Sins of the Salmon Kings

[As self-appointed Great Ape of the Jungle, I have decidedly mixed feelings about seafood farms. On one hand, isn’t it positive that we continue to have theoretically-sustainable seafood options in an era of rapidly declining natural stocks? Or, will humans $*##!! it up, as we have done with land-based agriculture, and greedily find new ways to devour more resources. If history repeats itself, it will be the latter.

Thus, I thought an intelligent, balanced article on salmon farming in Norway would be interesting and suitable. Upon closer reading of this piece, however, I discovered that the focus of this is quite different. A bit disappointing, but revealing in its own way. Apparently, Norwegians have misgivings on fish farms, too. (Note: The photos are not from the article as published, but are generic fish farming photos that I inserted.) SB SM]


Every day, he releases one salmon from the pens into the sea, which gives him “an intoxicating feeling of control over life and death.”

JULY 18, 2023


a fish farm on blue sea near a brown mountain
Photo by Gilberto Olimpio on

Over the past five decades, a new kind of food production has emerged in Norway. Salmon farming employs around 9,000 people; adjacent fields employ even more. Norway is the main salmon producer in the world, and salmon dominates Norway’s third-biggest export industry, seafood. At the heart of this stands the salmon farmer, a figure who in recent years has become contested in the public sphere. On the one hand, salmon farming, which involves cultivating fish in pens, is very lucrative. Salmon farming takes place in small communities along the coast, where some “Salmon barons” have built up great fortunes. At the same time, their use of open pens in Norwegian fjords harms the ecosystem.

In Norway, some people admire the salmon farmers for their economic success, while others detest their methods and have stopped eating salmon altogether. Salmon farming is both environmentally dangerous and possibly unethical. As my co-author Kjetil Østli and I document in our book The New Fish, the intensive monocultural salmon farming facilities are swarmed with salmon lice, a kind of parasite. Salmon farmers dump chemicals in their pens to kill the lice, but this kills other species in the fjords, such as shrimp and lobster. The lice sometimes attack wild salmon, meaning that for the first time in history, the Norwegian wild salmon is now on the red list. In some parts of Norway, one out of four salmon die due to bacteria, viruses, parasites or other illness. The most common cause of death is heart cracks, as the salmon are bred so intensively that their bodies grow too big for the heart to function properly under stress.If literature is to reflect society, one would expect a new industry to leave a mark on culture. This new “character,” the salmon farmer, would be expected to find a place in fiction. By investigating Norwegian novels, we can arrive at an idea of the position of the salmon farmer in popular culture. After seven years of reporting on salmon farming in Norway, I have attempted this small investigation into its cultural impact.


The National Library of Norway has digitised most, if not all, Norwegian novels in recent decades. You can search this material at nb.nok. The term “salmon farming” yields 2,698 titles, 95 of which are works of fiction. In a few of these books, the salmon farmer appears as a character. To make sure that no books were excluded, I also posted to Facebook, asking people to send me more books – I appended my message with a subtle provocation (“are fiction authors incapable of depicting modern-day Norway?”) This inquiry resulted in five books.


A salmon farmer named Finn Jarle Spilde appears in the novel Whitsun by Pål Gerhard Olsen (Gyldendal, 2003). We meet him as he is receiving oral sex from nurse Rannveig (“he grips her shot-putter’s hips, guides her down into deep rolling valleys, brings her high like Ulriken cable car”). He wears a sealskin vest and votes for the center right, agrarian Coastal Party. He has a wealth of experience, as he has worked on local ferries, in the North Sea, at a smelting plant, in the energy sector and in line fishing. More recently, he has made a success of his salmon farming company, Finn-Fish, and become the richest man in the municipality. He creates jobs and invests in the hotel by the fjord. The thought of bridges, tunnels and road projects has him waxing lyrical, but it is his “own versatility and capacity for work that makes him horniest” — “he is invincible.” He sees himself as “the prime minister of his family” and posits that “while officially it is the Labour Party that has a majority in the municipal council chamber, in reality, it is him.”

