Salmon with Marianne Lien

4.5 min. read (or watch the video)

It is spring time in Norway right now. On the fjords of the west coast, the temperatures have been around plus 6 to 10 Celsius. It is a beautiful time of year. Many of the fjords are home to aquafarms, which provide a living for local residents, and a home for hundreds of thousands of farmed salmon. Anthropologist Marianne Lien is a professor at the University of Oslo in Norway, and she has spent much time studying the fish-human relations that emerge at these farms. She has written about this in “Becoming Salmon: Aquaculture and the Domestication of a Fish.” I first met Marianne in Scotland, and her work in more than human anthropology has inspired me ever since.

Farmed Norwegian salmon begin their life on land in an incubator tray belonging to genetic breeding programs at brood stock facilities. Here salmon are stripped of their roe between October and mid January. The roe is then fertilized in fresh water and kept at a regular temperature for 80 days before hatching. Once the eggs have hatched, the fry feed on the yolk sac of their stomachs. Later the fry are fed nutritionally optimized pellets, and they are moved to larger tubs as they grow. It takes anywhere from 10 to 16 months of growth time in freshwater, a process known as smoltification, which begins in August. Smoltification enables the fish to live in salt water. With a weight of 80 to 120 grams, they are moved into sea waterat aquafarms in fjords, where they spend 12-18 months before being live-transported to a processing plant. After de-stressing in waiting pens, they stunned and cooled, then cut, bled, and filleted. At time of death, the salmon have reached a weight of 2 to 5 kilos.

In her book, Marianne talks about many things. Her main concern is the study of a distinct interspecies domus (or household, really). But what I want to emphasize here is her attention to the perspectival differences between salmon and humans at these farms. Speaking of salmon, she writes: “We often say they are ‘underwater’ or ‘beneath the surface.’ But that is of course a human perspective and reflects that our preferred medium is air. For salmon, the world is three dimensional” (2015:56). She describes how their world is “bounded by netting, but not completely. Through the netting flows a constant current. It is quite likely that the flow of water also offers signals to salmon in the form of smell, but this is hard for us to know” (ibid.). Although the salmon rarely see the humans that hold them in one place, people and fish still form one mutualistic establishment here.

I am struck by her description of the “platforms, railings, and walkways” that enable people to stay in touch with the salmon they farm, even if they do not really participate in the social lives of these fish. In Marianne’s words, “We do all this to compensate for being a species that has lungs, not gills, and that moves most efficiently on two-dimensional planes … and are clumsy participants in the three-dimensional water worlds of salmon. So we build our world around theirs” (2015:57). In spite of the many differences in how salmon and humans perceive the world, they both are making a home here in the fjords – above and in the waters.

Aquafarms — whether we are in favour of them or not — are a living example of the interspecies world in which we live. We can do it carelessly, or attentively, but we cannot do without it. We share this planet, and I think we do well to learn to live with species that do not share our perspective of the world. Marianne’s multispecies ethnography invites us into the challenges that occur when these perspectives collide. Most importantly for me is her observation that “It is quite likely that the flow of water also offers signals to salmon in the form of smell,” which she says is “hard for us to know.” I think this is our que: let’s work on what is ‘hard for us to know.’

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.