Monthly Archives: May 2010

Salmon farming: the real dispute

The Get Out Migration march in April and May of 2010 in which thousands of people walked from points between Echo Bay in the Broughton Archipelago to the steps of the British Columbia legislature in Victoria, British Columbia, is yet another chapter in the long crusade against marine net-cage feedlots in western Canada. Led by biologist Alexandra Morton, the marchers and the watching crowds represented commercial and sport fishermen, First Nations, businesspeople, organizations, residents, scientists, government employees and pretty much everyone else with a connection to salmon and other resources in one of Canada‘s richest resource regions. Their goal was plainly stated: to make a stand against the perceived biological and social threat and commerce of the industrial marine feedlots which dot the north-eastern and western coast line of Vancouver Island. The campaigners hold that marine feedlots are a threat to wild salmon populations by intensifying diseases, depleting valuable fishery resources [which make up the feed for the caged fish], privatizing ocean spaces and threatening sovereign rights to food security.

The salmon aquaculture industry in B.C. developed from ten operating farms in 1984 to a peak of 135 farms in 1989, and today number about 130. Marine feedlots hold a variety of finfish species, mainly Atlantic, Chinook and Coho salmon, as well as smaller numbers of black cod and halibut. Through rationalization and consolidation, the number of companies holding aquaculture licenses has declined from 50 in 1989 to 12 today. Especially irksome to the campaigners against net-famed salmon is the fact that more than 90% of the farmed salmon are held by just three large Norwegian companies – Marine Harvest, Cremaq and Grieg Seafood.

Salmon diseases are a major issue of concern for the anti-fish farm brigades. They point to fish diseases such as ectoparasitic sea-lice, infectious hematopoietic necrosis and infectious salmon anaemia [both viral diseases] which are known to occur in penned salmon and which are potentially highly infective for migrating wild salmon passing near salmon farms. They point to big drops in runs of Fraser River sockeye salmon, Broughton Archipelago pink salmon and Clayoquot Sound chinook salmon in recent years, and find significant correlations between these phenomena and the presence of nearby salmon farms. They point too to correlations between the presence of net-penned salmon along the coastlines of Ireland, Scotland and Norway, on one hand, and outbreaks of salmon lice infestation in wild salmon passing through marine waters close to these pens, on the other.

But the government agencies responsible for regulating salmon farming in B.C. coastal waters don’t quite see things the same way. The Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans cites agency research to demonstrate that marked periodic fluctuations in numbers have long been a feature of pink salmon runs, and in fact pre-date the introduction of salmon farms to the area. Their data show that pink salmon populations in this region are highly variable and cyclical in nature. There have been years when pink salmon abundance was extremely low, and these years were followed by a gradual increase to very high abundance. They observe that sea lice existed on wild salmon for tens of thousands of years before the first salmon farm was ever established in Canada. They cite ongoing departmental research which shows that the levels of sea lice found in wild Pacific salmon in the Broughton Archipelago have declined each year since 2004. And anyway, they say, sea lice levels are controlled on salmon farms to levels which take the risk to fish outside the farm to negligible levels.

The provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Lands weighs in with the view that its comprehensive health management program for salmon aquaculture is based on a precautionary approach, and that regular monitoring consistently shows that B.C.’s aquaculture industry upholds a high level of environmental standards and is serious about co-existing with wild salmon stocks. Monitoring thus far has identified no new diseases that had not already been reported in wild, hatchery-reared or research salmonids in B.C.

Now, how can this be? On one hand, a deeply concerned and unquestionably committed community with a vested interest in the well-being of salmon; on the other hand, groups of professional biologists, veterinarians and experienced fishery resource managers, all looking at the same issue and coming up with radically different conclusions. It’s not a unique situation. Consider the similarly wide distances [and emotionally-generated rancour] between protagonists and antagonists of other thorny issues like climate change or the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. Different themes, same problems.

