Tag Archives: salmon farming

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………



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.