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Synthesis/Regeneration 15   (Winter 1998)

Fish Farms

by Alexandra Morton, Raincoast Research

I have studied whales for 20 years, 13 in a remote Canadian archipelago. But today I rarely see them. The pristine Broughton Archipelago now flushes and feeds 20 Atlantic salmon farms and thus has become "farmwater." Toxic algae blooms, fish disease and seal carcasses have become common and I no longer hear whale calls echo through silent inlets. I believe salmon farms have driven them out.

Toxic algae blooms, fish disease and seal carcasses have become common and I no longer hear whale calls echo through silent inlets. I believe salmon farms have driven them out.

Aquaculture has been conducted successfully for thousands of years. Rice growers alternate grain and fish crops and backyard ponds provide vital protein and small cash crops to southeast Asian families. The success of this type of aquaculture depends on low stocking densities, low yields and long-term sustainability. Very recently aquaculture has been "discovered" by large corporations who believe in high density, high yield and high gain. This type of aquaculture depends on antibiotics, pesticides and manufactured feed. Shrimp and salmon are the two most intensively farmed marine species and their impact is becoming obvious.

Very recently aquaculture has been "discovered" by large corporations who believe in high density, high yield and high gain.

Shrimp farmers clear-cut mangrove forests and other coastal ecosystems then bulldoze shallow pools of several acres each. Local fishermen are prohibited from reaching the ocean by armed guards. People have been killed for walking too close to shrimp farms. The wild seed stock harvest kills five times the non-target species. Water pumped into the pools dries nearby forests while the waste effluent pollutes. Algal blooms thrive on this waste. Drugs can control disease for about seven years. Then the pools must be abandoned and the process repeated further down the coast. The wasteland left behind is deficient in soil and too polluted to replant. The companies causing this damage reap enormous short term profit. But local economies are destroyed.

The impact of salmon farming is much more subtle, because it occurs underwater, out of sight. Wild stocks are in steep decline wherever there are salmon farms. In British Columbia, domestic Atlantic salmon are imported, because they withstand high-density stocking. Their presence in the Pacific threatens wild stocks with exotic pathogens and parasites. Thousands of Atlantics now roam the Pacific from Washington State to Alaska, ascending rivers, ready to spawn and consuming wild eggs.

In addition to importing exotic pathogens, salmon farms enhance local disease populations, exposing wild fish to heavier pathogen loads than normally experienced. The coho hatchery in the archipelago where I live was disease-free 10 years before fish farms, but now suffers loss of precious broodstock.

When the IBEC corporation put diseased Atlantic salmon in their Broughton pens, the coho returned dying of the same disease. Furunculosis occurs naturally in BC, but the coho of the Broughton were evidently unfamiliar with the strain carried by the Atlantic salmon. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) deemed the farm and hatchery epidemics coincidental, but the farmers steadfastly refuse to reveal what strain infected their fish, so there can be no definitive answer.

Two years later, in 1993, the diseased Atlantics Scanmar put in the Broughton were resistant to all antibiotics used in BC salmon farms. DFO approved a new antibiotic, erythromycin, previously banned in fish destined for market. Again wild coho died, chinook stocks collapsed and DFO reported another coincidence, even though that was the first year antibiotic resistance appeared in the wild fish.

While the British Columbia coast extends thousands of miles, not all of it is equally suited to supporting life. Currents converge and upwell at specific sites, bringing food and oxygen together. These fertile locations host salmon going and coming from the sea, prawns living well off the fallout, rock fish, sea cucumbers, herring and much more, and this is where salmon farms are dropping their anchors.

Tons of farm waste are carried well beyond the farms on the strong northern tides to smother bottom life and feed toxic heterosigma blooms wherever it settles. Previously small and localized, algae blooms have become widespread, annual events. Even the farms can not tolerate them, hiring tugboats to tow them away from the advancing blooms.

Herring fishermen discovered bright lights attract herring to the surface, but after a few bonanza years DFO quickly outlawed them because they were attracting the entire food chain into the nets. Unfortunately salmon farmers have discovered the same technology and are using bright lights to increase growth rates, reporting enormous weight gains during fry migrations of some wild fish stocks. This is an unregulated harvest of wild stocks.

Broadcasting at 195 db they create a wall of sound harmful to marine ears.

Normally only 3% of a harbor seal's diet is salmon, but they have learned to grab farm fish and suck their soft flesh through the nets. While a stiffer net would prevent this, farmers report they are too expensive and so underwater acoustic harassment technology has been developed. Broadcasting at 195 db they create a wall of sound harmful to marine ears. Some farmers call the devices "dinner bells" because seals will tolerate pain and hearing loss for an easy meal. Farms with and without acoustic harassment shoot seals. Whales, however, depend on keen hearing and DFO research confirmed that porpoises abandoned areas where acoustic harassment is used.