Three observations can be made by the dispassionate observer, if indeed there be such a thing where salmon in British Columbia are concerned, which may help unravel the problem. The first is that neither side in the salmon farm dispute can prove conclusively that they are right and the other is wrong in terms of the impacts of salmon farms on wild salmonid populations. Neither side has ever seen wild salmon in large numbers actually dying of sea-lice or a viral disease. When tribesmen in East Africa reach the conclusion that their cattle herds have been decimated by drought, they do so while standing on a grassy, waterless plain surrounded by the carcasses of hundreds of their dead cattle. Such certainty does not exist in the B.C. marine environment. Sick and dead salmon are rapidly consumed in the depths and are removed from human view. What biologists and salmon farmers in fact see are relatively small numbers of fish in a sample haul, or larger numbers of farmed fish inside a net pen. They have to project, through calculations, correlations and complicated mathematical models, from their observations to the population at large in the sea, which is mostly out of sight and out of reach. They do so in the knowledge that the factors they measure, be they the numbers of sea lice on a caught salmon or the condition of the caught fish are but a few amongst many environmental and population factors which affect salmon in their life cycle from stream to seas again. Fisheries biologist Brian Harvey waded through all available reports on sea-lice and salmon and came to five conclusions – salmon farms produce large numbers of sea louse larvae; encounters between farm-produced larvae and salmon cannot yet be observed [but are completely plausible biologically]; the percentage of sea lice on wild salmon that come from salmon farms can’t be quantified; the role of alternate [not from salmon farms] sources of sea lice is not yet understood nor quantified; and understanding the direct link between sea lice from salmon farms and wild salmon populations will be a “lively” area of research.

The second observation is that the arguments over diseases and impacts of farmed salmon on wild salmon may be important to scientists and local communities, but are small beer in relation to real economics. The Canadian aquaculture industry is a major food production segment of the national economy, generating more than $1 billion in GDP in Canada in 2007, more than $320 million in direct GDP and about $685 million in spin-off business. It is responsible for an estimated 14,500 full-time equivalent jobs, many of them in coastal and rural communities in Canada. In British Columbia, salmon farming is the province’s largest agricultural export, and generates $800 million in economic output annually and provides employment for 6,000 men and women in direct and supply and service jobs, many in coastal communities where other opportunities are limited. This level of economic activity obviously generates a commensurate amount of political weight.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the two sides in the dispute are really contesting something much deeper rooted than sea-lice or fouled water. These are just focal points for the polemic. For the coastal communities, the fishermen, the First Nations bands and the marchers on Victoria, wild salmon are not just fish. They are a symbol of place in the northwest, a marker of the community of individuals, enterprises and organizations committed to live in a way that strengthens local and regional economies, sustains the natural abundance of resources, and provides a nurturing for the spirit. For them, salmon are food, a basis for commerce and a vital source of nutrition for the land. For the salmon-farming industry, the fish have become just a corporate-produced commodity, akin to broiler-reared chickens or monocultured corn spread across the prairies, generating huge amounts of food, cash flows and corporate profits. The one view deals with resource communities as they were and as we might choose them, the other best befits the future beset by distant and burgeoning global populations who need the food, know little about the Salmon Nation, and in fact care not a whit about it.

Climate change indicators

by Stan Hirst

The evidence of human influences on climate change has become increas­ingly clear and compelling over the last several decades There is now convincing evidence that human activities such as electricity pro­duction and transportation are adding to the concen­trations of greenhouse gases that are already naturally present in the atmosphere. These heat-trapping gases are now at record-high levels in the atmosphere com­pared with the recent and distant past.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently published Climate Change Indicators in the United States to help the concerned public readers interpret a set of important indicators  for climate change. The report presents 24 indicators, each describing trends in some way related to the causes and effects of climate change. The indicators focus primarily on the United States, but in some cases global trends are presented in order to provide context or a basis for comparison.  The following is a brief summary of the report’s contents.

Greenhouse Gases

Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Worldwide, emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities increased by 26 percent from 1990 to 2005. Emissions of carbon dioxide, which account for nearly three-fourths of the total, increased by 31 percent over this period. The majority of the world’s emissions are associated with energy use.

Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases. Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have risen substantially since the beginning of the industrial era. Almost all of this increase is attributable to human activities. Histori­cal measurements show that the current levels of many greenhouse gases are higher than any seen in thousands of years, even after accounting for natural fluctuations.

Climate Forcing. From 1990 to 2008, the radiative forcing of all the greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere increased by about 26 percent. The rise in carbon dioxide concentrations accounts for approximately 80 percent of this increase. Radiative forcing is a way to measure how substances such as greenhouse gases affect the amount of energy that is absorbed by the atmosphere – an increase in radiative forcing leads to warming while a decrease in forcing produces cool­ing.

