Yesterday I had the chance to visit the Øygarden Salmon Center, a full-scale industrial salmon farm that also houses an educational visitor’s center. Almost all of my contacts in Norway have come through persistent networking, but my happenstance visit to Øygarden started with a simple google search: “Visit Salmon Farm Norway”. After writing a one-off e-mail explaining myself and my fellowship two weeks ago, I received a text message the other day inviting me to visit the farm and take a tour. After a (relatively) short bus trip I was looking over into a net pen, learning about the center and its history.
In Norway, government permits allowing for new salmon farms (or the expansion of old ones) are hard to come by. The government has placed pretty strict limitations on the growth of salmon farming until more effective solutions to eliminate salmon sea lice are developed. Still, there are a few ways that farms can grow. One way is if a company dedicates new aquaculture space to experimental research: they develop a research project in concert with scientists from an external university/institute. These farms are both fully functional farms and experimental sites; perhaps a new fish feed is tested or new farming structures are used. Another way is to convert a fish farm into a visitor/education center. Similar to experimental farms, these are fully functional farms, they just happen to also receive public visitors who are interested in learning more about the industry. The Øygarden Salmon Center falls into this latter category. I never turn down a chance to get out on the water and get close to the fish, but visiting Øygarden gave me the opportunity to not only learn more about aquaculture but about the general public’s accessibility to aquaculture. Who actually visits? What exactly does “educational center” entail? Do people’s opinions of aquaculture change after a visit?
This particular educational farm receives about 3,500 visitors a year, many of them local schoolchildren. At the farm, one of the managers goes through a brief presentation talking about the life cycle of Atlantic salmon, the design of a net pen (since most of it is underwater anyways), as well as the ingredients in the fish feed. The tour is followed up by stepping out onto one of the salmon cages (or rather trout in this case) and doing a bit of hand feeding.
One of the more interesting aspects of this center is its partnership with the land-based coastal museum in Øygarden. Visitors can buy a joint ticket so that after visiting the museum they can take a high-speed boat ride out to the salmon farm. The coastal museum contains several small exhibits that talks about the coastal history of the community from traditional fishing in færings (small wooden rowing boats) to the country’s modern oil drilling industry. So modern salmon aquaculture becomes almost a physical extension of the coastal museum, bringing Norwegian traditions of living and working on the coast into the present when visitors move from the museum to the salmon farm.
Production-wise, this educational farm was identical to non-educational ones owned by the same company. They are stocked to the same density, grown with the same fish feeds, and treated for sea lice with the same techniques. The farm, at the end of the day, is still a farm. But as an educational center, it offers consumers/visitors direct access to aquaculture and the people who do it. Even in Norway, a country with stringent environmental and animal welfare regulations, the general public still tends to have negative, often inaccurate perceptions of aquaculture. Educational farms offer the public an opportunity to see farming up close. For an industry that is seen somewhat negatively throughout the world, these kinds of spaces are important because they allow consumers to engage with aquaculture as embodied practice rather than as an opaque method of seafood production.
In many ways, accessibility to aquaculture has been an incidental theme of my Watson year. I was motivated by the disconnect between myself and the farmed seafood I consume, so the question “how exactly does one get to a fish farm?” has been the main driver for my year. Even with the development of educational visitor centers, it is not always easy to actually get there. To get to the Øygarden Salmon Center without a car, I had to travel for two hours by bus and make one transfer to make it to the dock where I was ferried out to the sea cages. The journey technically took me several kommunes beyond Bergen so the price of a ticket was close to $10 USD each-way. Now this is by no means an arduous journey, I would call it one of my easiest with regards to other fish farms I’ve visited. But it is still out of the way for many people who visit or live in the nearby city of Bergen. Without a car, you have to be pretty determined to visit the farm to actually make it out there. It’s easy to imagine Norwegians and foreign tourists alike forgoing a visit to a salmon farm in favor of something more interesting and closer to the city.
Fish farming, like many other forms of food production is often situated in rural areas. Combine these barriers with other factors, such as an individual’s ambivalence to visit a fish farm or a negative predisposition to aquaculture, and the potential of educational farms to connect consumer and producers suddenly feels less promising. I recently made the mistake of talking about aquaculture with a vegan and I realized 5 minutes into the conversation that nothing I said would change her stance on aquaculture. But her concerns rested on a great deal of misinformation and when I asked her if she’d ever visited a fish farm she said no and that she never wanted to.
In my own experiences, nothing has been able to stand in for actually being out on a fish farm. The tangibility of being on a farm, learning about the challenges farmers face may not necessarily change people’s perspectives of aquaculture nor does it erase the real concerns there are around modern aquaculture; but being there gives you a chance to see it for yourself, to develop more informed, balanced opinions. So, what’s a boy, or a society, to do? Most of the world’s population now lives in urban centers and as aquaculture (and food production as a whole) becomes increasingly mechanized, our connections to our food are harder to maintain, even when the platform for food education is there. One has to WANT to learn about food production and, honestly, aside from bursts of action most of the time is spent waiting for the food to grow. I certainly don’t have an answer, but I do think it requires more openness between both consumers and producers.