Mowi-controlled Arctic Fish and SalMar-backed Arnarlax have been forced to prematurely harvest more than 1,000 metric tons of farmed salmon in recent weeks, according to Icelandic media, salmon so damaged it can only be used for animal feed.

Arctic Fish confirmed the "difficult situation" on Facebook late Wednesday night, saying sea lice have increased rapidly at its site in Talknafjordur in Iceland's southern Westfjords, on the northwest coast of the country.

The post said the problem has led to fish being injured, and in response the company decided to remove a "large portion" of its production in the farm.

"Conditions in Talknafjordur have deteriorated quickly, and unfortunately it takes time to take out the fish that has been hurt," wrote Arctic Fish, adding that it it takes the issue very seriously and is working as fast as possible to remove the fish for feed processing.

Arnarlax, meanwhile, recognized the problem in an Oct. 27 news release, saying there has been a "considerable amount" of sea lice in the Westfjords recently, leading to the company having to "act quickly" to de-lice its salmon.

To do this, for the first time in the history of fish farming in Iceland, Arnarlax is employing the Norwegian vessel Ronja Strand to mechanically de-lice the fish, rather than using chemicals. It is set to be in use for a full week.

The company also mentioned the slaughter of a non-specific amount of fish for use in animal feed.

SalMar, the world's second largest salmon farmer, owns 51 percent of Arnarlax, but SalMar strategy director Runar Sivertsen declined to answer questions from IntraFish about the situation, saying the company is in a so-called quiet period before the publication of its quarterly report Nov. 9.

Dead fish: Video footage appears online

Meanwhile, a video from Icelandic environmentalist Veiga Gretarsdottir showing dead and dying salmon allegedly in an Arctic Fish farm has been published by online Icelandic newspaper Heimildin.

"No one has seen anything like this before," the head of the Icelandic Food Safety Authority's aquaculture department Karl Steinar Oskarsson told Heimildin.

Oskarsson said the farmed salmon is damaged as a result of salmon lice having eaten the skin, and that bacteria have entered the open wounds. This causes the fish to become ill and eventually die.

The photos and video are said to have been recorded a few days ago in Talknafirdi.

You can watch the video below:

Salmon lice levels in Iceland have reached unprecedented heights in recent weeks, according to Iceland's veterinary group MAST, rising higher this year than in previous years in Iceland, both in Spring and Autumn.

"The situation is quite serious in the southern part of the Westfjords," MAST senior Veterinary Officer for Aquatic Animals Berglind Helga Bergsdottir told IntraFish.

Over the last two weeks, fish from 12 pens out of 34 in Talknafjordur have had to be culled due to wounds because of sea lice, she said.

A growing problem

Although naturally occurring in the sea, the amount of sea lice in salmon farming countries has increased sharply as the salmon farming industry has grown. In some places it also poses a threat to wild sea trout and salmon. Therefore, the farming industry is subject to strict rules for the permitted number of lice per salmon before lice removal must be started.

Fast Facts: Sea lice

Latin name: Lepeophtheirus salmonis

Distribution: Occurring naturally, their numbers have risen significantly in parallel with the growth of the aquaculture industry.

Biology: Sea lice are parasites with eight life stages, three of which are free-swimming, two of which are stationary and three of which are mobile. They attach themselves to salmon in the third stage.

Size: An adult female lice is around 12 mm (29 mm including egg strings), while an adult male is 6 mm.

Diet: The skin and blood of salmonids. The lice only start feeding when they have attached themselves to a host fish.

Reproduction: All year round, but increasingly quickly as temperatures rise in Spring.

Dispersal: Free-swimming stages spread the lice on currents in fjords and coastal waters.

Treatment: Biological methods (wrasse), chemicals or physical removal.

Source: Institute of Marine Research

Removal can be done chemically or non-chemically. In Norway, the increased frequency of chemical treatment over the years has made salmon lice in several regions of the country resistant to traditional remedies.

It has led to Norwegian producers turning to new way to de-lice the fish.

Cermaq reported last month it was deploying lasers to fight sea lice across sites in Norway, while Mowi is trialing an electric fence to combat sea lice on its salmon farms.

In Iceland, traditional drugs are still being used. Arctic Fish said the use of Salmosan (Azamethiphos), SliceVet (Emamectin benzoate) and AlphaMax (deltamethrin), all drugs previously widely used in Norwegian farms until lice became resistant.

Small producer, large players

Iceland is currently a small farming nation. Strong protection of wild salmon, cold and harsh winters and a strong Icelandic krone were some of the reasons why previous attempts at salmon farming have failed.

Almost 10 years ago, "the third wave" of salmon farming started. Several Norwegian players saw an opportunity for growth, after good years at home, but limited growth opportunities in Norway due to problems with salmon lice.

Midt-Norsk Havbruk, Masoval and Norway Royal Salmon were among the first players who invested in Iceland. After various acquisitions and mergers both in Norway and Iceland, Iceland is now left with three large salmon companies. All have majority Norwegian owners:

  • Arnarlax / Icelandic Salmon – based in the Westfjords. Salmar is the main owner. Listed on the stock exchange in Oslo and in Reykjavik.
  • Arctic Fish - also based in the Westfjords. Mowi is the main owner. Listed on the stock exchange in Oslo.
  • Ice Fish Farm – located in the northeast of Iceland. The Masoval family from Froya is the main owner. Listed on the stock exchange in Oslo.

Industry opposition

In October, about 3,000 Icelanders gathered in the capital of Reykjavik to protest against Norwegian salmon farming conglomerates and asked the Icelandic government to take immediate action against salmon farming in open netpens.

Iceland's population is 375,900, which means about 0.8 percent of the country attended the protest.

The salmon conglomerates have put wild Icelandic salmon at risk due to poor operational procedures and soft legislation, the protesters said.

The protest came in the wake of the escape of around 3,500 farmed salmon from an Arctic Fish farm in the Westfjords.

Iceland's Minister of the Environment Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson attended the protest as a speaker.

"The primary issue at hand is clear: the warnings were accurate, and we are now facing a substantial environmental catastrophe. We must take this matter seriously," he said at the time.