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Get Stuffed

Buying the salmon farm

As the province works to restore depleted salmon runs, the spotlight has fallen on the controversial practice of salmon farming.

If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

Unless, of course, you run out of fish – in which case that man, his family, and billions of other people are in serious trouble.

Due to overfishing and the widespread use of fishing methods that destroy habitats and tamper with the natural biodiversity of the ocean, fish stocks around the world have been in a serious decline for the past two decades.

Whole fisheries have been closed, starting with the cod fishery in Eastern Canada back in 1992 – the legendary Grand Banks fishing grounds had been decimated.

There have been other isolated fishery moratoriums ever since, many of those taking place on the West Coast and targeting specific species and runs of salmon. These closures have led to bitter disputes between the U.S. and Canada, and have brought uncertainty to an industry that was once the pride of the west.

For Canada, that industry was worth up to $100 million annually, but diminishing stocks have led to diminishing returns. These days, salmon runs fluctuate wildly, declining by as much as 70 per cent in some areas.

The number of salmon bearing streams was also reduced by development and resource extraction, although the guilty parties – notably logging and urban sprawl – are taking more responsibility for the renewal and care of fisheries.

The federal government, making an honest appraisal of the industry, came to the conclusion that so long as developments and catch sizes continued, salmon stocks would never fully recover. In 1999 they bought back more than 1,400 salmon fishing licenses, representing almost half of the entire salmon fleet, at a cost of $191 million.

The decline didn’t hurt market prices however, or taint the popularity of salmon – and when there’s a demand, you can trust human resourcefulness to find a supply.

Fish farming is practised around the world, and on both coasts of Canada. Fish are born and raised in floating cages like so much cattle on the range. The expense of raising them is on par with the costs associated with commercial fishing, so there is very little price difference by the time it goes to market. Farmed fish are rarely labelled as such at the market.

There are 104 fish farm sites along B.C.’s coast, 98 of which are operational. A moratorium on new farm sites has been in place since the spring of 1995, when the provincial government could no longer ignore questions about the environmental big picture.

It was meant to be a temporary moratorium, but it has lasted more than six years. Now, with the Liberals in power and B.C. officially "open for business," environmentalists want to ensure that one of those businesses isn’t aquaculture.

Rather than drag the issue onto the front lawn of the legislature, the David Suzuki Foundation promoted an independent inquiry into B.C. salmon farming and put up $120,000 to see it through.

Former B.C. Supreme Court judge Stuart Leggatt agreed to head the inquiry, on the grounds that the inquiry was completely separate from the David Suzuki Foundation, and that he would be able to draft the terms of reference for the discussion. The Foundation agreed, and over the past few weeks Commissioner Leggatt has met with both sides in the issue, travelling the province and collecting information that will help the government decide what course to take in the future.

The Leggatt inquiry wound up this week with three days of public open houses and testimony in Vancouver. Leggatt, who is also the ethics commissioner for the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Bid Corporation, hopes to have his report ready by the end of the month.

Although neither side of the issue is bound to take any action as a result of the inquiry, the foundation hopes that the inquiry will direct the government to take action that would prevent any expansion of the province’s aquaculture industry. Both the provincial and federal governments, as well as industry representatives, declined invitations to attend the salmon farming hearings, but Joyce Murray, the minister of water, land and air protection for B.C., said the information could help the government form new regulations when the moratorium is lifted.

Weighing the potential economic benefits against the potential environmental impact is not an easy job, but someone has to do it.

On the economic side, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce has stated its support for salmon farming, which the chamber feels could contribute to the economic recovery of the province. It would create jobs in coastal areas to replace the commercial fishing jobs that were lost, while easing the pressure on the remaining wild salmon.

Industry operators and supporters would like the industry to expand so B.C. can compete with operations in Norway, Scotland and Chile.

According to advocates for salmon farming, the industry has also evolved since the moratorium on new farms was created, producing less pollution and using fewer drugs to combat disease and promote growth.

