Tag Archives: fisheries

The B.C. salmon farming conundrum

An overview

by Stan Hirst

The 21st century has brought the planet an extraordinary share of environmental conundrums. Think ozone layer, climate change, outbreaks of vector-borne diseases and dumping of plastic litter on a global scale.

What makes them “conundrums“? Several reasons, but the stand-out is the underlying conflict between two very different systems. One is our social addiction to widespread exploitation of natural resources to support our burgeoning populations and lifestyles. The other is a desperate attempt to conserve what is left of our natural ecosystems and to protect them against increasing, often overwhelming, levels of exploitation. The critical element in this conflict is that the two processes – exploitation and conservation – are promoted by two different segments of society with widely differing philosophies and views on ecosystem resources.

British Columbia has its share of these, plus a few more like the proliferation of fossil fuel pipelines, increasing incidences of forest fires, and the pervasive loss of productive agricultural lands. One conundrum, however, has a particular regional west coast theme – the proliferation and impacts of marine-based salmon farms.

Marine salmon farming began in B.C. on a commercial basis in the 1970s. Most farms were initially sited along the Sunshine Coast and on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The 1980s saw expansion of the industry into waters near Campbell River, Sayward and Port McNeill. As the industry became established it adaptively managed its operations and upgraded pens, equipment and technology through the 1990s and on to the present.

Today, about 75 salmon farms are in production along B.C.’s southern coasts. An estimated 76,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon are grown annually. B.C. salmon farmers grow 60% of all salmon raised in Canada, the production contributing approximately $1.2 billion per year to the province’s economy and accounting for about 5000 jobs, most in rural coastal areas. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon is now B.C.’s highest valued seafood product and the province’s top agricultural export (sales over $400 million in 2015) going to 11 countries (85% to the USA and about 15% to Asian markets).

Shortly after the arrival of open-net pen salmon farms in B.C. (mid-1980s), sockeye salmon populations, in particular the famed Fraser River runs, began to decline and have continued to do so for most of the past 20 years.

A diverse and vocal lobby of aquatic ecologists, conservationists, salmon fishermen and First Nations coastal communities have pinned much of the blame for the declines of wild salmon on the siting of salmon farms. Many open-net pens holding very dense numbers of Atlantic salmon and other species lie in close proximity to the traditional coastal migration routes followed by wild sockeye and chinook runs.

Marine and estuarine water currents flow freely through the pens, allowing wastes, chemicals and pathogens to move freely back and forth. Specific concerns mentioned frequently by fish-farm opponents include:

  • the ease of disease transmission and sea lice infestations from captive to wild fish;
  • conflicts between salmon farms and marine mammals like seals and sea-lions;
  • pollution from large and concentrated volumes of manure released from fish pens into the marine environment;
  • escapes of non-native fish, and the displacement of local fishermen;
  • concern for B.C.’s wild salmon fishing, a $1.4 billion growth industry.

Opponents further point out that research in the United Kingdom and Norway has also identified declines of wild salmonids in the presence of farmed salmon pens.

Additional objections to the marine farming of Atlantic salmon have followed. One concern is the impact on stocks of other marine fish which are harvested as a source of feedstock. For a farmed salmon industry the size of that in B.C. an estimated 6 billion forage fish need to be harvested to bring one crop of farmed salmon to harvest. By one estimate 19 of the top 20 global forage fish stocks have been fished to near depletion levels for the manufacture of feed for farmed salmon.

More recently, health concerns have been raised regarding the composition of farmed salmon as a human food source. Whereas wild salmon eats other organisms found in its natural environment, farmed salmon is given a processed high-fat feed in order to produce larger fish. The result is that farmed Atlantic salmon have double the fat and saturated fat contents of wild Pacific salmon, and can absorb marine and other toxins in the high-fat content flesh.

Naturally the well-organized and well-funded interests which own and manage B.C.’s salmon farming industry have reacted to the allegations with vigour.

On the fish disease transmission issue they point out that viruses present in B.C. farm-raised salmon are all naturally occurring in the Pacific Ocean, are not harmful to fish and are not a risk to human health. They concede that, since farmed fish are kept in very high densities, some viruses pose health risks to farmed salmon. Farmed fish health is consequently monitored regularly by farm company veterinarians and by federal and provincial agencies.

