B.C's wild salmon at risk from Norwegian stock-holders
// Marco Ferreira

There are few natural food sources remaining in the world. Almost all the food we eat is grown and processed in cramped, economically efficient, and controlled farming operations. In the food animal industry, most farms are overcrowded and highly dependant on anti-biotics. These factors combine to encourage the mutation and spreading of disease, which are occasionally transferable to humans. New viral mutations, such as the H1N1 virus, can be traced back to factory origins. When an outbreak emerges, entire herds often have to be destroyed as a result. For example, during the mad cow epidemic cattle were burned on the planes of London in mass graves. In the UK alone, 4.4 million cattle were destroyed in an attempt to eradicate the disease.

Factory farmed meat also has huge environmental impacts. Animals need to eat food and drink water before they are slaughtered and processed, and eventually shipped across the world. Some estimates blame factory farming for 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution cites peer-reviewed studies supporting the claim that factory farms require 2,500 to 6,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. In his essay, titled 2,500 Gallons All Wet?, Robbins explains that “nearly half the water consumed in this country…is used for livestock, mostly cattle.”

Wild salmon is one of the few remaining abundant, naturally occurring, and healthy animal food sources. Salmon are low in fat, high in protein, and contain essential fatty acids necessary for human survival. For many people in BC, the existence and preservation of wild salmon stocks is crucial for their livelihoods. According to “Friends of Wild Salmon”, a group of wild salmon activists, the commercial fishery industry in B.C. employs approximately 16,000 people. Wild salmon stocks are also a vital part of the BC First Nations' food source and economy, without which their way of life would be impossible. This makes commercial fishermen and BC First Nations the biggest advocates for the preservation and protection of wild salmon stocks.

The ecosystem of British Columbia itself is also heavily reliant on wild salmon; bears, eagles, killer whales, and almost every local predator feed on wild salmon. To reproduce, salmon travel from the Pacific Ocean and return to the freshwater streams where they were born. Because they die after spawning, the remaining salmon bones and carcasses nourish the earth high in the mountains. This process is integral to the beauty and splendour of B.C.

The promise of BC's “super natural” environments has seen the tourism industry flourish. According to a paper published in 2005 by the BC Wilderness Tourism Association, BC's natural tourism industry was predicted to be worth $1.4 billion in 2008 . The article states that most of this tourism operates on the coast of BC, with an estimated $700 million directly dependant on wild salmon stocks.

The Missing Run of 2009

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or DFO, is the segment of the Canadian government that handles all ocean and fishing related concerns. In 2009, the DFO predicted a big return of the most sought after species of wild salmon: the sockeye. The DFO predicted a return of 10.6 million adult sockeye to the Fraser river, of which only 80% of the predicted number survived. All commercial fishing openings for sockeye were shut down in the area.

To come up with their predictions, DFO scientists count the number of young salmon leaving the river on their way to the Pacific. Biologist and anti-fish farm advocate Dr. Alexandra Morton stated that “government scientists estimated that 130 million young salmon hatched, grew in the river, and headed to sea in 2007. They noted these juveniles were larger in size than they had ever been recorded before. River survival was reported to be very high... but then something went very wrong.”

Dr. Morton believes that the reason for the poor survival rate was partially due to the salmon migrating through waters occupied by salmon farms. Scientific evidence shows that the sockeye leaving the rivers were healthy, which means that the factor that decimated the sockeye numbers came afterwards. Critics of aquaculture point out the many fish farms are situated in the Queen Charlotte Islands, on the migratory routes of the Fraser river salmon runs. Critics argue that any contagion from the fish farms would be spread to the wild salmon in these narrow channels.

The Cohen Commission

The Cohen Commission is a judicial-style examination into the 2009 disappearance of sockeye salmon stocks from the Fraser river. Chief Justice Bruce Cohen precedes over evidence, presented by lawyers representing different organizations, to reason what policy initiatives would best curb the decline of wild salmon stocks. Although there are numerous theories on trial, one of the more contentious issues relates to aquaculture and open-net salmon farming.

For decades, the aquaculture industry and the DFO have been clashing with environmental groups, First Nations representatives, and commercial fishermen over the impact that fish farms are having on the wild salmon in B.C. On one side, critics of aquaculture argue that open-net fish farms contribute to the decline in stocks; on the other, the DFO and the fish farming industry say that open-net fish farms are safe, and the reason for declining salmon stocks lies elsewhere. The commission is currently underway, and the final hearings for evidence take place this November. The aquaculture portion of the trial took place early September.