“Father has no feelings for the fish. They’re just something to fatten up as quickly as possible.”

fish farm in the sea at sunset
Photo by Prashant Purbey on

A recurring motif in his thinking is that “the laws of nature rule,” and that they take precedence over man-made laws. “Finding loopholes in tax law is as easy as tying a bow tie,” he thinks to himself. He has numerous side hustles, including alcohol smuggling. He pulls up his secretary’s skirt and is of the opinion that “dirty talk always works, on all women.” He looks down on women, as well as upon Poles and people from Bergen. He eats potato dumplings at Børs Café and sings Johnny Cash in the shower. Finn Jarle Spilde has a relentless urge to work, he makes things happen (“pressing the right buttons is his speciality”), but he is boundless and egocentric all at the same time. He is contrasted in the book with his son, Frode, who has more sympathy for the fish. (“Father has no feelings for the fish. They’re just something to fatten up as quickly as possible,” Frode thinks.) The relationship between father and son is colored by the fact that Finn Jarle Spilde regularly forces his son to give him oral sex.


Tor Moltu references a salmon farmer named Reidar Duun in his novel Collapse (Juul forlag, 2003). “He was always smiling, and his face not only lacked distinctive features but was completely expressionless,” we learn. He has decided to become rich, to become the top salmon farmer in the country. Like Jarle Spilde, Reidar Duun has no particular education but has a “firm belief that experience [is] the way to wealth.” He believes in tenacity rather than smarts and does not see how the world around him is changing, but what he does have is knowledge of some significance, namely “understanding how state financing work.” Moltu presents us with an extensive cast of characters who are using all their cunning to get into the aquaculture industry. Russians with suitcases full of money, financiers, Japanese investors. The Norwegian Minister of Fisheries has its own agenda and sees itself as the “extended arm” of the aquaculture industry. [Read: The Danger of Microfinance]It soon transpires that Reidar Duun wants to acquire facilities belonging to Olav Sand, a smaller farmer who produces organic salmon. Olav Sand lives and breathes for this salmon, he is knowledgeable, a man of habit and a workaholic who refuses to use modern aids such as high-energy salmon feed. He is perceived as a bit unworldly. For example, he has only heard of, but never eaten, sushi. The other players circling his facility believe that he will never be able to make money the way he operates, and we are given an impression of a conflict between traditional, pre-industrial innocence and the capitalist free-for-all depicted by the author.


Rikard is a character in Carl Frode Tiller’s book Encirclement 3 (Aschehoug, 2014). His father, Kåre, has inherited an aquaculture facility on the coast of central Norway, and despite his frugal lifestyle is known as the “salmon king.” Rikard grows up with money and develops different values than his father. He becomes an “aggressive and arrogant ironist,” inspired by the business school environment. He slicks his hair back, reads the business papers, and lives out a yuppie ideal. Eventually, he also becomes a central figure in the capital’s financial sector. His confidence (and money) makes him popular with women. His brother, a more sober sort, describes him as follows: “In his own eyes, he was king and master of the world, and he behaved as if everyone else existed to serve his needs.” After Rikard takes over the company, an unfortunate incident occurs in which he sells eggs and fry infected with a deadly virus to a Latin American country. He then shirks responsibility and downplays the matter. A conflict between Rikard and Kåre lurks beneath the surface. “Have you no shame?” Kåre asks. He is concerned about pollution and environmental destruction, but Rikard dismisses him. “We create jobs. Economic prosperity, growth.”

octagon shaped fish pens in the lake
Photo by Alexey Komissarov on


Torvald Vega is a main character in Lars Lenth’s book The Vega Brothers (Kagge, 2015). He has a faded cowboy hat, designer glasses with steel frames and is described as having “a distinctive, rolling gait, like a pregnant woman.” Before he founded the company “Fjord salmon”, he was a paper carrier and shrimp fisherman, as well as the owner of a hair salon, snack bar and gas station. He forges a career “using creative threats, lucrative special agreements, extensive bribery and the absence of costly security measures.” His facility is situated in a magnificent landscape, but in nature he sees “no beauty, art or mysteries, only obstacles, phenomena and things out to destroy him and business.” Every day, he releases one salmon from the pens into the sea, which gives him “an intoxicating feeling of control over life and death.”

