Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Get Stuffed

Atlantic salmon and Pacific profits

The provincial government gives green light to expansion of controversial salmon farming operations

Like many of our environmental issues, there is no definitive scientific proof that the practice of salmon farming is good, bad or sustainable. As usual, both the supporters and opponents of aquaculture have mountains of scientific research to back their positions, and the rhetoric from both sides is just as thick.

In these cases the final decision is typically left up to the government, which has to weigh the good of a practice against the potential bad. $88 million in revenues last year, and almost unlimited room for growth is good. The bad could be really bad, but that has yet to be proved.

For that reason, the B.C. government has decided not only to let the salmon farming business continue, but also to expand – providing it can meet some new guidelines.

"The high operating standards proposed by government, along with improved practices, will protect the environment and allow the industry to expand in a sustainable and responsible manner," said John van Dongen, the minister of agriculture, food and fisheries. "For more than four years, government has exhaustively reviewed the scientific work done on the salmon aquaculture issue."

The new environmental standards and practices will kick in on April 30, allowing the first expansion of the industry since the government placed a moratorium on new marine salmon farm tenures.

The Environmental Assessment Office scientific review, completed in 1997, was one of the most rigorous and costly in the province according to the press release announcing the industry expansion.

The review concluded that the risks to the environment were low, even with past practices. It made 49 recommendations to reduce the risks further which were accepted by government and industry.

It took another five years of wrangling to reach the current regulations, which include improved and new policies to prevent fish escapes, to ensure fish health, to locate and relocate farms, treat fish waste, and conduct research and development.

"The decision will provide the opportunity for careful and sustainable growth of aquaculture in our hard-hit coastal communities," said Stan Hagen, minister of sustainable resource management. The government also believes that the fish farms will help to reduce the pressure on current salmon runs, aiding in their recovery.

Coast communities have been hurt in recent years by the closure of timber industries, and by recent moratoriums on fishing wild coastal salmon due to smaller runs.

The David Suzuki Foundation, one of the most outspoken opponents of current salmon farming practices, was quick to react to the government’s decision.

"Premier Campbell made a choice today and it’s not for wild salmon or for the health of B.C.’s coast," said Lynn Hunter, the aquaculture specialist for the foundation.

"With this decision, it is clear that the government is only interested in pleasing a handful of multinational businesses without regard for the interests of all British Columbians and our environment."

Like recent changes to forestry and mining, the foundation is concerned that the government’s move to performance-based regulations, monitored by the industry, will result in complacency and more lenient enforcement of standards.

According to Hunter, only half of the 49 recommendations made by the first environmental assessment were implemented. At the same time, production at existing salmon farms has more than doubled.

"Our oceans belong to all of us, but with this decision a handful of the government’s business friends are given carte blanche to pollute and perhaps forever alter pristine marine environments," she said.

The Suzuki Foundation does support ecologically responsible aquaculture that does not pollute or allow farmed species to escape. The current practice is to use open net cages that float in the ocean, which permits uneaten food pellets and feces to enter the marine environment. In addition, most of the fish farmed are Atlantic salmon, which the foundation says are successfully reproducing in the wild because so many have escaped.

In 2000, the B.C. salmon farming industry raised 51,368 metric tonnes of salmon. Over 40,000 tonnes was Atlantic salmon, which are preferred for their tolerance to cold water and disease, docile natures, faster growth rates, and market appeal.

A recent foundation study found that farmed salmon contain higher levels of pollutants than wild salmon, including 10 times more PCBs. They believe, therefore that the farmed salmon also present a health risk to children and pregnant mothers.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association dismissed the study, produced by Dr. Michael Easton, a Vancouver-based geneticist and expert in ecotoxicology, as "junk science."

There are currently 98 operational aquaculture operations along B.C.’s coast, 81 of which produce salmon. The industry indirectly and directly employs about 3,000 people, and grosses about $250 million annually.

At the time of the moratorium, it was estimated that salmon farms collectively lost between 20,000 and 60,000 fish ever year. Improved practices have since reduced those numbers, but escapes remain a common occurrence.

The concern is that the escaped fish carry diseases that could infect wild salmon, or that they will breed in the wild and edge out indigenous salmon stocks. If the industry begins to use genetically modified species, then all of these problems could be compounded.

Another concern is that the farms are toxic to the environment, allowing uneaten salmon feed and salmon feces to enter the surrounding ocean. The amount of waste is deemed sufficient to harm the ocean floor and surroundings.

Furthermore, the salmon farms attract predator species, such as seals, that have to be dealt with. Although the industry is exploring non-lethal aversion techniques, such as sounds, many are still being shot.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association says these concerns are unwarranted.

While they admit that farms do pollute, the waste is organic and the environment around salmon farms generally recovers after a short period of time, according to the BCSFA, often within three years. Salmon farms can be relocated easily.

While the waste may build up on the sea floor, the BCSFA says the industry has a vested interested in keeping the salmon as healthy as possible, and monitors water quality regularly. And while they do give the fish antibiotics, they are using far less.

In terms of consumer health, the farmers test their stocks frequently, and use satellite technology to spot toxic algal blooms, oil spills, chemical spills and other environmental threats. They avoid waters utilized by pulp mills and sewage plants, and effluent from industrial pollution, land erosion, fecal bacteria, and fertilizers.

On the subject of escapes, the BCSFA says escaped salmon are too domesticated, being raised in captivity and hand-fed their entire lives, to compete with wild species. Futhermore, they haven’t found any evidence that Atlantic salmon can mate successfully with other species, creating a new species on the West Coast.

From a business point of view, the BCSFA says its activities complement the wild salmon fishery, which is seasonal and varied. By selling farmed salmon at a similar price to customers, they also reduce pressure on wild stocks.

While the two sides of the argument aren’t likely to back down from their stances on salmon farming, a third-party independent examination of the industry is largely being ignored.

Although the inquiry conducted by Stuart Leggatt, a retired justice of the B.C. Supreme Court, was funded by the Suzuki Foundation, it was run as an independent inquiry.

On Nov. 28 of 2001, the final report of the Leggatt Inquiry was released as Clear Choices, Clean Waters. Leggatt spoke to scientists, salmon farmers, First Nations, government, the conventional salmon fishery, and others, and compiled his research into six recommendations.

The first was to remove all net-cage salmon farms from the marine environment by 2005, replacing them with closed-loop systems.

The second was to remove the responsibility for the promotion of aquaculture from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, because their dual role as promoter and enforcer constituted a conflict of interest. At the same time, the DFO should increase monitoring and regulation of the industry.

The third recommendation was to increase the involvement of communities, especially First Nations, in the consultation, partnership and ownership of salmon farming operations.

The fourth recommendation is to maintain the moratorium on new farm sites and to cap expansion at existing sites until significant progress is made addressing environmental issues at existing sites.

The fifth is to apply the precautionary principle to the regulation of the salmon farming industry, erring on the side of caution to protect health and the environment.

The sixth is to require labelling and identification of farmed salmon in order to give consumers and retailers the ability to choose for themselves.

The government said it would look into the Leggatt Inquiry before making its decision, but none of these recommendations appears to have been adopted.

To find out what the government’s new criteria are, the jurisdiction has been divided between several government bodies. For example, the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection will examine the issue of waste; B.C. Assets and Lands will look at the issue of relocating farms; and the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management will handle expansion.

How well the new regulations work may ultimately lie in how well these groups can communicate and work together on the issue. When you consider the bureaucracy that will result, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.