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This is, of course, the first time that Atlantic salmon have been successfully farmed. After the initial experiments were carried out in virtual secrecy, Mowi decided this fall to make its achievement public, since it is now ready to contact future markets. Paradoxically, its success can be attributed to the avoidance of long-winded scientific research. "We didn't have the staff or the money to carry out the experiments that should have been done," says Mowinckel. "We had to take shortcuts that scientists wouldn't have approved of—they would have held us up by demanding absolute proof of each stage before proceeding." So Mowi went ahead, like an oldtime farmer, learning by trial and error.
The father of the whole enterprise was Johan Laerum, one of the owners of Mowi when it was a jam and marmalade producing company. Johan (he is now retired) was just interested in fish as a hobby. He raised rainbow trout in salt water to begin with, then in an amateur way tried his hand on salmon. He was so successful that when Mowi sold out the jam business and wanted to reinvest, it decided to try salmon farming. That was in 1965.
There was no problem in hatching out salmon fry and raising them to the smolt stage. This has been done since the mid-19th century. The first important breakthrough was when Mowi learned how to acclimatize the smolts to salt water and introduce them to the sea farm proper with minimum casualties.
Salmon smolts are among the most delicate fish in the sea. They die very easily and are "ten times as difficult to rear as rainbow trout," says Mowinckel. What Mowi did was develop a plastic container which was filled with water and introduced into the smolt tanks, whereupon the little silver fishes were sluiced into it before it was towed out to the sea farm. At no time were the smolts touched by human hand: the sea-farm screens were opened up and they swam right in. About 200,000 smolts have been moved this way, and the mortality rate has been small.
In the sea farm, with the natural flow of the tides increased by a pumping system, they just eat and eat while scuba divers check the oxygen content of the water. There are predators to fear: herons and sea gulls mainly, but also cod, pollack and anglerfish which find their way in as fry through the grills and grow up on food intended for the salmon. And the aristocratic salmon itself turns out to be something of a brawler. Fights are regrettably frequent. Cannibalism is not unknown.
The other great problem was finding a suitable diet. Salmon don't grow fat and red-fleshed on the kind of offal which is fed to farmed rainbow trout and which is bringing the latter a bad name among serious eaters. In its simpleminded, empirical way, Mowi decided to feed its salmon on as close an approximation as it could find to their natural diet. For the young fish this consists of shrimp parts too small to be processed and sometimes small whole shrimp, though the latter is expensive. As the salmon grow, their diet is changed to capelin, a tiny member of the smelt family. Capelin forms a large part of the wild salmon's feed and is relatively cheap.
It is just possible, Herr Mowinckel says, that in the future he will have a section of fjord which will be open to anglers. It is pure cheating, of course, but maybe, you know, just as urgent therapy for those who have spent a blank fortnight on the Tweed or the Restigouche or the Driva.