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Becoming Salmon: Aquaculture and the Domestication of a Fish / Edition 1

Becoming Salmon: Aquaculture and the Domestication of a Fish / Edition 1

by Marianne Elisabeth LienMarianne Elisabeth Lien
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Becoming Salmon is the first ethnographic account of salmon aquaculture, the most recent turn in the human history of animal domestication. In this careful and nuanced study, Marianne Elisabeth Lien explores how the growth of marine domestication has blurred traditional distinctions between fish and animals, recasting farmed fish as sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and subject to animal-welfare legislation.

Drawing on fieldwork on and off salmon farms, Lien follows farmed Atlantic salmon through contemporary industrial husbandry, exposing how salmon are bred to be hungry, globally mobile, and “alien” in their watersheds of origin. Attentive to both the economic context of industrial food production and the materiality of human-animal relations, this book highlights the fragile and contingent relational practices that constitute salmon aquaculture and the multiple ways of “becoming salmon” that emerge as a result.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520280571
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/30/2015
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #55
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Marianne Elisabeth Lien is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, Norway.

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Aquaculture and the Domestication of a Fish

By Marianne Elisabeth Lien


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96183-8



Salmon in the Making

Everything there is, launched in the current of time, has a trajectory of becoming. — TIM INGOLD, BEING ALIVE: ESSAYS ON KNOWLEDGE AND DESCRIPTION

Salmon have come a long way. They were here before us. They were the backbone of coastal human livelihoods, a reliable and seasonal resource, a conduit of nutrients from the depths of distant oceans, conveniently delivered where the land meets the sea. Our history together goes way back. But recently it took off in a new direction.

This book is an ethnography of a "city of fish." It tells the story of how salmon became a husbandry animal and how sentience was extended to salmon. It is about an emerging industry that expanded beyond all predictions and caused a massive rechanneling of marine resources worldwide. It is also the story of how new forms of biocapital transformed the relation of human to nonhuman, of culture to nature, as salmon went global. But most of all, it is a study of novel and unfamiliar encounters between salmon and their people, on and off salmon farms in western Norway, upriver and beyond.

We are in the middle of the fjord. The glacier above the eastern shore reflects the morning sun in shades of pink. The water surface is occasionally broken by a silvery shadow that jumps through the air, a silent reminder that we are not alone. Then a shattering sound breaks the silence, like a hailstorm above our heads. It is the steady hammering of feed pellets through plastic pipes. Half a million salmon will soon be fed. Our working day has just begun, and so has theirs. Farmed Atlantic salmon are bred to be hungry, and their job description is simple: putting on weight.

Cospecies histories are difficult to tell. This is not only because some of us have been trained to think that having a history is a privilege of humans, and thus we have ignored the ways in which nonhuman species have histories too. It is also because we are trained to tell the stories separately. We tend to think of histories as either their stories, animal stories, as they unfold without human interference, or our stories, with humans cast as the key actors and animals figuring as prey, property, or symbols. Their stories find an audience among biologists, our stories among anthropologists.

But storytelling practices are changing. Biologists and environmental ecologists are beginning to write humans into their stories of nature. Geologists have launched "Anthropocene" as the label for our time, to bring attention to lasting human impact on the atmosphere and the earth itself. Social and cultural anthropologists are warming up to the idea that the term social might include nonhumans too, and they are beginning to explore the ethnographic implications of this possibility.

Archeologists, who never forgot how closely human history is intertwined with the histories of animals and plants, have begun to pay more attention to this interface, with a renewed focus on mutualism and coevolution. But even archeologists struggle when it comes to fish, whose traces are rarely visible. While domesticated goats and sheep reveal glimpses of our shared evolution as pieces of bone in the ground, fish leave few such remains. Ancient middens can tell us about human marine diets but very little about the shape of the fish and how we might have evolved together.

Salmon farming can be seen as the most recent turn in the human history of animal domestication. For the first time, fish are enrolled in regimes of intensive industrial-scale aquaculture. Spearheading the "blue revolution," the unprecedented expansion of salmon aquaculture adds pressure on marine fisheries through an increased demand for fish resources in the North Atlantic as well as the South Pacific. But the emergence of salmon farming is more than a shifting pattern of resource exploitation: as fish are enrolled as husbandry animals, conventional distinctions between fish and animals are also reconfigured. Appropriated by industrial regimes of global food production, farmed salmon have become not only biomass and objects of capital investment but also sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and subject to animal welfare legislation.

Freshwater experiments with trout and salmon propagation have been done for generations, on both sides of the North Atlantic. However, it was not until the early 1970s that experiments with saltwater salmon aquaculture succeeded, and commercial salmon farming as we know it was invented: soon, salmon were enrolled in regimes of intensive production, and the sea was no longer a place only for fishermen, but for farmers too. Agricultural principles were extended to the marine; aquaculture was expanded to the estuaries and the sea. During the 1980s and 1990s salmon aquaculture intensified and expanded to the Southern Hemisphere, while production increased manifold.

