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Lawsuit Targets Salmon Pollution

by Jakob Schiller
Berkeley Daily Planet - January 30, 2004

A lawsuit filed early last week in San Francisco Superior Court by the Center for Environmental Health in North Oakland and another Bay Area activist organization could force the growing farmed salmon industry to radically change the way their product is raised.

And at the very least, the lawsuit shines a spotlight on massive changes in the commercial fishing business.

Brought against 50 of the largest farmed-salmon producers and retailers, the suit claims the companies violate California’s Proposition 65 anti-toxins law because they don’t warn consumers about potentially dangerous levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the fish.

Based on reports released by the Environmental Working Group (the co-plaintiff) and the peer-reviewed journal Science, the groups are asking farmed salmon producers to stop using feed that is high in fatty fish and fish oils because PCBs—carcinogens banned in 1976—tend to concentrate in fats.

Both reports show that tests of farmed salmon from companies in United States, Canada, Scotland, England, and Norway reveal PCB levels that would raise health concerns under guidelines established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Prop. 65, passed by voters in 1986, requires businesses to notify Californians about significant levels of toxic chemicals in products they purchase. Farmed salmon companies however, have found a loophole in the structure because the EPA guidelines only apply to wild salmon.

After the reports were released, representatives cited the FDA standards to defend their product —but critics say those levels were originally set in 1984 and have not been reset due to heavy lobbying by the farmed salmon industry.

A representative from the FDA said the department is not concerned with the report and is still encouraging consumers to eat the fish.

EPA levels set in 1999 “are 500 times more protective than the PCB limits applied by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to commercially-sold fish,” the report says.

“In the intervening two decades new scientific research has shown that PCBs that build up in fish and people are more potent cancer-causing agents than originally believed.”

“Under the law, the only thing the company has to do is put a [warning] label, but because it is so market-driven, they don’t want to,” said Joanna Mattson, a toxics researcher with CEH. Instead, “we use the law to force them to reformulate.”

Both groups stress the specificity of the case, saying the suit aims to change the feeding process, not discourage people from eating fish.

Berkeley’s well-known Berkeley Bowl supermarket was one of the test sites in the EWG study that took samples from stores in Portland, Ore., the Bay Area, and Washington D.C. last May. The fish in question came from SalmoCo, a farmed salmon company in Scotland—and, like the rest, their meat showed high levels of PCBs.

According Ted Iijima, fish department manager at the Berkeley Bowl, the store has discontinued most farmed salmon, both as a result of the reports and because their supplier switched the type of salmon they sold. He estimates that it now constitutes less than one percent of total sales.

On the other hand, he says, salmon is the fish department’s biggest seller. He now buys between 1,000-3,000 pounds twice a week.

“Salmon here is our bread and butter,” he said. “If we couldn’t sell salmon I’d half to let go of half my people.”

Salmon sales according to several reports have steadily grown for years, promoted as a heart-healthy protein source. According to the EWG report, salmon overtook “fish sticks” last year as the third most popular seafood in the American diet, behind tuna and shrimp. They say 23 million Americans eat salmon more than once a month, most of it farmed.

Shelly Heart, an Oakland resident shopping for salmon at Berkeley Bowl Wednesday, said her family eats salmon once a week. They don’t eat much farmed salmon because they don’t like the taste. After hearing the report, she says she’ll probably never eat farmed salmon again.

“As you get older, you have to be careful,” she said.

Since the report, many sellers have moved to label their wild salmon as an incentive for buyers. Iijima says he’s been labeling the his fish for more than 10 years, but until recently not many people paid attention.

Several farmed salmon companies, including Black Pearl and Clare Island Sea Farm, have taken the lead in ensuring their salmon are low in PCB levels. According to a Black Pearl press release, contaminant levels are kept down by using fish meal sources “composed of line trimmings from herring, mackerel, shrimp and crustacean (scampi) plants,” creating a product “that is as close to the wild as possible while being certified GMO, animal protein and sea mammal protein-free.”

More broadly, the tests have helped spotlight the farmed salmon industry as a growing environmental hazard, part of what University of Alberta professor of Biological Sciences John Volpe calls the blue revolution.

Like the green revolution on land, he said, the blue revolution has increased sea production at the cost of the surrounding environment. In a recent article published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Volpe describes some of the risks associated with farmed salmon.

“Each net pen (numbering in the hundreds on both of Canada’s coasts) is tantamount to an untreated sewer outfall introducing solid and dissolved wastes directly into the marine environment,” he wrote.

Aquaculture, he said, poses additional environmental risks that could be more severe than those on land.

“When you try to engage in aquaculture, there are a lot of problems,” he told the Daily Planet. “[Water] doesn’t play by the same rules as a feedlot.”

He also examined the issue from a social perspective, focusing on the push by industry to increase productivity of the coasts, the last frontier for agriculture.

“The bottom line is that all the environmental problems we face are physical manifestations of social injustices. This is not a science problem. The multi-nationals are liquidating the natural capital of the coasts,” he said.

Off the Canadian coast, he said, five multinationals now control 80 percent of the farmed salmon industry. As with land-based industries, he says, the companies are interested in increasing profit margins and slashing costs—resulting in a process he calls bio-amplification.

The corporations have developed techniques such as feeding the fish high-fat diets and raising them in offshore pens that not only threaten the environment and our health, but also the fishing community’s culture and sustainability.

Increased production has slashed retail prices, driving out small producers. He points to Chile, where farmed salmon production has skyrocketed. Now, he says, New York fish markets are able to sell farmed Chilean salmon cheaper than wild salmon from Maine.

Like mining or timber, he says, the companies are eager to extract profit and move on. In the end, the culture that surrounds salmon and salmon fishing could be wiped out.

Jakob Schiller
Lawsuit Targets Salmon Pollution
Berkeley Daily Planet, January 30, 2004

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