Specifically, they point out that:

  • thousands of screenings of wild, hatchery-raised, and farm-raised salmon have been completed in B.C., Alaska and Washington State, none of which has confirmed the presence of any exotic fish viruses or diseases;
  • salmon producing members of the BC Salmon Framers Association have developed a viral outbreak management plan to provide a quick and decisive industry-wide response if a virus of concern is ever detected in any B.C. salmon farm.
  • farmers participate in viral monitoring programs run by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) .

Since the early 1990s the Fraser sockeye returns had become increasingly unpredictable and by 2009 returns had reached low levels for the third consecutive year. Consequently the fishery was closed that year. It was generally conceded that fishing alone was not the cause of the decline. Levels of concern and political intensity reached a point sufficient to spur the federal government to action. They chose the classic bureaucratic response to a difficult situation – they appointed a commission of enquiry. On November 6, 2009 the Canadian Minister of International Trade announced a federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. This became known as the Cohen Commission after its head, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.

The Commission sat for 133 days of hearings, considered 573,381 documents (98% from the Government of Canada) containing more than 3 million pages, held 133 days of hearings, heard 892 public submissions and from 95 lawyers, granted standing to 21 participants and groups, generated 14,166 pages of transcripts, produced a 1191 page final report, and ran up a tab of $26 million dollars. It generated 75 recommendations of which 11 related to reducing impact of salmon farms on wild sockeye stocks.

Out of this huge mass of information, accusations, counter-accusations, analysis and reviews Justice Cohen drew the conclusions that “the potential harm posed to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farms is serious or irreversible. Disease transfer occurs between wild and farmed fish, and I am satisfied that salmon farms along the sockeye migration route have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to exacerbate endemic diseases that could have a negative impact on Fraser sockeye stocks”.

Justice Cohen put forward 75 recommendations on dealing with the declining Fraser River salmon fishery. Eleven of these dealt specifically with the relationships between wild salmon and salmon farming (available in abridged form at this link). As of the end of 2016, i.e. a little over 4 years since acceptance of the Commission report, DFO has reported implementation of 9 of the 11 recommendations, some progress on one (prohibition of salmon farming in the Discovery Islands) and disagreement with one (mandate of DFO to promote salmon farming).

So where do we stand now, after nearly 40 years of penned salmon farming along the B.C. coast? I would say squarely in the middle of the conundrum.

On one side: the salmon farming industry in B.C. is now well entrenched federally and provincially, economically and politically. Failing any major financial, economic, political or ecological change, it will continue to operate as an important agro-industry.

On the other side: none of the major concerns expressed by conservationists, salmon fishermen, First Nations, scientists and anglers on the issues surrounding net-penned salmon (impacts on wild salmon, marine pollution, impacts on marine ecosystems, suitability as safe seafood for humans, etc.) seem to have been satisfactorily resolved.

Maybe we’ve arrived at an “I’m right and you’re an idiot” phase?

I look forward to some enlightening Elder resolution………



Report on Coast Salish Culture Day

by Peggy Olive

Mahan Hall on Salt Spring Island was standing room only for the Coast Salish Culture Day this past Sunday, February 21st. The large turnout, including dozens of captivated children, was a welcome surprise for organizer, Joe Akerman, and the local First Nations band members who attended and performed for each other and island residents. We were warmed by horsetail, nettle, and mint tea and by the energetic dancing and drumming of the Cowichan Tzinquaw dancers. Hul’qumi’num and Sencoten elders recounted stories and told of the changes that had occurred in their traditional territories and in their lifestyles in less than one generation. “We used to harvest clams and oysters, put up our tents on this island, and make clam patties. The land looked after us. We were a wealthy people.”

This memory of digging for clams in the 1940s brought forth an elder story about five clams sitting in the forest on a log. When a blue jay flew over, the clams told him that the other jays were saying that his feathers were dull. The blue jay went back to the other jays and complained to them. A bear came by the log, and the clams told him the other bears did not think much of him. That bear went back to the other bears and began to argue with them. Soon all the animals were arguing until they noticed that the clams were laughing and not fighting with each other. When they realized what had happened, the animals took all the clams to the beach and buried them in a deep hole in the sand so that when they spoke, their mouths would become filled with sand. When you hear clams bubble under the sand, they are talking about you.

