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Canada's Fish-Farm Boom is a Blow to Wild Salmon

by Joel Connelly, P-I Columnist
In The Northwest, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 3, 2003

Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Columnist VANCOUVER, B.C. -- In a legendary TV blooper, an ABC News weekend anchor intoned that Capt. Jacques Cousteau and his ship Calypso were in the eastern Mediterranean studying whether the world's growing population could be fed from "living orgasms in the sea."

The poor fellow meant organisms: Aquaculture has never gained sex appeal, but farming of the oceans is a business growing rapidly even as the Earth's natural fish stocks are in decline.

In few places is it expanding faster than in the fjords and bays of the Great White North.

"Aquaculture is now the leading agricultural product of British Columbia," author Betty Keller, told a symposium here Tuesday night.

"Other than marijuana," added Don Staniford, a Liverpool, England-born activist who studies chemicals used in the growth and coloring of farmed salmon.

In 1997, for the first time, production of farmed salmon exceeded British Columbia's catch of wild salmon. By last year, the Canadian province had become the globe's fourth-largest producer of farmed salmon.

The number of active salmon farms has grown to more than 100: They are concentrated in great fjords along the West Coast of Vancouver Island -- with about 20 active pens in famous Clayoquot Sound -- and in the Broughton Archipelago off the island's northeast coast.

Salmon farms can sometimes be smelled before they are seen, as this writer discovered riding a friend's Zodiac boat up Bedwell Sound a few years back.

Cold currents and lack of human company make the wild coast of British Columbia an appealing site to the dozen or so companies -- most of them Norwegian and Dutch-based multinationals -- that dominate the business.

The B.C. government sees paychecks (and generous political contributions to Cabinet ministers) in farming the sea: Salmon farms provide about 1,800 jobs, with 2,300 more people in support positions -- with 90 percent of those employed living outside urban areas.

Hence, salmon farming is being allowed to move up the coast, even into proximity of such river systems as the Skeena and Bella Coola, homes to major wild salmon runs.

Where do farmed salmon come from? Not our ocean: Atlantic salmon are used to stock 70 percent of the pens in British Columbia.

Who gets fed by these floating farms? "The States," of course: Nearly 90 percent of production goes to the U.S. market.

One more statistic sends chills down the spines of fishermen, outdoors groups and conservationists: The commercial catch of wild salmon in British Columbia has declined by 80 percent over the last two decades.

Sport fishing in famous angling streams has dropped as well. "The Cowichan River (on eastern Vancouver Island) is simply a ruin of what it once was," said Stephen Hume, a Vancouver (B.C.) Sun columnist.

Critics fear a connection between the rise of farmed Atlantic salmon and the fall of wild Pacific stocks.

They see wild salmon as a 21st-century equivalent of the buffalo, living in a sea that is being fenced off. A new book, "A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming" (Harbour Publishing), makes the critics' case.

One of its authors, Otto Langer, spent 32 years as a biologist with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He argues that the department is forgetting its legal job is to preserve wild fish.

"You have the promoters of aquaculture and the protectors of the wild runs reporting to the same bureaucrat."

What galvanized opponents was the sudden disappearance of more than 3 million adult migrating fish -- primarily pink salmon -- which were supposed to sweep in off the Pacific in 2002 to spawn in Knight Inlet and Kingcome Inlet (site of the novel "I Heard the Owl Call My Name").

En route to the ocean as fry, the young salmon had passed by the Broughton Archipelago, site of intensive fish farming.

A whale researcher, Alexandra Morton, began examining the effect of tiny parasite sea lice -- an unwanted byproduct of pens -- on salmon fry. She shares findings in the new book:

"Everywhere I went near the farms, the fish were covered with sea lice when I took them out of the water. Coho salmon smelts were so frantic to escape the sea lice that they were jumping into boats. I noticed bleeding at their eyeballs and bleeding at the base of the fins, which are classic symptoms of fish disease."

In a scathing investigative report, CBC News took the Federal Fisheries Ministry to task for its lethargic response to Morton's findings and ill-concealed attempts to intimidate and discredit an eloquent critic.

The Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council -- headed by ex-Fisheries Minister John Fraser -- proved it was made of sterner stuff. It found evidence that sea lice likely caused the mortality of salmon smolts and collapse of pink salmon runs in six rivers.

The British Columbia government has since established a pink salmon migration corridor by strategic fallowing of 11 fish farms and is requiring operators to monitor and report lice populations.

Otto Langer warns that "fixes" may create new problems.

"A sea louse is a crustacean that is a shellfish," he said. "If you develop a chemical to kill sea lice, you kill shrimp and everything else in the area."

The aquaculture industry has declared its corporate citizenship. In a letter to -- a B.C. online publication -- Stolt Sea Farms manager Clare Backman stated: "We believe that most British Columbians want to protect wild salmon stocks. Our company seriously does."

She alleged that critics are exaggerating. Salmon farmers will rely on "sound scientific data -- such as we see in work being conducted and funded by DFO and the provincial government," she wrote.

Of course, the "sound" data is being gathered by governments that are actively promoting growth of the fish-farming industry.

As the auditor general of Canada recently put it: "The regulation of aquaculture in Canada -- and particularly in British Columbia -- is weak. Enforcement is weak. Monitoring is weak."

Joel Connelly
Canada's Fish-Farm Boom is a Blow to Wild Salmon
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 3, 2003

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