The Creative Salmon Company, one of the 98 active salmon farms in the province, testified that they had reduced their use of antibiotics by 97.3 per cent over the last three years. The same company only has 2,000 salmon escapes in 15 years of operation, which is significantly lower than the industry average.

The groups opposed to salmon farming are many and varied.

The Alaskan government has had a moratorium on fish farms since 1990 for both social and environmental reasons, and supports dismantling the industry in B.C.

Their main concern, which is also a major concern for environmentalists, is the high number of escapes from salmon farms. This wouldn’t be a problem if the escaped fish were a native species, such as Chinook or Coho, but the majority of salmon farmers on the West Coast prefer to raise Atlantic salmon, a species that is foreign to B.C.

When the province placed a moratorium on the industry in 1995, Atlantic salmon had been discovered in 21 B.C. rivers, and as far away as Alaska. There is strong evidence that those escaped salmon, estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 a year, may be successfully breeding in B.C. waters.

There is concern that these Atlantic salmon, which were chosen for salmon farms because they are extremely tolerant to disease and the environment, could spread disease among wild salmon, and put additional stress on food supplies.

There is also the risk of "genetic pollution" – interbreeding between species that could create a new super-species that would be an anomaly in the food chain.

"We examined salmon farming and we decided that the risks were too great," said Dave Gaudet, a special assistant in the Alaska office of the Commissioner of Fish and Game who gave testimony at the inquiry. "We have some of the greatest producing salmon rivers in the world. Why not take care of them? Our fishermen are concerned this is going to hurt their livelihood."

In Canada, the senate has expressed similar concerns. The Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries believes that a number of changes are necessary for the industry to continue, and definitely before the moratorium on new salmon farms in lifted.

"As a regulator of salmon farming, Fisheries and Oceans (Department of Fisheries and Oceans or DFO) is in the business of managing risks," wrote Ron Thompson, the assistant auditor general of Canada in The Effects of Salmon Farming in British Columbia on the Management of Wild Salmon Stocks, published in December of 2000.

"Salmon farming poses risks that include the potential impact of harmful substances on fish habitat and the effects of possible interaction between farmed Atlantic salmon and wild stocks.

"To ensure that sustainable salmon fishing can co-exist with the farming industry, it is urgent that the (DFO) remedy these shortcomings in consultation with the province."

Other environmental concerns include pollution and the disturbance of other wild species.

The current use of net-cage fish farms allow the free flow of pollution and excess feed into the ocean, the latter of which includes drugs and pesticides – notably hormones, algicides, fungicides and antibiotics.

A Norwegian study also found that a medium-sized fish farm produces the same amount of waste on an annual basis as a town of 40,000 people.

Because salmon farms need to keep predators out, various steps have been taken that are having a detrimental affect on other wild species, such as herons, seals, otters and sea lions. These animals are routinely shot by fish farm operators as they attempt to gain access into the farming cages.

One of the low points of the inquiry was the presentation of a 240 kilogram sea lion that had been shot by a fish farm operator, then weighted with stones to "destroy the evidence."

Native environmentalist Steve Lawson made the presentation during the inquiry hearing in Tofino, bring 70 attendees from the hearing to a nearby beach to view the carcass. Native groups are overwhelmingly again the salmon farms, which they say pollute the water and interfere with wild species. More than 20 groups participated in the inquiry, all of them opposed to the industry.

The salmon farming industry also uses acoustic devices to drive off some species of would-be predators. Back in 1995 it was estimated that the humpback whale presence off the north coast of Vancouver Island was reduced by 96 per cent in the first year that the acoustic devices were used.

Between industry advocates and environmentalists, there is a growing middle ground that supports the reform, not the dismantling, of the industry – using closed tanks rather than nets to filter pollution and other effluent and prevent escapes, for example, or banning the farming of foreign species. For these to work, it would require the full co-operation of the industry as it currently stands, and it is unlikely that farm owners would want to increase their investment while they are already profitable.

You can make your own submission to the Leggatt Inquiry at 604-721-1536, or as long as your comments aren’t dated any later than Oct. 12.