* * *

This book explores the recent journeys of these "newcomers to the farm" as well as the novel regimes of animal husbandry in which they take part. I have traced salmon and their people on and off salmon farms, from the "cities of fish" in Norwegian fjords to the dark and humid production rooms where fragile orange eggs are about to hatch. I have followed their trajectory from the North Atlantic to the Southern Hemisphere and explored farmed salmon through paper trails, in research journals, at websites and international business exhibits. I have followed them up along rivers in western Norway, to where their distant cousins still breed, guided by salmon anglers and biologists whose concern about the wild salmon stock makes escapees from the salmon farms unwanted intruders. But most of the time, I have worked with people for whom feeding, processing, and caring for farmed salmon is a livelihood that they value and are deeply engaged in.

Unfamiliar encounters? Yes indeed. Fish are cold. They live in water. They are mostly out of sight. They are silent. Their staring eyes show no visible emotion. Their body language is difficult to interpret. All of this limits the cues that humans can respond to. And yet our response is crucial. Domestication is a two-way process. Ever since our ancestors began to share their households with animals, husbandry relations have been a mutual affair. This book is about how husbandry practices are now extended to fish. It is about a recent journey on a steep learning curve. But it is also about remote communities of Norwegian farmer-fishermen who have found themselves at the forefront of global aquaculture, shipping truckloads of fresh salmon to Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, and Dubai.

Domestication is often told as a fundamental shift in the way humans engaged with animals and plants, with control and confinement as key modes of ordering human-animal relations. Guided by the water world of salmon and their caretakers, this book challenges that approach and suggests that mutuality, uncertainty, and tinkering are better terms with which to capture the productive entanglements of humans and their surroundings. Rather than model aquaculture on an outdated narrative of human progress as "control of nature," I invite the reader to take part in exploring the novel opportunities that more-than-human entanglements offer, as well as the risks that they entail. In that sense, this book is a mutual interrogation of what salmon farming and domestication are, and what they might become.


Atlantic and Pacific salmon have sustained communities along the North Atlantic and the North Pacific rims for as long as there are historical records and probably much longer. In many instances, humans have also intervened in salmon trajectories through material arrangements that divert or delay their journeys upstream. They have enhanced the salmon's reproductive capacity by extracting roe and milt from broodstock and distributing fertilized eggs across entire riversheds, and they have unintentionally altered the genetic profile of their most sought-after local salmon stocks through overfishing and selective predatory practices. In these and many other ways, human lives and salmon lives have nearly always been intertwined, and much of what we see in salmon farming today could be seen as continuities, or instances of intensified entanglements. And yet, there are also ways in which contemporary salmon farming appears fundamentally new.

One of the most striking features of contemporary salmon farming is its unprecedented scale: salmon aquaculture has quite simply been a huge success, from a business point of view, with a potential for expansion far beyond what anyone could predict. By the late 1990s it was estimated that more than 95 percent of all Atlantic salmon living in the world had been raised at a fish farm (Gross 1998). Since then, the global production has more than doubled and the percentage is likely to have increased. By 2009, aquaculture supplied half of the total fish and shellfish for human consumption. By 2012, aquaculture was among the fastest-growing food-producing sectors in the world (spearheaded by farmed salmon) and expected to eclipse the global production of beef, pork, or poultry by the next decade (FAO 2012; N$rings- og fiskeridepartementet [Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries] 2013). As a result of such massive growth, and because farmed salmon depend on a steady supply of fish meal and fish oil to thrive, the growth of aquaculture adds pressure on global marine fisheries. Wild fish are used to produce feed pellets for terrestrial livestock, and farmed salmon add yet another demand on this scarce resource. Hence, aquaculture's share of the global use of fish oil and fish meal more than tripled from 1992 to 2006 (Naylor et al. 2009, 15103; FAO 2008). As a predator in the marine food chain, farmed salmon have a key role in this global rechanneling of marine resources from human consumption to animal feed and from terrestrial husbandry to marine husbandry.

Domestication lies at the heart of this massive transformation. Yet, while the idea of salmon as "newcomers to the farm" points to a historical shift, domestication of aquatic animals is not entirely new, nor could a model of domestication fully account for the massive global expansion we are currently witnessing. In this book, I mobilize domestication as a comparative tool as well as a conceptual placeholder for more-than-human practices that can be studied ethnographically across various domains. Drawing on recent insight in archeology and anthropology as well as studies of human-animal relations, I approach domestication as sets of relations across species barriers that enable and enact particular biosocial formations, or reproductive practices through which humans and nonhumans mutually inhabit each other's worlds and (intentionally or unintentionally) make space for one another. As they unfold, such relational practices often involve the rearrangement of space, the appropriation of place, or the arrangement of time in cyclical sequences. Consider, for example, seasonal shifts of sowing and harvesting, the appropriation of a field for agricultural purposes, or the movement of and with pastoral herds. Often, they also involve novel infrastructural arrangements, such as a barn, or a chicken coop, or indeed a salmon pen, which — as we shall see — serve to gather or facilitate particular relational practices. I approach such sites of human-animal encounters as heterogeneous gatherings of human and nonhuman entities that define or enact what a domesticated animal may become. Inspired by the literature on domestication, I shall refer to such sites as domus (see chapter 3), fragile assemblages of beings and things that, as long as they hold together, constitute the conditions of growth and reproduction of humans as well as of nonhuman beings.

