Since 2015 Cooking Sections have been working on CLIMAVORE, a project that explores how to eat as humans change climates. CLIMAVORE recognises that new ‘seasons’ are emerging: periods of polluted oceans, flash floods, subsidence or drought are more present than summer, autumn, winter and spring. Unlike carnivore, omnivore, locavore, vegetarian or vegan, CLIMAVORE is about not only the origins of ingredients we eat, but also how they respond to climatic changes. As part of this work, Cooking Sections examine the detrimental effects of [salmon] farming on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, home to 10,000 humans and more than 16 million [salmon]. Working in collaboration with residents, schools, restaurants, environmentalists and scientists, the project develops regenerative aqua-cultures.
Their book Salmon A Red Herring traces the construction of salmon: the colour of a wild fish, which is neither wild, nor fish (nor even salmon). Cooking Sections assert that disregarding colour as a mere feature of matter risks taking life on Earth for granted: colour is a vector that composes forms, entwines species and signals environmental changes. The book accounts for how we ended up in a deceptive world where sparrows moult pink, dogs turn blue and honey glows maraschino red; where pharaohs tint paint, laptops flavour fog, and farms feed colour
We know what sparrows are supposed to look like, because they have evolved with us. Over several millennia, food scraps from human settlements attracted sparrows from the ‘wild ’, which caused them to mutate into a new species. ‘House’ sparrows have since become a familiar sight wherever humans dwell, metabolising the shades of our settlements into their brown-grey feathers. They are drabber than their older, tree sparrow cousins, who preserve the brighter tones of the forest. The pink sparrow, neither forest nor house, was a colour leak. The sparrow had turned [salmon].
On the Isle of Skye — whose name comes from the Gaelic for ‘winged’ — colourful feathers lure eyes. Anglers, fishing for sport, carefully tie fish flies from synthetic rainbow plumage that resembles insects, enticing salmon. These iridescent wings are easy prey. Salmon bite on the colours that they find attractive, only to swallow a deadly hook.
In the 1800s, colonists in the tropics were drawn to exotic birds and sent them back to Britain. These startling hues and patterns inspired new recipes for salmon flies, and plucked feathers, far from their origins, were used to pluck salmon from their natal streams. A combination of toucans, peacocks and macaws, the flies mimicked salmon’s cravings. Hued plumage was used to deceive: to confuse the edible and the deadly. Salmon, beings for whom the ingestion of colour is essential, took the bait.
Salmon are at home in colour. Whipping her tail, a female salmon spends two days making a depression in the riverbed called a ‘redd’ — the word probably comes from the Early Scots ridden, meaning ‘to clear’ — into which she deposits her roe. Fertilised, these red spheres of nutrients encase young salmon, who eat their way out, taking the colour inside. Once the eggs are depleted, salmon swim to the ocean in search of food. There, they feed on red-pink crustaceans, mostly shrimp and krill, as well as small fish with even smaller crustaceans in their digestive systems. From these, they absorb yellow-red orange fat-soluble pigments, called carotenoids, that tint salmon salmon.
Crustaceans swimming at 63°29’19.8″N, 10°21’55.7″E might be redder than those at 56°52’01.7″N, 6°51’00.6″W, but pinker than those at 56°41’24.9″N, 175°58’53.5″W. Salmon record their location by metabolising these shades — their flesh is colour-coordinated. If salmon could peer inside their own bodies, they could distinguish, from their muscle-tones, the Trondheim Fjord from the waters of Skye or the Bering Sea.
If salmon could peer inside their own bodies, they could distinguish, from their muscle-tones, the Trondheim Fjord from the waters of Skye or the Bering Sea.
When salmon are ready to breed, they stop eating. Their stomachs shrink to the size of an olive, to make room for roe and milt, and they are drawn back to their birthplace, searching for home against the current. They follow what scientists suspect to be inherited maps encoded in their DNA, tracing chemical pathways and geomagnetic fields, which can lead them on journeys of over 3,000 kilometres.
