Published by the Ottawa Citizen, March 20, 2004
There's a story about how a BC salmon farmer, unable or unwilling to dispose of the carcasses of his disease ridden fish as the law prescribes, towed the whole pen in which they were enclosed and released them into the ocean. Later, a commercial fisherman in the area called a radio talk show to describe what he saw: "We have an ecological disaster on our hands," he reportedly said. "There's a stretch of dead salmon here 3 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide floating on the ocean."
Farmed salmon recently gained notoriety for containing what some believe are unacceptably high levels of PCBs but whether or not they are good for human health, there's a growing body of evidence that says certain salmon farming practices are bad for wild salmon. As the above incident reveals, farmed salmon pose other dangers as well.
For government regulators this presents challenges, and opportunities too. In the words of Ottawa economist Gail Stewart, these consist of learning to think from the environment out, not from the economy in. She calls this 'ecological development'.
Fish farming dates back thousands of years to China where carp, a freshwater species, was raised in ponds. The practice eventually spread to Europe where farmed species like turbot and catfish are raised in ecologically integrated ponds and land-based tank systems. But it was during the last few decades of the 20th century when most of the world's commercial fish populations declined precipitously that aquaculture - the aquatic version of industrial agriculture - became the fastest growing supplier of fish worldwide.
Governments recognized the phenomenon and acted accordingly. Canada's Commissioner for Aquaculture Development, Yves Bastien, last October acknowledged how global aquaculture output is expected to surpass beef production by 2010. Within the next 15 years, Canada's output could reach $2.8 billion, he reported, with value added revenues reaching $6.6 billion. Employment for 47,000 people is also anticipated.
In British Columbia, aquaculture means salmon farming. Most are raised in open net cage pens averaging 30X30 meters square. One pen contains up to 50,000 fish and an average farm will contain 14 pens covering 12,000 square meters thus producing 700,000 fish.
As mad cow and avian flu in cattle and chicken populations demonstrate, mass scale, Intensive farming operations produce mass scale, intensive problems. For salmon farming the biggest problem is pollution of immediate and surrounding waters by fish waste. This in turn creates conditions for infestation by sea lice and viruses of both farmed and other fish with which they come into contact.
An estimated million or more farmed and often infectious salmon have escaped their pens since farming began in the seventies. In the Broughton Archipelago northeast of Vancouver where 28 salmon farms operate, 3.615 million wild salmon in 2000 numbered only 147,000 in 2002 - the largest collapse in recorded history on the west coast.
Adding insult to injury, DNA testing has confirmed that escaped fish, half of which are Atlantic salmon, are reproducing in Pacific waters where they compete with wild salmon for habitat and food and even eat their eggs.
Government advisory and advocacy groups have rallied to aid the wild salmon with marginal success. Though wild salmon enhancement programs are underway little has been done to address salmon farming problems. Admitting the benefits of aquaculture, these groups believe such problems can be addressed by using inland or container operations that recycle fish manure as fertilizer. They also believe that governments should apply the "precautionary principle". This requires regulators to err on the side of caution to protect human health and environmental values.
For Canadians with a heightened awareness of the planet's ecosystems, the plight of the wild salmon will cause concern. For British Columbians this concern is uniquely augmented by a cultural identification with wild salmon populations. Anchored in First Nations' traditions and expanded in the economic and recreational fishing of BC residents, the shimmering wild salmon who fiercely navigate the province's waterways, have become an icon.
None of this is incompatible with a thriving industry in aquaculture. Indeed, Canada's competitive advantage in farmed products will ultimately consist not in how much, how quickly or how cheaply it can mass produce food. It will consist instead in having done the job right in the first place. By doing what's right for both wild and farmed salmon, we will have taken an important step towards an ecologically developed economy.
Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.