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Visiting Arctic Char Farms in Iceland

In developing the newly enhanced Seafood Quality Standards for farmed seafood at Whole Foods Market, I had the amazing opportunity to visit farms in remote locations around the world to learn about the wide range of aquaculture practices used to raise farmed seafood. I’m often asked, “What’s the most amazing place that you’ve visited?” While every country and the people that I’ve met have been incredibly different and interesting, I often answer, “Iceland.” Located just below the Arctic Circle, between Europe and Greenland, Iceland is an island nation with a landmass slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Kentucky. But with a population of just over 320,000—and most of these people living in the capital city of Reykjavík—Iceland is remarkably, well, un-crowded. Over half of the landmass of the island is tundra, lakes, and glaciers, but even in the more inhabited coastal areas that we visited, the vastness of the landscape is striking. Geologically active, Iceland’s volcanic eruptions have left behind stretches of old lava fields. In addition, because there are very few trees, the feeling of the place is that it’s not so much a landscape, but a moonscape surrounded by a seascape. With the vastness of the ocean itself outlining the land and shimmering fjords and waterfalls dazzling inland, the presence of water is everywhere. It’s within this unique environment that our Icelandic supplier partners, Samherji, raise Arctic Char. Native to Iceland and the polar regions of North America and Europe, Arctic char are closely related to both salmon and trout. Samherji’s fish farmers raise char in land-based tank systems, which offer a host of benefits. For one, the chance of fish escaping from a land-based tank system situated on land is greatly reduced. With aquaculture in general, escapes of farmed fish can be worrisome as they carry a suite of potential risks including spreading diseases or parasites to wild fish populations, competing for food or habitat with wild fish, or weakening of the genetic integrity of the wild fish if the farmed and wild fish interbreed. In addition, land-based tank systems allow farmers more control over water quality at the farm, which helps optimize conditions for the char. Furthermore, with land-based systems, farmers can reduce the environmental impacts of the farm because they can control the effluent—the water and wastes that leave the farm. In contrast to farms located in open water, in these land-based tank systems, farmers can filter the waste water to prevent nutrients from entering the marine environment and causing harmful algae blooms or other problems. Samherji’s farmers use filters and settling ponds to separate particles and treat effluent. The Whole Foods Market Quality Standards for farmed finfish and shrimp are comprehensive, requiring that farmers meet an extensive list of requirements to protect the environment. By locating their Arctic char farms on land and in tanks, Samherji is able to more easily address a number of our standards, including and not limited to escape prevention. Oh, and I forgot to tell you—their arctic char tastes great! Definitely a testament to all the care, not only for the environment, but for their fish, as well.