply pungent, nutritionally-balanced fish meal via an array of pipes that float loosely on the water, connecting the food to the fish. It's more technical than it looks (or smells).
Circular fish tanks protected by domed nets
These are the growing tanks, fattening up the salmon to between four and five kilograms each, before they are transported to the Firda factory's main base, a two-hour speedboat ride away from the western coastal town of Bergen, near the fishing village of Byrknes on the island of ByrknesÁ¸yna. They will then be slaughtered, gutted, packed in ice in boxes weighing around 20kg each, and then driven to countries around Europe.
Despite the wild and majestic scenery of Norway's western shores, the country's salmon production is unequivocally one of the world's most closely surveyed and controlled, and is tightly regulated by independent researcher and aquaculture regulator NIFES (the National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research), based in Bergen.
Conducting regular analysis into all aspects of salmon and trout, NIFES offers regular insights, looking at everything from the optimum make-up of salmon fish feed to the Omega 3, vitamin and mineral content of the final product. They also consider why people don't eat enough Omega 3, and look into the role the nutrient could play alongside Omega 6 in combatting global obesity and other health conditions.
NIFES also helps the industry set out guidelines for limiting sea lice, and in 2013 concluded that Norway's policy of individual vaccination means that levels of antibiotics among salmon are so low as to be non- existent, and sea lice levels are therefore also tiny, calculated at just 0.5 lice per fish - far less than is likely to be present in wild salmon.
Norway's sustainability record is also impeccable. It is recognised by the United Nations as a world leader in sustainable fisheries management, and all harvesting takes place under strict regulations and licensing. The fish are stunned or anaesthetised before being killed - and some of the newest slaughterhouses even use water-cooling to calm the fish before the stunning so they feel no pain or trauma in the process.
Firda Seafood itself was established as a smolt (young salmon) facility in 1986, but by 2004 it had grown enough to be established as a parent business to three smolt facilities, 14 salmon farming licenses, and a salmon harvesting plant. With a rich farming history, it is now a largely family-run 580m NOK (£46m)company, having in 2013 undergone a new renovation into the thriving firm it is today.
Braanaas - one of most-recognised business faces in Norway - is not one to do things by halves. For example, this thriving farm is just one of his multiple projects; the other main one is Skjerjehamn, the unusual hotel and restaurant complex he set up on the island of the same name - "just because" - which plays host to the annual music festival Utkant, welcoming thousands of visitors a year. As you do.
His salmon is no exception to this hard-working, no-holds-barred rule, and is a shining example of the merits of properly farmed fish and the benefits of a Norwegian-style production method.
Coming to London
Closer to home, Norwegian salmon is to be thrust into the spotlight in the next few weeks as the annual Global Sushi Challenge comes to the UK. A collaboration between the World Sushi Skills Institute (WSSI) and the NSC, the UK heat of the contest will take place in London from 28-30 September at the iconic Japanese restaurant Nobu on Old Park Lane.
The chefs will use salmon exclusively in their dishes, all of which will be from Norway. The country is often credited with spearheading the use of salmon in Western-style sushi from the 1970s onwards, as the fish is not generally used for sushi in Japan itself.
Salmon and sushi is big business in the UK; customers and diners are well and truly hooked. According to the organisers and UK seafood authority Seafish, London accounts for 40% of the total sushi consumption in the UK - and is one of the biggest consumers of the foodstuff outside Japan in general.
Sushi from Nama restaurant, Bergen
The overall UK sushi market is now worth £38.9m and the UK is one of the three biggest importers of Norwegian salmon overall (along with France and Poland).
This surging trend is predicted only to grow as the UK's interest in global cuisines, health and quick-serve lunchtime options expands. At first most popular with younger people aged 16 to 22, analysts suggest sushi's appeal is growing among 30- to 45-year-olds, thanks to an exploding demand among office workers.
It seems only right that the fish on diners' plates next week might well originate from where we're floating now. And as it's from Norway, suppliers, chefs and consumers can guarantee its healthiness, quality and welfare.
From orange fillet to coral-hued slices of sushi, it's clear: the future's bright for Norwegian salmon.
Sushi from Nama restaurant, Bergen
Norwegian salmon facts
- Sea-farmed in clear, cold waters.
- Deep colour with white marbling.
- Usually between 23 and 30 (out of 34) on the DSM SalmoFan scale, that goes from coral to a deep red-orange.
- Velvety texture.
- Britain has been the fastest-growing importer of Norwegian seafood in 2015.
- 1.1m tonnes of salmon are exported by Norway ever year (second only to China worldwide).
- Britain buys 4% of it - a whopping 59,973 tonnes in 2014; considerably more than the amount of Scottish salmon kept in the UK.
- It's monitored for safety and health benefits by NIFES, one of the most detailed, expansive and independent analysts of fish and seafood in the world.
- Norwegian salmon are regularly vaccinated and tested for infections and parasites such as sea lice.
- Vaccination ensures one of the lowest levels of antibiotic usage in the world.
- Norwegian salmon has negligibly low levels of contaminants, such as dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), at about one-eighth of the maximum EU-recommended levels.
- It's a good source of Omega 3, which has been found to counteract the obesity-causing Omega 6 (found in vegetable oil and other ingredients within processed foods).
- The fish is a great source of protein and vitamin A, D and B12, and DHA (docosahexanoic acid), which is said to benefit the brain, heart and arteries.
- Fish feed is also carefully controlled in Norway, prepared and monitored to ensure the optimum levels of fish oil and Omega 3 for the best health of both the salmon and the humans who eat it. Largely created with krill or other marine material, salmon feed is never made with any salmon-based products.
The Global Sushi Challenge 2015
Committed to finding ways to increase the use of Norwegian salmon in the 1970s, the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) was among the first to spearhead the fish's use in Westernised Japanese cuisine.
The NSC is now one of the main partners in the annual competition, in collaboration with the World Sushi Skills Institute (WSSI).
- Thirteen countries take part, including the USA, Japan, Spain, Singapore, Poland, Sweden, Taiwan, Portugal, Indonesia and, of course, Norway.
- The 2015 UK contest will take place on 28-30 September at Nobu, Old Park Lane.
- The 12 UK competitors include chefs from restaurants such as Pan Chai in Harrods, Sushi Samba, Sake No Hana, Yashin Sushi, Murakami and Maze Grill, Park Walk.
- The dishes required will be one Edomae (classic sushi in the style of the Japanese Edo period), and one original modern-style sushi dish.
- The judges will be Nobu head chef Hideki Maeda and two WSSI instructors.
- The winners from each national heat will then go on to the grand final in Tokyo on 25 November.
- The contest will also offer a two-day training programme from sushi master Masayoshi Kazato.