Marilyn Strathern has reminded us that it matters what ideas we use to "think other ideas with" (Strathern 1992, 10). Her insight has inspired further twists. To state that "it matters what materials we use to think other materials with" or that "it matters what practices we use to think other practices with" suggests novel ways in which to attend to the lateral dimension of ethnographic practice. In the context of salmon aquaculture, they serve as reminders that there is no obvious context out there waiting to be revealed, no theory providing the obvious analytical anchor for the material at hand, but instead, endless opportunities for association and juxtaposition, each with the potential for taking the analysis in a new direction.

The concept of domestication frames my story, while at the same time offering a comparative edge against which my material can be "thought." The choice is not obvious. There are many other narratives circulating in the realm of aquaculture discourse, ready to eclipse an analysis of salmon farming. "Industrial capitalism," "global food production," "environmental degradation," and "wild salmon extinction" are but a few alternative framings. When I choose to "think salmon through goats and cows," it is not because the alternatives are not also relevant but because domestication offers opportunities to mobilize comparisons that I find particularly intriguing. Most importantly, it helps me decenter, or temporarily suspend, more conventional normative narratives, which tend to come with a ready-made cast of heroes and villains, good and bad. It also allows me to think through aquaculture without being immediately locked into the conceptual dualism of nature and society as oppositional domains, a dichotomy that underpins so many contemporary debates about the environment and the "wild."

Domestication works here as a comparative tool that mobilizes connections and continuities across various temporal and topical domains, while encompassing fundamental historical concerns about how we humans nourish ourselves. In this way, it has guided the analysis in unexpected directions. This has been possible, however, only after a critical reassessment of domestication as a conventional narrative.


If anthropology is to operate as an ongoing "decolonialization of thought," then it should involve a constant questioning of narratives we live by. Domestication can be seen as one such narrative, which has sustained, justified, and made legible particular historical trajectories and biosocial relations that are familiar to Euro-Americans and associated with progress and modern civilization. As such, it encompasses ways of life that are now hegemonic on a global scale (sedentary agriculture, private property, coercive husbandry, extraction of natural goods) and that both reproduce and are justified by dualistic oppositions of culture and nature as well as assumptions about human exceptionalism. Control and spatial confinement (of husbandry animals as well as of native peoples) have been invoked as essential elements of such processes. In anthropology, domestication has similarly been associated with human mastery, taming, and control as well as with similar hierarchical and classificatory distinctions (Cassidy and Mullin 2007; Candea 2010).

That salmon and domestication are uncommon companions in the scholarly literature is therefore hardly surprising: whereas the former epitomizes the wild, the latter typically tells the story of how humans conquered nature. The global expansion of salmon farming could have been told as the story of how nature is overtaken as industrial capitalism expands to novel aquatic "terrains," or a final stage along an evolutionary journey of animal domestication (Zeder 2012). And, indeed, this is how the story has often been told. However, this view of domestication tends to gloss over heterogenic specificity as well as instances of noncoherence that proliferate where particular "forms of life" such as industrial food production, and organic "life-forms" such as its products (feed pellets, farmed salmon fillets), intersect (Law et al. 2014, 173; Helmreich 2009, 6).

To assume that we already know what domestication entails is to run the risk of marginalizing the unpredictable and often unexpected practices and outcomes that unfold when very different worlds are simultaneously performed — worlds that do not necessarily map smoothly onto conventional models of domestication. So, rather than analyzing the recent growth of the salmon farming enterprise as yet another outcome of human mastery over "nature" (or a result of neoliberal capitalism's mindless exploitation of animal beings), I weave the connections between domestication and salmon farming in multiple ways, asking these questions: What are the specific practices and choreographies through which farmed salmon are currently being enacted? What formations of humans and nonhumans emerge as a result, and how do they hold together? As salmon are "becoming with" humans in new ways and through multiple practices, what salmon are enacted in the process? And finally, how can such salmon shed light on processes of domestication?


Excerpted from BECOMING SALMON by Marianne Elisabeth Lien. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

1 Introduction: Salmon in the Making 1

2 Tracking Salmon 27

3 Becoming Hungry: Introducing the Salmon Domus 48

4 Becoming Biomass: Appetite, Numbers, and Managerial Control 76

5 Becoming Scalable: Speed, Feed, and Temporal Alignments 104

6 Becoming Sentient: Choreographies of Caring and Killing 126

7 Becoming Alien: Back to the River 148

8 Tails 164

Notes 173

Reference 197

Index 209

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