Upon reaching freshwater, which bears murky river silt, salmon retinas trigger a biochemical switch that lets them see in infrared for clarity. Changes in sea temperature and water composition, in turn, activate memories of their original stream. Their senses act like a compass — not to determine the location of home, but rather the direction towards homecoming. Olfactory imprints allow salmon to swim through a smell-bank in their brain — what humans would think of as ‘remembering’. For salmon, this is perhaps not an active decision; it is an urge to return, to retrace innate memories homeward, extending to the moment of their birth.
The swim upstream requires such great exertion that it pushes red pigment to the surface of a salmon’s skin — a sign of health that lures mates. Female salmon pass on carotenoids in their flesh, to plump their roe and make it attractive to prospective males. Colour streams through generations, linking salmon to their redd. Salmon colour is the pathway — metabolic and geographic — of being; it is the atmosphere in which salmon are born and what they advertise when they spawn and die. Colour in this cosmos, then, is more than cosmetic — it is a biological influence as strong as memory.
Salmon are a means by which colour moves according to a logic of ingestion: salmon metabolise their colour, drawing life from it, and humans, craving this colour species, consume an image of health.
Such is the human thought of salmon: scales encasing ink-perfect pink flesh, a river leaping with fish on the run. A colour bound to a body, a body bound to its own name.
On Skye, however, this pictorial logic is fading. Skye no longer runs salmon: populations have fallen to historic lows and corporate aquaculture has filled the waters around the island with intensive open-net salmon farms. Salmon — the colour and the fish — is a red herring.
Open-net fish farms are flow-through feedlots, packed to the gills. Enclosed in pens with one- to two-hundred thousand other fish, a salmon cannot feed on krill and shrimp. Here, a salmon is naturally deprived of astaxanthin, the carotenoid that makes crustaceans pink and that protects a salmon’s body from solar radiation and stress. A salmon’s colour reflects its wellbeing: darker pink salmon represents access to astaxanthin-rich crustaceans, whereas pale pink salmon represents a lack of nutrients or high stress levels. Farmed salmon, lacking these resources, are no longer truly salmon. Their flesh tone is now closer to white-grey than red. Salmon, the fish, are cleared of salmon, the colour. Once they are grey, they are [salmon].
These [salmon] are photo-manipulated. As anthropologist Marianne Elisabeth Lien writes, [salmon] ‘are bred to be hungry and their job description is simple: putting on weight’. In early autumn, salmon become fertile and begin their run. This requires all their energy, making them grow less quickly. But consumer demand requires fish all year round, and so many farms in northern latitudes mask the seasons through artificial light.
Fluorescents, mimicking summer sunshine, are turned ON and OFF, ON and OFF, ON and OFF; and ON and OFF, ON and OFF, and ON and OFF … One hundred thousand lumen bulbs are an ingredient in a ‘lighting recipe’ that creates unseasonal, summer-like atmospheres. For [salmon], a year might have two summers, skipping winter. Most [salmon] do not know seasonal darkness in their brief eighteen months of captive life before slaughter. In other cases, [salmon] are genetically modified to produce an antifreeze protein that keeps their bodies in summer heat whatever the temperature of the farm’s waters.
Under the weight of accelerated growth, spines curve, eyes warp, tails shorten and jaws bend. More than ninety percent of farmed fish are deformed. Fused and compressed vertebrae twist bodies to such an extent that [salmon] struggle to swim.
Smaller fish fare no better. Up to a quarter of fish in farms are what the industry calls ‘loser fish’. Depression and anxiety take hold, and erratic serotonin and cortisol levels stunt their growth. In these [salmon], ribs can collapse and misshapen or upside-down hearts are susceptible to cardiac arrest during vaccination and lice treatments. Such procedures are necessary now, as farms breed new pests.
