Ole Eirik Lerøy on public’s lack of trust in salmon farms: “Blame lies entirely with the industry”

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The chairman of the world’s biggest salmon production company is in no doubt about who is responsible for the poor reputation with which the marine farming industry is struggling.

“Regardless of the type of commercial activity you are engaged in, you are wholly dependent on the trust and confidence of your surroundings. It is the responsibility of the industry to create understanding and acceptance for the activity,” Ole Eirik Lerøy told the Norwegian site Sysla.

He spoke enthusiastically and at some length about Marine Harvest’s fundamental desire for sustainable growth in salmon production. The world needs food from the sea. He is convinced they will solve the problems with sea lice, and that costs will decline. Demand for Norwegian salmon appears to be unstoppable. Money is virtually flowing into the fish farming companies’ coffers.

Lerøy himself considers the potential of the Norwegian marine farming industry almost limitless. The goal is to become the world’s most efficient and eco-friendly industrial producer of proteins.

“A world of opportunity lies right there in front of us. It’s a situation that can send chills down one’s spine. If we manage this correctly, we have the chance to sit in the driver’s seat for a long time,” said Lerøy.

However.

It’s just that environmental problems are preventing the industry from growing; a situation that has remained relatively unchanged in recent years. Salmon lice, escapes and shocking levels of mortalities in farm cages wreak havoc over profitability and the reputation of the producers.

“At Marine Harvest we are literally working our fingers to the bone to remedy the problems. Our way of dealing with the matter of reputation is by being more open and more transparent than other food producers,” said Lerøy. He then referred to that the company is ensuring the environmental certification of an increasing number of fish farming operations, and that the company’s annual report contains more information about how the company impacts the environment than how much money it is earning.

“The aquaculture industry is in a very sound position in all discussions that are based on openness and verifiable facts,” he said.

– But why then are there so many that are so negative towards the industry? In certain environments the opposition to fish farming is – to say the least – intense.

“Unfortunately, there are some individuals that have decided to dislike the business in which we are engaged. Many of them are astute, competent people, but they have chosen to be opponents of fish farming”.

– Why has the industry ended up in this situation? To what extent is the salmon industry responsible for the lack of trust from part of the population?

“The blame lies entirely with the industry,” Lerøy said.

“It is undeniably our responsibility”.

Borrowing space that belongs to no one and everyone
Lerøy said there are many explanations as to how and why the situation has come about:

The aquaculture industry is fragmented, and traditionally has had its focus out in the markets and down in the farm cages. In total, the industry employs insufficient resources in creating understanding of the business in which we are engaged. In this instance it is vital that we commit to a professional and long-term effort in achieving this. We borrow space (marine acreage) that is so-called common ground in order to produce food, we are totally dependent on others having trust and confidence in us”.

Meanwhile he isn’t worried that opposition to fish farming will escalate, and in itself become an obstacle to growth.

“In that case, it would have to be in a situation where oil revenue in Norway were to go sky high, to a level where people were not as concerned anymore with other forms of value creation. I put my faith in meeting opinion opponents with the facts, with candour and honesty about that which is good and that which we are striving to improve,” said Lerøy.

Photo: Adrian B. Søgnen / Sysla

Risky ambitions
The Norwegian Government is also blatantly clear about its ambition to have the seafood industry grow and create more jobs. Norsk Industri, of which Marine Harvest is a member, has launched a road map for the marine farming industry where they require fish farms to be totally escape-proof from 2024 and fish farms to be totally free of lice from 2027.

In 2030 the goal is for the marine farming industry to achieve export value to the tune of 200 billion kroner (EUR 20.9 billion) per annum – as opposed to the current 60 billion (EUR 6,2 billion).

Opinions are divided on how realistic this goal is, but absolutely no one disagrees with that the scenario requires a radical clean-up of all the biological problems.

Keen for stringent requirements
“We can triumph over the salmon lice problem only by solving this in cooperation with the authorities. All farmed salmon in Norway swim around in the same fjord and sea currents. We are dependent on the authorities implementing intelligent, stringent and effective regulations”.

– Do you believe that the regulations should be stricter than those we have now?

“What’s important here is that they are developed in step with new knowledge, but yes, in some areas they should be more stringent.

“It can be tough going while the process is underway. Among other things it will mean more bureaucracy. Nonetheless, everything we have seen in Norway and other countries where we produce salmon, it is apparent that this is the best solution,” Lerøy said.

The world’s best regulations
In addition to Norway, Marine Harvest has salmon production in Scotland, Canada, Chile, Ireland and the Faroe Islands.

“There’s no doubt that Norway has the best regulations,” said Lerøy. “Another major advantage of operating and doing business in Norway, is that there is a high degree of faith between industry participants and the authorities. That’s something that’s easy to take for granted, but has tremendous worth”.

Fully integrated
Marine Harvest is the only aquaculture company that is represented in absolutely all segments of the value chain. During the eight years that Ole-Eirik Lerøy has sat as chairman, the company has established its own fish feed factories and own wellboat company.

Through the acquisition of the Polish company Morpol in 2013, the company became one of the biggest players in VAP (value-added processing). Earlier this year it was announced that Marine Harvest plans to open 2000 dedicated salmon restaurants in China and Taiwan.

“We have grand plans to develop all facets of our enterprise, and to make full use of new technology,” concluded Ole Eirik Lerøy.