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The revolution under water

The majority of Norwegian food production no longer takes place in the field or in the barn.

Farmed salmon are not really tame, but neither are they wild. Between the sea and the fields we are creating a meeting place across species boundaries. PHOTO: Kallestad, Gorm.

Today more than 12 million meals are produced in Norwegian salmon cages. This is four times as much as the total meat production from Norwegian agriculture.The turn to salmon aquaculture can be seen as the most recent turn in the history of human domestication. Much of the food we take for granted today is the result of changes that were neither planned or predictable. The same is true for aquaculture: Salmon farming was originally conceived as a straightforward subsidiary income for farmers in the mountainous western districts of Norway, with small businesses and local owners. But in the 1990s the rules were changed. During the last 20 years Norway’s production of salmon has more than quadrupled, and ‘sustainable aquaculture’ is supposed to provide state revenue when the oil runs out.

Marianne Elisabeth LienMarianne Elisabeth Lien Foto: UiO

Welfare regulations

Can fish feel pain? The question has long been controversial among biologists, but Norway, like the EU, has recently decided to give salmon the benefit of the doubt. Fish have simply become animals, in the legal sense. This happened with the new Animal Welfare Act of 2010, which for the first time also included regulations for farmed fish. Salmon was thus entitled to the same kind of protection as four-legged animals like cows and sheep. As a consequence of this, the slaughterhouses for the fish have been remodeled so that the fish can be anesthetized before slaughter. Dimmers have been fitted to the lights so the fish do not become alarmed when they are turned on. Rubber soles dampen the sound of footsteps so that juvenile fish are not agitated. And Norwegian farmhands are educated on the salmon's natural needs, and are trained to find areas of improvement in their own workplace. Whether farmed fish are happier remains to be seen, but veterinarians and animal technicians are working systematically to learn what they can about the fish, and are gradually working towards establishing a conceptual and scientific basis from which to treat the fish as a sentient being.

Care in the cage

Why is this happening now? One reason is that animal welfare has become more important than before. Consumers are concerned that the animals thrive. But the change is also happening because fish have become domestic animals: As we take responsibility for another being's life, we also develop new skills for caring for fish. Fish have become ‘animals’ as they are enrolled in a domestic setting, and live their lives in cages. Through fieldwork in manufacturing plants we have seen many instances of people caring for fish, such as workers that try to avoid casting shadows, speak softly and wait anxiously for the tiny fry to venture up to the surface. The welfare conditions for the salmon depend not only on legislation, but also on whether the employees are given room to exercise care for the fish, and take the steps they deem appropriate.

The tame and the wild

The so-called Neolithic Revolution created new conditions for human life and lasting changes in the way we organize society. Many changes allegedly as domestication of plants and animals provided the main source of food, such as a more complex division of labour, city-states, and eventually private ownership. But the shift left traces on our conceptual understanding too: The field and the barn became "culture" while everything outside gradually came to be seen seen as "nature".

The term domestication derives from Domus, which  is the Latin name for the house. This distinction between nature and culture helps us to organize the world: Culture is the "tame", that which we protect and control, while nature is the "wild", and ideally untouched by humans. But the distinctions are difficult to draw in practice. Domestication is only rarely a result of human ingenuity, and is now increasingly studied as an unpredictable two-way process.

Species boundaries

Farmed salmon are not really tame, but neither are they wild. Through aquaculture, we have created an interface between the wild and the farmed, which is also a site of gathering for species boundaries that does not fit into the traditional distinction between nature and culture, or between hunting and animal husbandry.


This article was previously published in Norwegian in Aftenposten Viten

By Marianne Elisabeth Lien, professor of social anthropology. Translated by Matthew Rix Whiting
Published Nov. 18, 2014 2:27 PM - Last modified Sep. 21, 2016 11:09 AM