Open-net fish farms, like the name implies, are large, netted pens that sit in open ocean waters. The ocean water flows through these pens, giving fish farms the advantage of not having to duplicate ideal conditions in order for salmon to thrive. These pens are sometimes situated on the migration routes of wild salmon for the ecological benefit that these nutrient-rich waters provide. Different species of fish can be raised in these pens, but the most common is Atlantic salmon.

As of 2011, there are currently 137 Salmon farming operations in BC. These operations are primarily owned by a handful of Norwegian corporations: Cermaq ASA, Marine Harvest, and Grieg Seafood. Creative Salmon is the only Canadian fish farming company operating in British Columbia, making up 4% of B.C.'s fish farming industry. Norwegian-owned companies make up 92%.

Sea lice and Disease

The arguments against fish farming have frequently focused on the prevalence of sea lice on farmed salmon and in the waters surrounding the pens. Dr. Morton explains, “sea lice are simple to study, because they change their body shape every few days [during] the first month. So, we know if a louse has been on a fish for a matter of hours, days, or weeks.”

Sea lice has been a major proponent in shutting down fish farms for years. There are, however, conflicting studies as to how large an impact sea lice truly are. The DFO does not acknowledge that there is any problem at all with sea lice. Supporters of fish farming cite a study from 2010 published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) concluding that sea-lice pose no risk to wild salmon and there was no need to separate salmon farms from migration routes. Another study published in the same journal and released this summer directly argues against those findings. It's a back and forth argument, and for this reason it doesn't seem to be delivering any concrete answers regarding the disappearance of wild salmon stocks. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the DFO chooses to interpret the evidence to say that there is no risk to wild stocks from farmed salmon.

New Evidence, Newer Science

It may appear that sea lice are only part of the picture when it comes to the disappearance of the wild stocks. A new study undertaken by DFO scientist Kristi Miller has found evidence implicating a virus epidemic explaining the decline. Her study was published in the highly-regarded scientific journal Science and has been called “groundbreaking”. Despite the study being available to the public, Kristi Miller was silenced by the Privy Council from talking about her study to the media because she is a witness in the Cohen Commission.

The Privy Council is a body that advises prime minister Stephen Harper. Critics of aquaculture used this silencing to argue that Kristi Miller's studies could be used to implicate fish farms as a cause of the declining wild salmon. On stand at the enquiry, while being questioned by the lawyer representing the anti-fish farm group 'Aquaculture Coalition', Dr. Miller is quoted as saying that the virus could be the “smoking gun” in the disappearance of the 2009 sockeye.

She revised her statement a day later, saying, "Actually, I had no intention of saying that [smoking gun comment] in this hearing." She pointed out that her research had no data collected from salmon farms, and added that these diseases were likely contracted in the freshwater environment. There are no open-net fish farms in freshwater. She hasn't said that the possibility for the virus coming from fish farms isn't there, only that there is no scientific study on the spread of the disease in salt water.

Why there have been no tests done on farmed salmon remains a mystery. An email sent by Kristi Miller to her DFO colleges was presented as evidence in the Cohen Commission by Ecojustice lawyer Tim Leadem, Q.C, representing the Conservation Coalition. The email summarizes the meeting Kristi Miller had with senior DFO colleagues, Drs. Christine MacWilliams and Stewart Johnson, and the DFO Regional Director of Science Pacific, Laura Richards. In Dr. Miller's email summary of their meeting they had explained that:

“Until such a virus is accredited as an OIE rated disease, causing considerable observable mortality, and the molecular assay is validated and certified as such, one cannot ask industry to voluntarily submit fish for testing...that it would not be in their best interest to comply.”

The lab where Dr. Kristi Miller and fellow scientists work is subject to funding revision this year. According to a letter received by the Edmonton Journal from the DFO, the DFO is citing a treasury board directive from 2009 that doesn't allow payment for government employees from outside sources. Dr. Millers' lab was successful in garnering funds from outside sources, and used these funds to pay half of the 19 specialized staff members for years. The enforcement of these rules could put serious restrictions on the facility.

