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.

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  • This morning we had some great news in British Columbia. The Fraser River sockeye salmon run is predicted to reach 25 million, not seen since 1913. Last year, the Federal government launched an inquiry into the reason for the paltry return for the past several years. Only half a million salmon reached the Fraser in 2009. We’re all wondering why the fish have returned in such great numbers this year. Whatever the reason, it is cause for celebration.

    But a story tacked on this one has me worried. A fisher in the Strait of Georgia said he would have been thrilled to catch 500 salmon in a day. Apparently his nets took in more than 150 times that number! I can hear the likely argument in my mind. “If I don’t take them, someone else will.” The fish may come and go, but greed is always with us.

    There is an argument for harvesting many of the fish (30% is the quota I’ve heard for this year). Apparently there may be insufficient space for all of them to spawn. Was this a problem a century ago?

    There is concern that the infrastructure is not in place to make use of this glut. After all, we haven’t seen such numbers for a century. I’m annoyed when I imagine some may end up as food for offshore farmed salmon!

    Finally, I worry that this large return will undermine very real concerns that habitat degradation, climate change, effect of farmed fish on health of wild salmon, and increased fishing pressure have contributed to the poor returns seen in previous years. We will need to carefully listen to the science and watch salmon returns over the next several years. But right now, I plan to enjoy the bounty.

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