aquaculture/ environment/ fish farming/ Gigha/ halibut/ salmon/ Scottish/ Sustainable

Sustainable food news: Farmed Scottish halibut and salmon – two very different kettles of fish

Farmed Gigha halibut.
Beautiful halibut.

I adore seafood. Nothing unusual with that, you might think, many people do. However, I was brought up in the very north of Birmingham – effectively as far from the sea as it’s possible to be, in the UK. Despite being fabled to have more miles of canals than Venice, Birmingham is well and truly land locked. Yet somewhat surprisingly, “Brum” has a terrific fish market – or at least it did when I was a youngster. A sizeable section of the old Bull Ring market hall was dedicated to an impressive range of fish stalls stocking a myriad of seafood, shipped overnight from the ports where these had been landed.

I think my regular visits to the fish market had a subconscious influence upon my choosing to study marine biology at university. And although I no longer work in that particular field, I’m still fascinated by all things marine-related, especially when these also involve food. So I was naturally intrigued when I discovered that there was a Scottish company farming and smoking one of my favourite fishes, halibut.

Fish farming is nothing new, of course. Globally, aquaculture (to give fish farming its Sunday name) is increasingly significant, accounting for 64 million tonnes of the 131 million tonnes of fish and shellfish consumed around the world in 2011. And aquaculture – and salmon farming in particular – is now big business in Scotland. Of the nearly 170,000 tonnes of finfish farmed in the UK in 2010, over 154,000 tonnes of this was salmon farmed in Scotland.

It may surprise you to learn that I tend not to cook or eat Scottish farmed salmon. This is because I believe that the way the majority of salmon is currently farmed in Scotland simply isn’t environmentally sustainable, for many reasons. The fish are reared in high densities in cages mostly sighted in sheltered sea lochs. The waste these produce can smother the seabed, impacting the plants and animals naturally occurring there. Because the fish are effectively factory farmed, they are highly susceptible to diseases and parasites, resulting in the chemicals used to treat these also contaminating the environment. What’s more, significant escapes of farmed salmon are not uncommon, and these can impact wild salmon stocks through interbreeding and disease and parasite transmission. And then there is the issue of catching industrial quantities of small, South American fish to turn into feed for salmon farms. Certainly the salmon farming industry seems keen to address these substantial environmental issues, but until it does this effectively, it’s hardly surprising that Scottish farmed salmon remains off my menu.

Yet not all fish farming exacts a high price on the marine environment, which is why I was so interested to try the halibut farmed on the Hebridean island of Gigha. In the wild – the waters of the Atlantic – stocks of Atlantic halibut are dangerously low. Yet the fish is so good to eat, it remains very much in demand. This has resulted in the establishment of Gigha Halibut, a company with an approach to fish farming that appears to be (nautical) miles away from much of Scotland’s salmon farming industry.

Calm Gigha seas.
Calm Gigha seas.

Firstly, the fish the farm produces are both organic and grown in large tanks on land, as opposed to cages floating in the sea. Flatfish, such as halibut and turbot, are ideally suited to being raised in large, flat tanks that are continually circulated with clean seawater pumped from nearby shores. This means there is practically no risk of fish escaping to the wild. Secondly, the fish are grown in comparatively low densities. As Guardian journalist, Alex Renton, found out this helps to keep them effectively disease free, negating the need to use chemicals or medicines. Thirdly all Gigha halibut are fed with a certified organic diet using 100% fish trimmings as a source of protein and organic vegetable products as a source of carbohydrate. There feed does not rely on industrial fisheries undertaken on the other side of the globe to produce fish meal.

The overall result of this approach to fish husbandry is that Gigha Halibut produces an excellent, sustainable, product. Certainly, the way the halibut is farmed, and the relatively small scale of production, means it will never be on sale for the bargain bucket price that industrially farmed Scottish salmon currently fetches. But for me – and for leading chefs such as Alain Roux, and Michael Smith from Skye’s The Three Chimneys – such is the taste and quality of Gigha Halibut’s fish, it deserves its status as a premiere product.

To discover exactly how good Gigha Halibut’s product is, be sure to check out my next recipe post, which is a capriccio featuring of their fantastic smoked fish.

Photographs courtesy of the Gigha Halibut website.

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