My 13 years of data show a 67% decline in killer whale activity since acoustic harassment. Killer whales are strong traditionalists seeming to "own" fishing rights to specific inlets. My area "belonged" to a family of the northern resident killer whale population. Where are they now? Did relatives let them into "their" inlets, or are they eating a lesser grade fish and losing weight? The Canadian Fisheries Act prohibits the dispersal of whales, dolphins or porpoises and yet it is allowed to occur.

When my research and the comments of every fisherman I know began spelling out the disastrous impact of salmon farming, I surmised DFO was not aware of the situation. I compiled the epidemics, loss of species and increased toxic blooms and presented them to the nearest DFO research station. Their answer shaped the next seven years of my life. They denied there was a problem.

So I began researching the industry. Pre-dated by several small experimental salmon farms, the first big operation was owned by Norsk Hydro in Norway. Norway used the industry to increase employment in remote areas, by restricting farm size. When fresh farm salmon first hit the off-season market it commanded a high price and the profit margin attracted other corporate interests. Large companies such as Stolt quickly outgrew Norway's restrictions and began exploring other coastlines. The gold rush was on.

Small operators in BC began applying for leases coastwide, and when they went broke the big companies bought them. Money earmarked for watershed restoration, phase two of the Federal Salmon Enhancement Project, was diverted to aquaculture research. When farms began springing up off waterfront properties, a furor broke out and the Provincial Ministry of Environment initiated the Coast Resource Interest Study (CRIS).

Wild salmon are the corporate farmers' competitor. Whatever their intentions, it is not in the farmers' best interest, nor can they afford to protect B.C.'s wild salmon.

CRIS researchers asked Broughton Archipelago fishermen to identify the best salmon, prawn and rock cod fishing spots, promising to protect them. Instinctively cagey, the fishermen were reluctant. However, I prevailed on them to trust the CRIS process and get crucial locations exempted from the salmon farming industry. After meetings attended by most of the community traveling six hours each trip by boat, a map was printed. There were green, yellow and red areas.

Green was "open to salmon farming," yellow was "yes with caution" and red was a "no opportunity" zone-applications for finfish farming would not even be accepted. Today, 42% of farms are in red zones, more than exist in the green areas. How could this happen? I received three answers. First they said all stakeholders had agreed to allow farms in red zones, but that was not true. Then the red zones were so large, farms would not impact them. Finally, I was told applications that pre-dated the study had been "grandfathered" in. The map was a lie from day one. They had not only accepted applications in red zones, they had approved them. The fishermen had been right; the sites would have been better kept as secrets. We had pinpointed the areas that would raise farm fish best.

I discovered that wherever salmon farming occurred the disastrous events of the Broughton Archipelago replayed. Wild fish died, fishermen became outraged, government turned blind eyes and finally vandalism erupted. Ex-Federal Minister of Fisheries Brian Tobin announced that salmon farming had no impact on "any component" of the marine environment, despite his own researchers' warnings that herring wouldn't spawn between farms. Salmon fry were consumed, porpoises were driven away and the area surrounding farms became a pathogen-rich "zone of jeopardy."

The price of farm salmon has declined precipitously over the past 10 years. Chile and Norway are producing enormous quantities of fish, driving the price down to $1.95/pound in North America. Farmers are driven to cut every possible cost. Alaska, one of the few coasts to ban salmon farming, has seen their wild salmon stocks skyrocket, driving prices lower. Wild salmon are the corporate farmers' competitor. Whatever their intentions, it is not in the farmers' best interest, nor can they afford to protect BC's wild salmon. As long as viable wild stocks exist, the farmers will not own the market.

Pat Chamut, ex-Director General of the DFO Pacific Region, stated that continued Atlantic salmon imports "guaranteed" arrival of exotic pathogens. Then he went on to sign an open-ended policy allowing imports to continue indefinitely. In 1990, a Norwegian Parliamentary Committee on Environment told the Canadian government they regretted ignoring their scientists' advice not to import exotic stocks, because they are currently poisoning entire rivers to be rid of a Baltic parasite and Scottish disease.

The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency declared salmon farming an "environmentally dangerous industry." Ireland has seen fisheries collapse in every loch in which there are salmon farms. Norwegian scientists doubt wild salmon will survive irreversible genetic pollution now that 80% of the spawners in some rivers are of farm origin. Chileans compare the impact of salmon farms to the Spanish Conquest. Entire townships in Scotland, trying to rid highly-valued waters of farms, resorted to vandalism.

Farm salmon flesh is not even red; it must be dyed that color.

My experience with this issue has been enlightening. I have learned a great deal about salmon, politicians and the state of our species. People point out we will get used to the taste of farm salmon, just as previous generations learned to eat corporate-raised chickens. Lean nutritious meat is once again being replaced with soft, fatty meat containing traces of drugs and pesticides. Farm salmon flesh is not even red; it must be dyed that color. Do we dare become used to yet another polluted food source?

Our health and the planet's health are one and the same. Insist on wild fish They are the last wild protein source widely available. Alaska has demonstrated salmon can survive the harvest if intelligently managed. It is a matter of life and death-if not for us, for our children.

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