Sea lice thrive on [salmon] bodies when they are crammed into the confines of the pen, easily multiplying as they jump between hosts. These parasites feed on the skin and blood of [salmon], causing lesions and stress, and in some cases killing entire populations. The lesions, which make fish aesthetically unappealing and unmarketable, are the biggest problem for farms. To combat infestations, they introduce wrasse — small fish that are sea lice predators — into the water. Wrasse, however, fear the millions of [salmon] swimming above. So farm operators use strips of rubbish bags to approximate the seaweed in which wrasse like to shelter. The number of sea lice in Scottish farms has doubled and so, despite not being eaten by humans, wrasse have become one of the most sought after fish in the UK, with prices reaching £50,000 per tonne in 2018.
When wrasse are ineffective, increasingly poisonous toxins are added to feeds and metabolised into flesh. And when chemicals are ineffective, [salmon] are splashed with boiling water over short periods of time to detach the lice. This is an imprecise method. In 2016, over 175,000 Scottish [salmon] were boiled alive during a not uncommon accident.
Another way to target parasites is through the use of laser beams. These optical delousing devices go ON and OFF, ON and OFF, ON and OFF; and ON and OFF, ON and OFF, and ON and OFF … The farm’s light regime is, therefore, a paradox: as growing seasons extend and fish multiply, parasites thrive — and more light enters the fray. Light necessitates light to keep up with market speed.
[Salmon]’s summer is the season for cataracts. Warm water temperatures fog the lenses of fish eyes. Usually, salmon swim deeper to escape the heat, but in farms, there is nowhere to go. In this [salmon] world, most fish are blind. And, at least partially, deaf. Otoliths — small crystalline stones in the ears of bony fish that are crucial for balance, hearing and navigation — are crushed. A larger, transparent crystal, vaterite, will sometimes grow into an otolith, slowly shattering a [salmon]’s sense of sound.
As trees develop rings, otoliths develop layers when salmon age and move. They record the mineral make-up of the surrounding water, marking place and time, just like their pink flesh. Now, in the farm, otoliths mark the meaninglessness of a [salmon]’s life — the lack of a home and any concept of past or future. They are dislocated and the log of their movement is as blank as the fish are deaf. The deafness, at least, may reduce the stress of living with the noisy light systems, heaters and seal deterrents of the farm.
In captivity, the [salmon] life cycle ends not after spawning, but rather with an emptying of both colour and guts.
In captivity, the [salmon] life cycle ends not after spawning, but rather with an emptying of both colour and guts. In order to reduce contamination from excrement during gutting and cleaning, farms routinely starve fish before slaughter. Prolonged starvation, beyond 72 hours, can result in cannibalism. Yet most UK farms do not feed [salmon] for five to seven days, just to be sure their bodies are ‘clear’ and clean for market.
This ‘clearing’ does not stop at the skin’s edge or the water’s surface. Hundreds of kilos of feed particles and antibiotics billow out into the surrounding water. Clouds of fish excrement sink and blanket the seabed, stifling it of oxygen and making it an uninhabitable dead zone. Chemical runoff leads to diseases and mutations in surrounding fish populations and other waste washes out towards the sea from these toxic toilets.
The sustenance of this ecology risks the life and image of other ecologies, elsewhere — creating one global flow of matter, made for ingestion. [Salmon] farms now dot the coasts of Scotland, Iceland, Chile, Ireland, Canada and Tasmania, but they also affect the waters and lands of other countries, from South America to West Africa. Trawlers off the coast of Peru, which ‘sustainably source’ anchovies for feed pellets, are depleting local fish populations. These anchovies are mixed with soy protein from Brazil’s Cerrado tropical savannah, which is being cleared for farmland at a rate fifty percent faster than the Amazon. Feeding [salmon] is a landscape-consuming practice.
[Salmon], then, is an anaesthetic colour. It is a species cleared of the metabolic processes that constitute salmon — both colour and fish. And yet, to the human eye, the image of salmon, and their locales, does not appear to have been manipulated at all.
Salmon: A Red Herring is the first work in isolarii, a series of ‘island books’ released every two months by subscription. isolarii revives an extinct literary genre – the Renaissance ‘island books’ – to form an archipelago of today’s avant-garde groups and figures. Each book is an act of preservation or a point of orientation. Cooking Sections’ CLIMAVORE installation will be at Tate Britain from 27th November – 28th February 2021.