The DFO states that it will continue to pay for research, but Dr. Miller went on the stand during the enquiry to say she didn't have the funding to continue her research on this disease. With outside sources of income gone, Dr. Kristi Miller's facility is completely reliant on the Canadian government to fund their continued studies of this new virus. Wild salmon advocacy groups have offered to pay for the research, but are no longer allowed to make contributions as long as the research facility and scientist are employed by the DFO.

Salmon Farming Global Impacts

In 2008, the Chilean fish farming industry (the third largest industry in Chile) was decimated by infectious salmon anaemia, or ISA. ISA is a type of influenza that spreads slowly through salmon farms, killing the majority of the fish. The first case of ISA was found in fish farms in Norway in 1984. ISA spreads quickly in high density collections of fish, like a salmon farm. According to the New York Times, Chile's fish farming industry “suffered more than $2 billion in losses, saw its production of Atlantic salmon fall by half, and had to lay off 26,000 workers.” In 2009, ISA outbreaks followed the mostly Norwegian-owned fish farm operations as they were moved further south. In 2011, Chile's fish farm industry has almost recovered production numbers, although breakouts of ISA are still frequent.

Cermaq has now endorsed a study concluding that the ISA virus most likely came from salmon eggs from Norway that were shipped to Chilean salmon farms, although the study specifies no company responsible. Norwegian salmon-egg producers and industry are fighting these claims, and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans ignore the possibility by putting no restrictions on Atlantic salmon-egg imports. Although it has only appeared in Atlantic salmon, not sockeye, ISA can also be spread to sea-run brown trout, rainbow trout and other wild fish such as herring. Like salmon, herring are vital to the ecosystem of British Columbia.

Chile, in comparison with British Columbia, does not have wild salmon stocks to risk. Cases of ISA have been found in every country that allows open-net salmon farming, including the east coast of Canada. No species of Pacific salmon have been reported to have contracted the ISA virus. According to the USDA’s 2002 “ISA Program Standards”, “the infectious Salmon Anaemia virus is transmitted mainly through viral particles shed in fish mucus, feces, or wastes, or through direct contact with other infected fish .”

According to testimony by Dr. Miller, a single salmon farm with 1,000,000 fish can shed 60 billion viral particles per hour during a disease outbreak. In narrow channels, like many that young Fraser river sockeye salmon swim through on their way to sea, pathogens from a fish farm having a disease outbreak would be unavoidable for a wild salmon. Regardless of the susceptibility of pacific salmon to ISA from salmon farms, a disease like the one discovered by Dr. Miller would certainly be passed on to wild salmon when farms are placed on salmons migratory routes.

A Predicted Outcome

The opponents of the aquaculture industry aren't optimistic about the outcome of the Cohen Commission. Now that her role in the commission is over, Dr. Morton has said that “the salmon farmers are already telling everyone they are 'confident Cohen will not link wild fish decline to farmed fish,' I guess they have the inside scoop.”

This pessimism isn't unwarranted, and even if the government of Canada weren't heavily invested in promoting and financing fish farming, the Cohen Commission itself was ineffective at facilitating the presentation of available evidence or allowing adequate time for questioning witnesses. Although the discovery of this new disease by Dr. Miller is still new, the government of Canada will not err on the side of caution. Dr. Miller's work will go unfinished, and quite possibly unfunded, well past the November date of final evidentiary hearings at the commission. We may never know what impact salmon farms have on B.C.'s wild salmon stocks until it is too late. Another example of the DFO's mismanagement of wild stocks to appease big companies is the history behind the now depleted cod fishery on the east coast of Canada.

It currently takes 2-3 pounds of wild ocean fish to produce one pound of Atlantic farmed salmon. In that sense, the aquaculture industry will be similar to other factory farmed animals. It takes great resources to artificially rear animals, and although the cost may be worth it, spreading the dangers to the wild stocks is unacceptable, as is the Canadian government's complete dismissal of evidence against the farms. The people of B.C. are the primary beneficiaries of the wild salmon industry, and Norwegian shareholders benefit from Aquaculture. For this reason alone, wild stocks should be the primary concern of the DFO. In the meantime, salmon farms should be moved onto land, away from wild species, until the salmon farmers can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that wild stocks aren't affected by their practise, not the other way around.

// Marco Ferreira
Opinions Editor

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com