Weather and Climate

U.S. and Global Temperature. Average temperatures have risen across the lower 48 states since 1901, with an increased rate of warming over the past 30 years. Parts of the North, the West, and Alaska have seen temperatures increase the most. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the lower 48 states have occurred since 1990, and the last 10 five-year periods have been the warmest five-year periods on record. Average global temperatures show a similar trend, and 2000–2009 was the warmest decade on record worldwide.

Heat Waves. The frequency of heat waves in the United States decreased in the 1960s and 1970s, but has risen steadily since then. The percentage of the United States experi­encing heat waves has also increased. The most severe heat waves in U.S. history remain those that occurred during the “Dust Bowl” in the 1930s, although average temperatures have increased since then.

Drought. Over the period from 2001 through 2009, roughly 30 to 60 percent of the U.S. land area experienced drought conditions at any given time. However, the data for this indicator have not been collected for long enough to determine whether droughts are increasing or decreasing over time.

U.S. and Global Precipitation. Average precipitation has increased in the United States and worldwide. Since 1901, precipitation has increased at an average rate of more than 6 percent per century in the lower 48 states and nearly 2 percent per century worldwide. However, shifting weather patterns have caused certain areas, such as Hawaii and parts of the Southwest, to experience less precipitation than they used to.

Heavy Precipitation. In recent years, a higher percentage of precipitation in the United States has come in the form of intense single-day events. Eight of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990. The occurrence of ab­normally high annual precipitation totals has also increased.

Tropical Cyclone Intensity. The intensity of tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico did not exhibit a strong long-term trend for much of the 20th century, but has risen noticeably over the past 20 years. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s. This increase is closely related to variations in sea surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic.


Ocean Heat. Several studies have shown that the amount of heat stored in the ocean has increased substantially since the 1950s. Ocean heat content not only determines sea surface temperature, but it also affects sea level and currents.

Sea Surface Temperature. The surface temperature of the world’s oceans increased over the 20th century. Even with some year-to-year variation, the overall increase is statisti­cally significant, and sea surface temperatures have been higher during the past three decades than at any other time since large-scale measurement began in the late 1800s.

Sea Level. When averaged over all the world’s oceans, sea level has increased at a rate of roughly six-tenths of an inch per decade since 1870. The rate of increase has accelerated in recent years to more than an inch per decade. Changes in sea level relative to the height of the land vary widely because the land itself moves. Along the U.S. coastline, sea level has risen the most relative to the land along the Mid-Atlantic coast and parts of the Gulf Coast. Sea level has decreased relative to the land in parts of Alaska and the Northwest.

Ocean Acidity. The ocean has become more acidic over the past 20 years, and studies suggest that the ocean is substantially more acidic now than it was a few centuries ago. Rising acidity is associated with increased levels of carbon dioxide dissolved in the water. Changes in acidity can affect sensitive organisms such as corals.

Snow & Ice

Arctic Sea Ice. Part of the Arctic Ocean stays frozen year-round. The area covered by ice is typically smallest in September, after the summer melting season. September 2007 had the least ice of any year on record, followed by 2008 and 2009. The extent of Arctic sea ice in 2009 was 24 percent below the 1979 to 2000 historical average.

Glaciers. Glaciers in the United States and around the world have generally shrunk since the 1960s, and the rate at which glaciers are melting appears to have accelerated over the last decade. Overall, glaciers worldwide have lost more than 2,000 cubic miles of water since 1960, which has contributed to the observed rise in sea level.

Lake Ice. Lakes in the northern United States generally appear to be freezing later and thawing earlier than they did in the 1800s and early 1900s. The length of time that lakes stay frozen has decreased at an average rate of one to two days per decade.

Snow Cover. The portion of North America covered by snow has generally decreased since 1972, although there has been much year-to-year variability. Snow covered an average of 3.18 million square miles of North America during the years 2000 to 2008, compared with 3.43 million square miles during the 1970s.

Snowpack. Between 1950 and 2000, the depth of snow on the ground in early spring decreased at most measurement sites in the western United States and Canada. Spring snowpack declined by more than 75 percent in some areas, but increased in a few others.

Society & Ecosystems

Heat-Related Deaths. Over the past three decades, more than 6,000 deaths across the United States were caused by heat-related illness such as heat stroke. However, consider­able year-to-year variability makes it difficult to determine long-term trends.

