Why Norway is home to some of the most sustainable seafood on the planet

Norway's harsh climate can make life tough for its inhabitants, but its ice-cold, clear waters are the perfect environment for sustainable fish of impeccable quality

Across the 101,000km of Norway's coastline, you'll see a similar sight: icy sea crashing against rocks, and snow-capped mountains casting shadows onto the rugged bays beneath them.

Norway is a huge country by area, but – with just over five million people calling this stark and beautiful country home – it's a small one by population. That's because it's not an easy place to live: its climate is punctuated by icy winters, and its topography is vast and difficult to navigate.

It is, however, an incredible country to take residence in for fish. Its clean, cold waters are full of some of the best seafood to be found in the world – and it's no coincidence that fishing has become the source of livelihood for many of its enduring and characterful human inhabitants.

But it's more than simply a living for many Norwegians. Whether catching wild fish or breeding them in world-leading fish farms, the people of Norway have always paid close attention to the sustainability of their craft, going about their business with a deeply ingrained knowledge of the systems and processes that make fishing a living that's available not just to them, but also generations to come.

The UK's love affair with Norwegian seafood

It's this careful stewardship – as well as an unusually bountiful natural larder – that makes Norway's fish and seafood so highly sought-after. As well as the fish Norwegians kept for themselves last year, they also exported an eye-watering (or mouth-watering) 2.6 million tonnes of it – 70 different species into 140 territories. And it's also why we in the UK love it so much, eating 130,000 tonnes of that Norwegian fish and seafood in 2017 alone – 32% of all the seafood we ate that year.

With great seafood comes great responsibility

With the Nordics' track record in renewable energy and stewardship of their natural landscapes, it'll come as no surprise that Norway has long been a pioneer of sustainable seafood, and of aquaculture, too. Despite an enormous potential area for fish farming across its coastline – 90,000km², to be precise, more than that of Sweden, Finland and Denmark put together – only 450km² of that is used. That's because the Norwegians know the value of responsible fish farming, and also its importance to the world's food supply in decades to come.

Norwegians know the value of responsible fish farming, and the importance of Seafood to the future food supply

Overfishing is heavily penalised, with fishermen only able to earn 20% of the value of any fish that exceeds the quota set by the Norwegian government, which itself is dictated by extensive research done by the ICES – the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. That's not to say that fish is wasted, mind – Norway's impressive traceability schemes and a discard ban going back to 1987 means that the country can ensure almost no fish goes back into the water unused, and fish that exceeds quotas still finds its way to the market.

Norway's sustainable fish farms

While many people might be inclined to think that the most sustainable fish is caught wild, Norway's aquaculture leads the way in global seafood production, and is a model of sustainable and ethical food production.

The story begins in 1970, when 40 species of wild salmon were collected from Norway's rivers to be bred in ocean-based fish farms. These are no intensive farms, though – in each facility, the proportion never exceeds 2.5% fish to 97.5% water, meaning the salmon have plenty of room to swim. That ethos is shared more generally, too: despite the fact that Norway's coastline affords the country such a huge amount of water to populate, the management of its aquaculture means that only 0.5% of its seas are taken up by fisheries. The fish themselves have been bred to adapt beautifully to their environment, reaching their peak weight faster than wild fish, maturing later and being hardier and more resistent to disease.

Fish are fed from offcuts that would otherwise be wasted, from reliable and regulated sources

This sense of ethical production is carried on into their food, too. While many fish farms around the world feed their fish on unsustainable food, including cornmeal and potentially harmful marine byproducts, Norway's fisheries feed their fish on a diet of 70% vegetables. Where other fish is used for feed, it's offcuts from other fisheries that would otherwise be wasted – all from reliable, regulated sources.

Taking care of the environment

The Stats

It's not just talk – Seafood from Norway's sustainable practices are backed up by hard data. Here are some grab-and-go facts at a glance:

+ 101,000: the length of Norway's coastline in kilometres – more than double the length of the equator

+ 44: the percentage of salmon eaten in the UK that comes from Norway

+ 1987: the year Norway introduced a discard ban, becoming the first country to do so

15-20: the percentage by which the amount of feed used in Norway's fish farms has been reduced over the past 30 years

2.5: the amount of CO₂ in kilograms produced per kilo of salmon, compared to 30kg for beef

2,600,000: the number of tonnes of seafood exported by Norway in 2017

With such a beautiful, pristine landscape to live it, it's no surprise that the Norwegians have proven themselves an environmentally conscious population. That extends to its fish farming, too – in addition to the non-intensive farming style favoured by the country's fishermen, there are checks and measures in place all over the food chain to make sure that the fish and seafood that's being produced in Norway doesn't cost the earth.

A food production system centred on aquaculture, not agriculture, is a great place to start. Where ruminant mammals are incredibly inefficient in terms of their energy output – the energy gained from eating them, compared to that needed to raise them to maturity and feed them – salmon is cold-blooded, doesn't expend energy through standing upright, and is naturally efficient in terms of its food supply.

It takes just 1.2kg of feed to produce 1kg of salmon – a fraction of the feed it takes to produce beef and pork. It's got a lower carbon footprint than both of those, too, as well as less waste in the production process.

What's more, Seafood from Norway's governing bodies – among them the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries – are in constant contact with environmental agencies like the Institute of Marine Research, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, and the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. That's in addition to continual conversations on fishing quotas with Russia, Iceland, Greenland and the EU. All that adds up to a food source that's low in environmental impact, but high in quality, traceability and provenance.

A Recipe from Simon Hulstone

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