Torvald Vega lives in a house 900 square meters large, “designed by a famous Norwegian architect hated by many for his bad taste and lack of manners but loved by the press and a few others for his eccentric outbursts.” It has columns, marble, archways, a spa area and taxidermized animals from around the world. There is no furniture. Vega’s wife took it with her when she ran away with the architect. Torvald Vega is left alone in the big house, where he watches porn and trundles around on a Segway. When he strolls around his hometown, he nevertheless exhibits an enormous amount of self-confidence. “He puffed out his chest, tipped back his hat and smiled warmly at everyone he passed, thinking about how people turned to look at him, pointed at him and whispered: ‘look, there he goes, the salmon emperor’.” Nepotism in small places is a motif that regularly appears in Norwegian literature. It is also found here. Torvald’s brother, Einar, is the local sheriff, while his other brother, Gunnar, is a fake-tanned, petty criminal bodybuilder with a platinum blonde buzz cut who is also a “fixer”, issuing threats and handling corrupt deals, for the salmon company.


Gabriel Strøm plays a background role in Christer Mjåset’s book The Doctor Who Knew Too Much (Gyldendal, 2019). In one scene, he gestures with his arms in a manner reminiscent of Don Corleone. We find ourselves in Hitra, an island famous for salmon farming, located on the coast of central Norway. A banner from McDonald’s hangs in his office: “Salmon wrap — with fresh salad and salmon from Hitra.” Strøm’s family has switched from traditional fishing to aquaculture, and Gabriel has established himself through acquisitions of salmon farms. He maintains that aquaculture is an uncertain industry, subject to epidemics, lice and market fluctuations, and that in downturns only the most capable succeed (such as himself). The narrator of the book is a doctor from Eastern Norway. Gabriel Strøm tells him: “You people inland live in your own world, while we on the coast keep this country on its feet. Salmon is Norway’s gold.” Strøm believes he creates social good because 15 trucks go from his facility to the markets every day. This also makes it easier to dismiss questions about the working conditions at his company. He says, “You know nothing about running a factory. We’re just as concerned as you are about people not injuring themselves and the fish not polluting.” He, too, showcases his nepotism. “If you think you can come here and cause me trouble, just forget it. I know enough people at the Food Safety Authority to smooth things over if you do something to slow down production.” Aquaculture-era Hitra is depicted as a place with hidden conflicts and dependent relationships linked to losses, debts and lucrative gains in salmon industry. At the same time, this story also has an idealistic farmer. His name is Theodor Strøm, and he was Gabriel, the salmon farmers’ late brother. Theodor was a pioneer when it came to salmon. He wanted to develop the aquaculture industry for the benefit of everyone along the coast but is perceived by others as “annoyingly naïve” as “he didn’t believe in anything other than the good in man.” He is lost at sea, and towards the end of the book it is suggested that the more cynical brother got rid of him in order to take control of the company they both own. Idealism loses, once again.

This is an edited translation of an essay originally published on March 1, 2022 in Vinduet.

SIMEN SAETRE is a journalist and author born in 1974. His most recent publication is The New Fish (co-authored by Kjetil Østli; Spartacus, 2021). An English translation of the book was recently published by Patagonia Books.Follow Simen on Twitter

gray and silver school of fish underwater photography
Photo by Peter Simmons on

SIÂN MACKIE is a translator of Scandinavian literature into English. They have translated a wide range of works, from young adult and children’s literature—including Bjarne Reuter’s Eliseand theSecond-hand Dog, which was nominated for the 2019 CILIP Carnegie Medal, and Ingunn Thon’s A Postcard to Ollis, which was nominated for the same prize for 2021—to thrillers and non-fiction.

The Dial is a nonprofit organization sustained by a community of dedicated readers. We rely upon support from our readers to ensure that The Dial is a lasting journalistic and literary institution.

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