We heard about reef net fishing, or sxwalu, a sustainable way of harvesting salmon that was once common practice among the Coastal Salish bands and which distinguished them as a people. In 1915, reef net fishing was outlawed in Canada. Now, for the first time in 100 years and with support of the Lummi nation in the San Juan Islands, reef nets were constructed and used at a traditional fishing site near Pender Island. Unfortunately, thanks to our warmer weather, the fish took a different route in 2015, away from the stationary reef nets. Nick Claxton who leads this effort, provided a model and description of the practice along with a full-scale reef net spread over the adjacent school playing field. An important distinction was made about this practice: “This is not about who we were but who we are.”reefnet

The day was rounded out with a salmon and bannock traditional lunch, a cedar weaving workshop, a talk on aboriginal resurgence, and music by Wesley Hardisty. We were promised a larger venue next year.

Nuclear Fishin?

by Peggy Olive

The July 19, 2012 issue of Georgia Straight featured a full-page cover graphic showing a cartoon of three-eyed mutant fish cleverly entitled, Nuclear Fishin’. According to the article, high radiation levels in some Pacific Ocean fish have created concern among doctors at B.C. universities. Should we be worried about the health effects of consuming fish from Japan or fish that migrate here from Japan?

Sixteen months after the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, the average level of radioactive cesium in fish from Japan had risen from 5 becquerels per kilogram to 65 Bq/kg. We are told that Japan’s official limit for radioactive cesium in food is 100 Bq/kg. Radioactivity in about 10% of the fish species, some exported to Canada this spring, may have exceeded this limit.

The cesium action level is the level above which food is no longer considered safe for human consumption so that action must be taken to prevent consumption. This level is ten times higher in Canada and elsewhere than in Japan. Why the difference?

According to Yomiuri Online (Dec. 25, 2011), action levels were recently set much lower in Japan in order to ensure the public’s safety and provide reassurance. Do you feel reassured to know that fish considered safe to eat last year is now considered contaminated? This article also goes on to say that the planned tightening of the limits is puzzling local government officials who are charged with monitoring radioactive cesium in food.

There is a good reason behind the choice of 1000 Bq/kg cesium as the action level for our food set by Health Canada and most other international advisory and national regulatory bodies. The cesium action level of 1000 Bq/kg in foodstuffs translates, with a few reasonable assumptions, to a dose to a person of about 5 milli-Sieverts per year. There is international consensus that exposure to 5 mSv in a year is acceptable because we already receive a natural background dose of ionizing radiation of similar magnitude and because no actions have been recommended for avoiding exposure from other natural sources at doses of 5 mSv or less. Radiation workers have an exposure limit of 20 mSv per year, and medical diagnostic procedures like CT scans can produce exposures in excess of 10 mSv.

What can we expect from exposure to 5 mSv? There are recognized limitations in trying to predict health effects from chronic radiation exposures below about 50 mSv (Brenner et al.,Proc. Nat’l. Acad. Sci, 2003). However, acceptable estimates can be made by extrapolating information on cancer risks observed after higher doses. If a population of 10,000 individuals receives 5 mSv, this would be expected to result in an additional two cancer deaths on top of a background of about 2000 cancer deaths in that population. Should we worry if we consume fish that contains 65 Bq/kg cesium radiation? Based on the above numbers, we could expect perhaps one additional cancer in 100,000 people who consume this fish. In my view, the protection afforded by avoiding food with more than1000 Bq/kg cesium is adequate.

Recently, small but measurable levels of radioactivity were found in endangered bluefin tuna that migrated from Japan to the California coast last summer (Madigan et al., Proc. Nat’l Acad. Sci. 2012). The World Health Organization had previously reported that there was no reason for concern about seafood safety outside of Japan. Even though levels of radioactive cesium in the California tuna were 200 times below our action level, the presence of even trace amounts of radioactivity still stimulated concern about whether the tuna was safe to consume. Increasing the risk of developing a radiation-induced cancer by 5% would require eating over 40 tons of this tuna!

In spite of the lack of health concerns with the current action levels in place, fear of eating radioactive fish is widespread and disproportionate to risk. An article in Forbes quotes one of the PNAS study’s coauthors as saying, “My first thought was this will do more for the conservation of this endangered animal (bluefin tuna) than nearly anything else could.” I hope he’s right because this would be the small silver lining in a radioactive cloud.