Illustration: Jón Baldur Hlíðberg
Silfurstjarnan farming facilities in Öxarfjörður
Photo: Valdimar Ingi Gunnarsson
Production of farmed Arctic char
Source: Directorate of Fisheries
Export volume (left axis) and value (right axis, ISK million at current prize) of farmed Arctic char
Source: Statistic Iceland
Iceland Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) is the name of farmed Arctic char in Iceland. It is one of the northernmost freshwater fish species, common around the Arctic, hence the name Arctic char . Of Arctic char there are known both anadromous breeds and breeds which remain in freshwater for their whole life cycle. Arctic char is the most common and widespread salmonid fish in Iceland. It has an oblong body and a small head, and its colour can vary. In the sea, the fish is silvery with a dark back, but during the spawning season, the belly becomes red and the sides are brownish with a yellowish-green tinge.
The first attempt to fertilize and hatch Arctic char eggs was made just after 1900 and the year 1961 saw the earliest endeavour to feed Arctic char. The on-growing of Arctic char was initially on a very small scale. However, in the late 1980s interest increased. Arctic char attracted the interest of researchers, because this species was expected to have low optimum temperature requirements and thus would grow well in the cold water temperatures commonly found in Iceland. The number of farms increased up to 40 early in the 1990s, but the operation was not profitable and several farms went out of business. In recent years, the production capacity of farms has increased and in 2007 about 20 farms produced Arctic char. An important step in the development of Arctic char farming in Iceland was taken when a governmental breeding program was initiated in 1992. Today Iceland is the world’s largest producer of Arctic char with more than 50% of total production. Companies owned by Samherji; Islandsbleikja, Islandslax and Silfurstjarnan are the biggest producers of Arctic char in Iceland. Samherji is a vertically integrated seafood company, controlling hatching, juvenile production, on-growing of marketable fish, harvesting, packaging and marketing of the products.
The spawning period of char in its natural environment is highly variable and depends on the breed. Most commonly spawning takes place in autumn (Sept.-Dec.). The use of temperature and light manipulation has enabled the industry to modify spawning time. High quality well-water and geothermal water is used in the hatcheries. Geothermal water is used to control water temperature for eggs and fry in hatchery rearing. Arctic char remain in hatchery until they attain the weight of approximately 5-100g.
Production is mainly in land-based farms using ground water. Some farms also use geothermal water to warm up to optimal temperature for growth. The biggest land-based farms use high-quality brackish water (6-7°C) which is pumped directly from drill holes located within the farm area. The water from the drill holes has been naturally filtered through layers of lava. Small farms mostly use well freshwater (ca. 4°C), adding geothermal water to control temperature. Arctic char reach market size 15-30 months after hatching, depending on rearing temperature and slaughtering size (300-2000 g).
Eggs and juvenile production
The main producers of Arctic char eggs are Stofnfiskur and Holar University College. Islandsbleikja is the largest producer of Arctic char in the world. The eggs are purchased from suppliers that have established breeding programmes. The eggs are then hatched, using high-quality, fresh geothermal water, pumped directly from the ground at Nupar, Olfus in South Iceland. The facility of Islandslax at Nupar is specially designed to grow Arctic char from the egg stage until they weigh approximately 70-100g. The production capacity is around 3 million juveniles per year. Other producers of Arctic char juveniles in Iceland have only small production capacity.
Production of Iceland Arctic char has increased from about 500 tonnes in 1995 up to 3,00 tonnes in 2008. Reduced production in 2004-2006 was due to bacterial kidney disease and a prohibition on the distribution of eggs and juveniles from some hatcheries. It is forecast that production will expand over the next years, and production of 3,500 tonnes per year is to be expected in 2010.
Today about 15 land-based farms produce Arctic char in Iceland and one farm uses sea cages in the lagoon Lon in Kelduhverfi on the northeast coast. The main production of Arctic char in Iceland takes place at twofarms owned by Samherji. Two of them belong to Islandsbleikja, located at Vatnsleysa and Stadur in Reykjanes on the southwest coast of Iceland. The combined production capacity of the three farms is approximately 3,000 tonnes of Arctic char per year.
Iceland Arctic char is sold as whole (gutted with the head on) or as fully trimmed fillets, well suited for further processing, fresh or frozen. The firm flesh colour varies from red to pale red. Most of the Iceland Arctic char is filleted and exported by air to several countries in Europe and North America. In 2008 Iceland exported about 700 tonnes of fresh whole Arctic char, 20 tonnes of frozen char, approx. 600 tonnes of fresh fillets and about 500 tonnes of frozen fillets. The largest markets for Iceland Arctic char by volume are the United States and Switzerland. The export value amounted to 1,200 million ISK in 2008.
Valdimar Ingi Gunnarsson