Fish Out of Water?

Would you eat a fish that has never been in the ocean?

Climate change and continuous CO2 emissions are predicted to significantly alter the oceans through acidity changes, destruction of coral reefs, warming water temperatures, and rising sea levels.[1]  One industry that depends entirely on the health of the ocean is fishing, a $148 billion dollar industry and the staple food source for countless people.[2]  The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016 Report notes that 12% of the global population is part of the world fish trade  and need the industry for their livelihood.[3]  Wild fishing is especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.  One option is to use farmed fish to avoid relying on the changing marine ecosystem; however, this option is not without its own climate change-related challenges.

Fishing for success

One company became an early adopter of fish farming.  Marine Harvest, based in Bergen, Norway, is one of the largest producers of seafood and the largest worldwide producer of farmed salmon.  In 2015, Marine Harvest had about $3 billion USD in revenue.[4]  As noted on its website, Marine Harvest sells fresh and frozen whole fish, along with secondary processed products (such as fillets, steaks, and prepared ready meals).

Delicious! Source: Marine Harvest,
Source: Marine Harvest,

Marine Harvest efficiently operates the entire process of farming salmon vertically.  The company uses freshwater tanks on land to incubate the fish.[5]  The fish spend the first part of their lives in these tanks.  Later the maturing fish are put into large pens in the sea, where they live for over a year.[6]  The company then harvests the salmon, processes them, and distributes them.

How will climate change will affect Marine Harvest and other fish farms?

Marine Harvest is very aware and concerned about the effects of climate change.  In its 2015 annual report to shareholders, Marine Harvest underscored the dire situation it is potentially facing:

“Climate change could affect the severity of weather, sea levels and temperatures, and the availability of the raw materials for our fish feeds … [the effects] may have a materially adverse effect on our business and financial figures.”[7]

Marine Harvest repeats its concerns numerous times throughout the report.

Proactive Sustainability Leadership

In many ways, Marine Harvest is a proactive leader in sustainability in the fishing industry.  Indeed, the very product the company sells—salmon—is a more environmentally-friendly protein when compared to land-based meat such as pork and beef, which contribute methane and other greenhouse gases.[8]   Furthermore, Marine Harvest has worked cooperatively with the World Wildlife Fund since 2004 to commit to sustainably raising salmon.[9]  Marine Harvest also engages in responsible processing, reducing its environmental impact.[10]  Lastly, as noted on its website, Marine Harvest has also taken steps to reduce its on-land carbon footprint—a side effect of its fish product distribution system—through various measures, including locating newer factories closer to airports so as to reduce transportation time (and thereby reduce fuel consumption).

Ultimately, however, the same dire climate change effects that will affect the ocean’s ecosystem will also affect the farmed salmon in their ocean pens.  Although Marine Harvest is striving to reduce its negative effects on the environment, its efforts alone will not be enough.  Only through the combined efforts of all the key players in climate change—not only the fishing industry but all others involved—will the oceans escape unscathed.

Kuterra disrupts

Due to these issues and the potential of disastrous consequences of climate change, I believe that Marine Harvest should start to prepare for alternate business opportunities, one of which could be investing in radical options such as on-shore fish farms.  One interesting new player in this potential industry is Kuterra, which runs a land-based salmon farm.  The salmon are raised completely on land in large saltwater tanks, avoiding the effects of marine climate change.  The tank environment has other positive cost-saving effects, as the fish grow twice as fast and eat much less food.[11]

However such a business model is incredibly capital intensive: as of 2015, the company has not turned a profit.[12]  And there are huge potential risks with keeping the salmon in tank captivity: any disease or parasite strain could destroy the entire population of fish as the tanks are all interconnected.[13]

I believe these risks could be mitigated as the technology improves, and especially if more players like Marine Harvest enter this new market.  Ultimately, extreme solutions such as these are the types of options Marine Harvest must look into based on the disastrous future effects of climate change.

(737 words)


[1] WWF, “Marine problems: climate change,”, accessed Nov 2016.

[2] Marine Stewardship Council, “The seafood economy,”, accessed Nov 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] NYSE, “Marine Harvest ASA (NYSE:MHG),”, accessed Nov 2016

[5] Marine Harvest, “Seafood Value Chain,”, accessed Nov 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Marine Harvest, Annual Report 2015, p. 33,, accessed Nov 2016.

[8] Rebecca M. Henderson, Sophus A. Reinert, Polina Dekhtyar, and Amram Migdal, “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business,” HBS No. N2-317-032 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2016), p. 7.

[9] WWF, “Farmed Salmon,”, accessed Nov 2016.

[10] Marine Harvest, “Product Range,”, accessed Nov 2016.

[11] Joaquin Palomino, “Is Salmon Raised on Land the Future of Seafood?,” June 7, 2015,, accessed Nov 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.


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Student comments on Fish Out of Water?

  1. This is scary, and furthermore reiterates that all climate change issues ultimately stem back to water access and availability. I think that as consumers of food we are going to have to get comfortable with unconventional food sourcing and production methods. (ie. GMO’s are highly controversial, but in the next fifty years they are here to stay if we are concerned about feeding 7 billion people). I’d be down for fish that’s never been in the ocean. We have to adapt don’t we?

  2. The Cleveland Clinic has stated that farmed salmon do no have the same health benefits as wild salmon. Do you think there is a way for Marine Harvest to research ways to improve the nutritional value of their farmed salmon? Increased nutritional benefits might draw more people to farmed fish and therefore help reduce our dependence on wild-caught fish for our diet. Additionally, this increased demand might help Marine Harvest to get the capital they need to explore the on-shore fish farms you propose. Very interesting article!

  3. To answer the original question – I would not eat a fish that’s never been in the sea (more specifically, raised in a tank – I’d eat freshwater fish!). My reasons are similar to what Alexandra mentioned, but the main one is the prevalence of disease/parasites in farmed fish that result from so many animals being grown in such an enclosed space. Even open-water fish farms can negatively affect the surrounding ocean ecosystem by allowing food/chemicals/disease to filter out into the larger ecosystem. I’m curious to see what Marine Harvest does going forward, but I think you have done a good job laying out the case that there is no easy fix, and the crisis is only worsening.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, salmon is my favourite food! Land-based tanks seem to be a good idea to protect the environment but i’m really concern about potential contaminants, chemicals and anti-biotic level in salmon, similar to what happens with farmed fish or shrimp. In another news, genetically engineered salmon that grows twice as fast as normal farmed salmon has been approved by FDA last year
    Together with land-based tanks, this technology will reduce carbon footprint of salmon farming as well as transportation emissions. However, what will be the impact if these genetically engineered salmons go into oceans and rivers? Will they threaten survival of natural salmons? Will consumers be open to the idea of consuming genetically enhanced animals? It’s still early to answers these questions but the risks are there.

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