REYKJAVIK: “What a view!!” Britain’s celebrity chef Jamie Oliver exclaimed under a photo he posted on Facebook of a salmon farming cage nestled in a snowy fjord.
In doing so, Oliver unknowingly waded into controversy, sparking outcry among Icelanders who see farmed salmon as a threat to the island nation’s wild salmon population.
Oliver is due to open a restaurant serving Italian cuisine in the currently popular tourist destination of Reykjavik, on June 17, a national holiday.
Along with antipasto, lasagna and pizza, “Jamie’s Italian” may also serve salmon on occasion.
In his Facebook post of April 24, the restaurateur prided himself on being supplied with “sustainable fish”.
But the post angered critics who brand fish farming an environmental hazard.
“This is an industry that creates a lot of parasites, especially sea lice,” said Orri Vigfusson, head of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, a privately-run conservation group which aims to restore wild salmon to their historic abundance.
Vigfusson said sea lice “are very bad” for the wild salmon. The parasites spread across fjords, infecting and killing the fish.
“I will never eat at your place and I will inform my clients to stay away,” travel agent Jon Gunnar Benjaminsson commented on Facebook.
“Very disappointing to see you doing business with those guys who are destined to severely damage wild Atlantic Salmon in Iceland with the massive salmon farms that are on the drawing board. Educate yourself before promoting this disgusting stuff,” he added.
While many other Internet users seem indifferent to the controversy, and appear eager to dine at the new eatery, anglers disapprove.
“On the planet I live on, that would never be called sustainable,” Haraldur Eiriksson, sales manager at Hreggnasi, one of Iceland’s largest angling clubs, told AFP.
The vast majority of the salmon sold in Iceland’s food shops is farmed, as wild salmon is rare and expensive.
Even prior to the Oliver controversy, Icelandic fishermen had concerns.
Hundreds of fishermen and farmers in January asked a Reykjavik court to revoke licences for Arnarlax, the country’s largest producer of farmed salmon, to operate in fjords in the northwest. The ruling is not in yet.
Arnarlax produces farmed salmon (more than 10,000 tonnes in 2016) at six farms.
Jamie Oliver’s team did not expect such bad publicity.
“We were quite surprised by the reactions,” Jon Haukur Baldvinsson, one of the partners of Jamie’s Italian, told AFP.
“We haven’t decided yet if we will put salmon on our menu,” he said, adding Oliver’s team would carry out quality checks.
But if they decide to do so, it would probably only be served as the daily special in small quantities, depending on demand, Baldvinsson said.
To him, this would not be unusual since most restaurateurs do not buy wild salmon, too rare to be served a la carte regularly.
Arnarlax defends its practices and said the controversy over fish farming in Iceland is a misunderstanding.
“Maybe it’s also our fault that we have not educated people in Iceland enough about how we are doing salmon farming,” Arnarlax sales manager Omar Gretarsson told AFP.
He said the negative publicity in Iceland’s salmon farming industry was caused by news reports from Norway about viral illnesses and salmon lice outbreaks causing massive harm to that nation’s aquaculture sector.
“But there has been a big effort to do things better,” Gretarsson said.
His company says it defends its fish against infections by parasites.
“Until now, the cold ocean after the winter period has been a natural delousing treatment. But we need to be vigilant when we are growing steadily,” Gretarsson added.
Iceland’s aquaculture sector is thriving. Around 40 companies produced 15,129 tonnes of fish in 2016, the highest output over the preceding decade, with salmon as the dominant species, according to the Food and Veterinary Authority.
Operating licences in Iceland cost up to 22 million kronur (190,000 euros, $207,000) for the most expensive, compared to 10 million Norwegian kroner (1.1 million euros) in Norway.