Length of Growing Season. The average length of the growing season in the lower 48 states has increased by about two weeks since the beginning of the 20th century. A particularly large and steady increase has occurred over the last 30 years. The observed changes reflect earlier spring warming as well as later arrival of fall frosts. The length of the growing season has increased more rapidly in the West than in the East.

Plant Hardiness Zones. Winter low temperatures are a major factor in determining which plants can survive in a particular area. Plant hardiness zones have shifted noticeably northward since 1990, reflecting higher winter temperatures in most parts of the country. Large portions of several states have warmed by at least one hardiness zone.

Leaf and Bloom Dates. The timing of natural events such as leaf growth and flower blooms are influenced by climate change. Observations of lilacs and honeysuck­les in the lower 48 states indicate that leaf growth is now occurring a few days earlier than it did in the early 1900s. Lilacs and honeysuckles are also blooming slightly earlier than in the past, but it is difficult to determine whether this change is statistically meaningful.

Bird Wintering Ranges. Some birds shift their range or alter their migration habits to adapt to changes in temperature or other environmental conditions. Long-term stud­ies have found that bird species in North America have shifted their wintering grounds northward by an average of 35 miles since 1966, with a few species shifting by several hundred miles. On average, bird species have also moved their wintering grounds farther from the coast, consistent with rising inland temperatures.

Climate-change denialism

by Stan Hirst

A 2010 series of public opinion polls reveal that 58% of Canadians consider global warming to be real and mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities. By comparison, only 41% of Americans and 38% of British citizens think this. A further 17% of Canadians think that global warming is indeed a fact, but that it is mostly caused by natural changes (the corresponding figures for the U.S.A. and Britain are 20% and 26%). That leaves a quarter of the Canadian population with either no opinion at all or the view that climate change is theoretical and without any proof. A disturbing 39% of Americans and 36% of Brits fall into this category.

Why do such a lot of people find it so difficult to accept something which many others consider one of the most serious problems the planet has ever faced? Effective and persistent deliberate misinformation by the energy industry is one very obvious reason.  Deep suspicion on the part of conservative people of climate-change views expressed widely and forcibly by others considered liberal or just plain radical is a second likely major factor. Perceived overstatement of the consequences of climate change has not helped credibility of the climate change lobby.

George Marshall of the British-based Climate Outreach and Information Network has analysed public attitudes towards climate change and finds several similarities to attitudes towards other unpleasant realties in life. He quotes Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics Stanley Cohen who uses the term passive bystander effect. This describes societies who are faced with conflicts between  a moral impera­tive to take action and a need to rather protect themselves and their families. Cohen suggests that people deliberately maintain a level of ignorance so that they can claim they know less than they do. They exaggerate their own powerlessness and wait indefi­nitely for someone else to act first. Societies negotiate collective strategies to avoid action. They arrive at unwrit­ten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged, and what cannot.

This all sounds a bit severe, but Dr. Kari Norgaard of  Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, ­has reached similar conclusions, and believes that denial [of climate change] is a social construct. Based on her research in Norway, she believes people to be deeply conflicted about cli­mate change, but they manage their anxiety and guilt by excluding it from the cul­tural norms which define what they should pay attention to and think about – their “norms of attention.” People accordingly and tacitly agree that it is socially inappropriate to pay attention to cli­mate change, so it does not come up in conversations, as an issue in voting, or in consumption or career choices. It’s a bit like a committee that has decided to avoid a thorny problem by conspir­ing to make sure that it never makes it onto the agenda of any meeting.

Marshall notes that there are many different ways that the proximity of climate change could force itself onto our agendas. We already feel the impacts in our immediate environment. Scientists and [some] politicians urge us to act. The impacts directly threaten our personal and local livelihoods. And, above all, we realize that it is our consumption and affluence that is causing the problem. However, people have decided that they can keep climate change outside their “norms of attention” through a selective framing that creates the maximum distance. Thus they define it as far away (“it’s a global problem, not a local problem”) or far in the future (“it’s a huge problem for future generations”). They embrace the tiny cluster of sceptics as evidence that “it’s only a theory,” and that “there is still a debate.” And they strategically shift the causes as far away as possible: “I’m not the problem—it’s the Chinese, the rich people, the corporations, whatever.” Europeans (and Canadians) routinely blame the Americans.

People seem to have selected, isolated, and then exaggerated the aspects of climate change that best enable their detachment. And, ironically, focus-group research suggests that people are able to create the most distance when climate change is categorized as an “environmental” problem, not a social or an economic one.