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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Salmon Farming

Air Date: Week of

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Many critics of ocean fish pens continue to raise concerns about pollution from fish waste, disease, and fish escapes. But the public is eating more farmed fish than ever and British Columbia is set to lift a seven year ban on new fish farms. Cheryl Colopy reports.


CURWOOD: Critics of salmon farming say the environmental risks of water pollution, disease and genetic mixing far outweigh the benefits of having a year-round supply of cheap, low cholesterol protein. In 1995, those concerns led to a moratorium on new fish farms in British Columbia. The Canadian government now says it wants to lift that ban. And the announcement has re-ignited the controversy over salmon farming. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Cheryl Colopy reports.


COLOPY: Trays of pink salmon steaks and fillets glisten behind the glass at Ver Brugge’s Market in Oakland.

VER BRUGGE: Today, in the cabinet, we have all farmed salmon. There has been no wild catch to speak of.

COLOPY: Jerry Van Brugge says he’s always on the lookout for good wild salmon. But much of the year it’s not in season, or local fisherman are not finding any. Loyal customers arrive in a steady stream. Janet Schneider is one of many who says she doesn’t know the difference between wild and farmed fish.

SCHNEIDER: I guess I always thought fresh was fresh. Well, it was caught– well I guess, it ran wild first.

COLOPY: Jerry Van Brugge says most customers don’t know or don’t care about the growth hormones and antibiotics frequently used in fish farming, or about the food coloring fed to farm salmon to change their flesh from gray to pink just before they go to market.

VAN BRUGGE: I would say generally 90% of the population is accepting of those fish.

COLOPY: In the past decade, global production of farmed salmon has tripled. The industry produces nearly a million tons of salmon each year, enough to fill big rig trucks stretched bumper to bumper for 700 miles. As with hog, cattle and dairy farming these days, salmon work is often factory work.


COLOPY: This plant on Quadra Island, off the coast of British Columbia, is spotless. Workers wear smocks and hairnets. Salmon used to be seasonal. But now, it’s a year-round industry. So the equipment that workers use to vacuum blood and guts from the meat is specially designed to limit repetitive stress.

Bright silver carcasses drop off the conveyor belt. Premium grade will go to sushi restaurants in Japan. Fish with tiny defects may be bound for your neighborhood fish market. Farms in Chile produce more of the 40-pounders sold at big box stores like Costco.


COLOPY: This increased supply of farmed salmon has caused prices to drop to record lows. Fishermen from California to Alaska are going out of business because they can’t compete with the farmed product. Roz Naylor, a researcher at Stanford University, specializes in the economics of food production.

NAYLOR: Consumers are buying this very cheap farmed salmon. And they’re saying, "Look at this. Isn’t this great? All this fish are on the market and they’re available, and they’re uniform quality," and so forth. But the consumers are not paying for any of the external or the environmental costs associated with this.

COLOPY: Naylor says one of those costs is feeding these cows of the sea. In the wild, salmon are predators. They eat fish.

NAYLOR: Many people do think that agriculture is relieving all the pressure on ocean fisheries, and that if they just buy farmed salmon that they’re, in fact, saving wild fish in the oceans. And, that’s not at all the case. Because for salmon, they actually eat fish in their fish meal for feed. And they actually consume more fish than is being produced in the farming systems.

COLOPY: That means small fish, like anchovies and sardines, are being depleted to make food pellets for salmon. Scientists are alarmed that there won’t be enough of the small fish left for wild marine life to eat. What’s more, uneaten food pellets that fall to the ocean floor have polluted coastal areas say critics of salmon farming.


COLOPY: Forested islands float on dark water here in a quiet inlet off the coast of Vancouver Island. A dozen huge mesh enclosures filled with salmon stretch out from the shoreline. Called "net pens," they’re 100 feet square, 70 feet deep.


COLOPY: Food pellets are pumped through flexible tubes from a warehouse onshore and sprayed out over the net pens. Underwater cameras in each pen capture the multitude of fish circling and feeding. Above on the deck, workers monitor TV screens so they can shut off the spray of pellets when the fish lose interest in eating. Anita Petersen, who works for BC Salmon Farmers, says the cameras are just one of many environmental improvements on salmon farms.

PETERSEN: One of the concerns for environmentalists and other individuals is that there’s too much falling to the bottom of the cages underneath the pen systems. And, with the cameras here, what has happened is that the fish farmers become just master observers.

COLOPY: Petersen says the amount of food pellets falling to the ocean floor is now negligible, both because of the careful monitoring and because the pellets themselves have been reengineered to descend slowly in the water. That gives the salmon extra time to eat them.

A few weeks ago, British Columbia’s Minister of Agriculture Food and Fisheries, John Van Dongen, told me improvements like these mean it’s safe to lift a six year moratorium and allow the industry to expand.

VAN DONGEN: The people that are running these sites, they are professional biologists, veterinarians. I mean, they’re professional people. They have their own code of conduct that they have to be accountable for.

COLOPY: It’s not just pollution, but fish escapes and outbreaks of disease on the farms that have troubled critics. Van Dongen says farms must not report any escapes within 24 hours. He says though officials take the problem of escape seriously, they’ve decided salmon aquaculture can coexist safely with wild fisheries. But researcher John Volpe of the University of Alberta says there’s still an astounding lack of science on fish farming.

VOLPE: There are no criteria for evaluating what a successful program would be. How many escapes are too much? How much effluent, crap into the water, is too much? How much antibiotic that are released into the environment is too much? Everything is qualitative. Everything is basically feel-good. We’re making lots of money. Everybody be happy.

COLOPY: The salmon industry has always claimed that domesticated Atlantic salmon are too dumb to survive in the wild. But Volpe says he’s found large numbers of them where they should not be, upstream in British Columbia rivers.

He says his own experiments show that they do spawn. And there’s real danger Atlantic salmon will keep native fish, whose numbers are severely depleted, from re-populating rivers. Fishermen and environmentalists also worry that the abundance of cheap, farmed salmon on the market now obscures the crisis in the rivers where these fish originated.


COLOPY: Bill Bakke, founder of the Native Fish Society, muses on the banks of the fast- flowing Salmon River in Oregon.

BAKKE: The salmon have been evolving on this coast for 40 to 50 million years. And they have been constantly adapting to a changing environmental, volcanism, earthquakes, floods, droughts, fires.

COLOPY: Bakke says in the Northwest, 40 percent of the wild salmon runs are extinct. He’s afraid more wild salmon runs will die out as a burgeoning aquaculture industry brings genetic dilution and disease, and its lobbyists gain influence.

BAKKE: Aquaculture, I think, is going to become more and more powerful as time goes on, and capturing more and more of the political resources that are important to it, but at the expense of wild salmon recovery.

COLOPY: But even as more and more consumers choose salmon over chicken or beef, there are new attempts to reign in the industry. Alaska has banned salmon farming outright to protect the wild catch.

And in Washington, officials plan to require all farm fish to be branded so escapes can be traced back to their growers. And there are efforts to label fish so shoppers will know exactly what they’re buying. For Living on Earth, I’m Cheryl Colopy on the Salmon River in Oregon.



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