As a result of climate change, overfishing and the acidification of the ocean, the North Atlantic salmon is facing extinction. Open-pen farming – a process where hundreds of thousands of fish are contained in large cages and nets, which has been dramatically scaled up in Iceland since 2000 – is making this problem even worse. The pollution involved is wreaking untold havoc on the wider ecosystem, while ‘genetic mixing’ between the fish that inevitably escape and the surviving wild salmon threatens to wipe out the latter entirely.
But fortunately for Iceland’s salmon population, something important is about to happen. Björk and Rosalía have teamed up to release a single, the proceeds of which will help the residents of Seyðisfjörður (a town in the east of Iceland) take legal action against open-pen farming in their region. “Oral”, which Björk first recorded in the late 1990s and then lost for over two decades, is an uplifting pop song with a dancehall beat and a searching, euphoric chorus. It’s not about salmon, but it is buoyant and optimistic, which makes it the perfect soundtrack for a campaign that Björk is confident will be victorious. Below, we speak to the legendary Icelandic singer about why the open-pen farming issue is so serious, collaborating with Rosalía, and what kind of sea creature she would like to be.
Could you tell us what’s happening with salmon farming in Iceland and why it’s such a problem?
Björk: Iceland is still the largest untouched nature area in Europe, so we feel like the responsible guardians for that area. It’s like our pyramids. We have farmed the sheep in the same way for 1,000 years: they live in the summertime for four months, when they are free in the highlands, and then every September, we all go to the centre of the island and herd them into houses, where they have a lot more space than in factory farming. So we have always had this idea of ourselves that we would never succumb to animal abuse in that way; it’s part of our identity.
Then around ten years ago, open-pen fish farming started in Iceland, but there wasn’t much of it. We were all watching it, but at first we were like ‘hmm, OK, well this is giving jobs to villages, whatever, it can’t be that evil.’ But then a report came out this May, which showed that not only was it as bad as we thought it was, it was ten times worse. Basically, there are these genetically altered salmon from Norway. Their bones are designed to grow three times faster than they are supposed to, so not only are they in a lot of pain, but 60 per cent of them are disfigured – literally like Frankenstein or the fish in The Simpsons. Their skin is falling off, and 20 per cent of them die in the net because the conditions are so horrid. There’s a huge sea lice problem, so they have to use an enormous amount of insect poison, along with antibiotics and other chemicals, which is evil both for the fish and the whole fjord.
The people behind this are two Norwegian billionaires. Maybe a few people in Iceland get jobs out of it, but the majority of the money goes to them. They tried to do the same in Norway around ten years ago, but the regulations there became a lot stricter because of the devastating consequences. So that’s when they said, ‘let’s just go to Iceland, because there’s no regulations there.’
Why is it such a big problem when these fish escape, and why is this happening?
Björk: There are people in Norway who are supposed to attend the fishing nets every 60 days – that is a legal requirement. But 94 days had gone by without them even looking at the nets, and there were huge holes in them. There is a light they always have on in open-pen fish farms, so that the fish think it’s summer all the time, even when it’s winter. But it was broken, or they didn’t turn it on, so the fish thought ‘oh, it’s winter, I should go and swim up all the rivers and make babies.’
So in September, thousands of these Frankenstein freaks went off into all the rivers of Iceland, and we basically had to get scuba divers with harpoons trying to shoot them down. There have already been some children of the two species, and because of the bone disfigurement, this causes a lot of problems. But we have talked to scientists here in Iceland, and one of the good things about this battle is that we think we can reverse it.
How are people fighting back against this?
Björk: All of the horror scenery I’ve just been describing is in the Westfjords, but in the Eastfjords, there is a beautiful town called Seyðisfjörður, and there’s a couple of venture capitalists who want to start open-pen fish farms there. The majority of people there have protested this, but it’s like they don’t have a voice legally. So they’ve started a court case, and that’s what the proceeds from the song will go towards. Hopefully, we will win, even if it takes three years or whatever, and it will become an exemplary case – for all the other fjords and even elsewhere in the world. The one thing we hope will help us to win, which has been winning elsewhere, is the issue of biodiversity: open-pen fish farming is basically killing all the other species in the fjord, because it’s just one species taking over.
This single is a lost song from over two decades ago, so it’s not literally about the environment or fish farming. But was there something about it that made you think it was a good fit for this campaign? How did you end up choosing it?
Björk: I wrote this song between Homogenic  and Vespertine . It was too poppy and didn’t really fit either of those albums so I put it on salt, and because we didn’t have laptops then, the analogue master tapes were archived. Every three years, I would remember the song and ask my manager to go look for it, but he could never find it because I kept giving him the wrong name.
Then last March, I was in a hotel room in Australia, and there was this huge court case being covered on CNN. It was some aristocrat in the USA who had had a sex scandal and they were debating, ‘was it oral or not oral?’ I just saw that word ‘oral’, and after 23 years I was like, ‘ohh! That’s the name of the song!’ So I texted my manager and the next day he sent it over to me.
Then the report came out which showed how evil open-pen fish farming is, so I decided to release the song and give the profits to the fight against it. But I thought re-singing the vocals would be a bit weird, because they have a kind of nostalgic mood and I don’t think you should try to replicate that. I decided it would be better to have a guest who can represent the present-day. Because the song has kind of a dance-hall beat, I thought, what about Rosalía? She’s been doing experimental reggaeton, and I suppose dancehall is the grandmother of reggaeton. I thought her voice would be beautiful, so I texted her – we’ve known each other for a few years – and she immediately said yes.
What do you admire about Rosalía as an artist?
Björk: Obviously, she’s an incredible singer. I remember when her first album came out I was just blown away by her voice and her commitment to training it. She’s an acoustic singer, not just a pop singer – does that make sense? It’s a different type of singing – you can fill up a room without using a microphone. It’s like the difference between a cello and an electric guitar, and Rosalía can do both, she can also do the pop thing.
“I was just blown away by [Rosalía’s] voice and her commitment to training it. She’s an acoustic singer, not just a pop singer – does that make sense? [...] It’s like the difference between a cello and an electric guitar, and Rosalía can do both” – Björk
You’ve been involved in climate activism for a long time, are you working on anything else related to the climate crisis at the moment?
Björk: In the 90s, I got invited to do charity events a few times, and maybe because I’m so used to Iceland, I thought: if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to do this my way; I’m going to focus on Iceland, in a ‘think globally, act locally’ kind of way, and I’m going to have to see it to the end. Ever since then, I’ve always tried to pick one subject matter that is very topical, maybe every other year or so. I guess by now there are around 20 cases that we have fought.
I have always tried to choose a case where we knew we could win. So it’s about picking a smaller battle, but then following it through all the way to the end and not stopping until it’s done. And I have the luxury of being in Iceland with 390,000 people or something, so often you know the politician, or you can just walk across the street and you know that this uncle is the brother of this fish farmer or whatever – which can be a bit much sometimes, but in this case, it’s actually amazing.
If you had to be one sea creature, what would you be?
Björk: Wow, I can think of one. What are they called, sea slugs? Let me google it, because it’s called something way fancier than sea slug. They’re really colourful [she googles it]. Nudibranch – they’re hot!
And why would you choose to be a nudibranch?
Björk: Well, the outfits – come on! Have you seen them? Maybe I might 3D print a nudibranch outfit for Halloween.