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

Salmon Farming: The Down Side

Air Date: Week of

With the numbers of wild fish plummeting around the world, fish farming is often touted as a good way to satisfy demand. It's already big business. Now just about half of the salmon sold in this country is raised in pens set out in coastal waters. But some say as aquaculture has grown, too many fish farms operate in ways that hurt the environment and pose health threats to humans. As Bob Carty found out, no where are concerns more pointed than in British Columbia, the world's fourth largest producer of farmed salmon.


With the numbers of wild fish plummeting around the world, fish farming is often touted as a good way to satisfy demand. And it's already big business. Now, just about half of the salmon sold in this country is raised in pens, set out in coastal waters. But some say that as aquaculture has grown, too many fish farms operate in ways that hurt the environment and pose health threats to humans. As Bob Carty found out, nowhere are concerns more pointed than in British Columbia, the world's fourth largest producer of farmed salmon.

(Water splashing. Bird calls. Large splash)

VERNON: What we're seeing is a very brightly colored silver fish. If you look at them as they come out of the water, you'll notice that their belly is quite white. Their backs tend to be a bluey-gray color, and they've all got the same colored eyes. They're all blue-eyed.

(Gulls call)

CARTY: Bill Vernon stands on a platform floating atop the black waters of Clayoquot Sound off the west coast of British Columbia's Vancouver Island. The tides ebb and flow here through one of the most beautiful fjords in Canada. An old growth rainforest rises up behind us. You wouldn't know it, but this is prime farm territory.

VERNON: This farm is made up of 24 pens and the pens are 15 meters square. And hanging within the steel framework is some netting that is hanging down into the water about 15 to 16 meters. This pen, particular pen, holds about 6,000 fish.

CARTY: Bill Vernon is the general manager of Creative Salmon, a multi-million dollar operation that sells these blue-eyed fish in New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. He's part of an industry that went from almost nothing in 1980 to being British Columbia's leading agricultural export today. A hundred forty million dollars a year in sales. The success is partly because restaurants love farm salmon. While some say it doesn't taste as good as wild salmon, chefs can count on a year-round supply of fresh fish of a uniform size and appearance. Add to that the American consumer's craving for low-fat protein. US demand for British Columbia farmed salmon has grown 700% in the last decade.

(Commercial music and man's voice-over: "Fresh salmon has a reputation as America's most wanted seafood. And for years, our American neighbors have enjoyed the delicious, unforgettable flavor British Columbia salmon brings to the table."

CARTY: As this industry promotional video suggests, the British Columbia salmon farming business is hungry for expansion.

(Video continues: "America's most wanted seafood is never caught. It is raised.")

CARTY: But there is a problem. Two years ago the provincial government stopped issuing salmon farm licenses. No more farms until it finished an environmental impact assessment. That move ignited a highly polarized debate. On one side, environmentalists, native groups, and fishermen, who say they're not against fish farming per se, just the way it's done here. On the other side, the salmon farmers. Not your mom and pop kind of family farm, but 7 big companies, many of them multinationals, which control 80% of production. Each side in this debate is armed with voluminous reports, all on recycled paper, citing scientific proof that salmon farming is safe or unsafe. Environmentally benign or harmful. Over-regulated or under-regulated. Life is not so simple down on the fish farm.

(Splashing and shoveling)

VERNON: Right now we're watching one of the employees toss some feed to the fish. We feed in the morning, get as much feed in as we can because feed in means larger fish. These particular fish go in, they're around 15 to 20 grams, and they'll be ready for harvest in about 14 months at 3 kilos or so.

CARTY: At Bill Vernon's farm, the water churns as 6,000 salmon, each almost an arm's length long, chase after the food pellets. The feed is a highly-guarded recipe, sometimes supplemented with drugs and antibiotics. It's mostly made up of fish meal that comes from waters off Peru. And that's the subject of the first controversy at fish farms. Jim Fulton is executive director of an environmental research organization, the David Suzuki Foundation. He calls salmon farming a net loss.

FULTON: There is actually a net loss of protein. What the salmon aquaculture industry performs is the diversion of very high quality human consumable food from one part of the planet where they're poor, South America, to an area where people are wealthy, British Columbia, and then don't feed it to Canadians, pop it on an airplane, and fly it down to Los Angeles or New York.

CARTY: Salmon farmers respond that this kind of argument could apply to all livestock farming. Greg Davignon is the executive director of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association.

DAVIGNON: Farmed salmon are the most efficient users of meal of any agricultural product in the marketplace. Some groups that would choose to oppose this industry do so with misinformation, or with emotional rhetoric. Salmon farming as it's currently practiced in British Columbia presents a low probability of risk, of adverse effects to the BC Environment.

CARTY: The aquaculture industry likes to think of itself as just another kind of farming: on water instead of land. But there are differences. Fish farms invite predators. Each year salmon farmers shoot or kill 500 seals, up to 50 sea lions, and uncounted numbers of diving birds. And these ocean feed lots, each with tens of thousands of salmon, leave a bit of a mess in the water around and underneath the net cages. And the farms sit on public, not private, property: the ocean. If soil farmers can't dump animal sewage on public lands, why should salmon farmers? Jim Fulton.

FULTON: They're producing the same amount of sewage every day as a city of 500,000 Canadians. So you've got feces going down below, you've got drugs going down below, you've got disease pathogens escaping out of the cages, you've got salmon escaping out of the cages. It's like a giant prison system where, you know, the guards have gone off work and the inmates have taken over.

(Water splashes. Gulls cry.)

CARTY: Native groups along the west coast are concerned that waste from fish farms is tainting the shellfish they catch. There's also a worry about the farm salmon interacting with wild salmon. Most farm salmon is not native to these waters. They are Atlantic salmon, imported as eggs because as they grow they are more docile than Pacific salmon. They cope better with the stresses of the net cages. But over the years more than a million Atlantic salmon have escaped the farm into the wild. Katherine Stewart is the oceans and fisheries campaigner for Greenpeace Canada. She maintains that escapees from fish farms could cause the genetic pollution of wild Pacific salmon stocks.

STEWART: Each individual run of salmon is genetically unique. They've adapted to their stream of origin. Now, if you introduce 60,000 farm fish who start breeding, there's every possibility that they could become dominant in that stream and they could be the ones to successfully breed and they could be the ones successfully foraging for food, and basically eradicating the wild stocks, the natural stocks. So you're effectively creating a monoculture of non-indigenous to that stream.

CARTY: That's a concern from Puget Sound to Maine to wherever there is both fish farming and wild fish. In Norway, the world's leader in salmon aquaculture, farm salmon now outnumber wild salmon by 4 to 1 in many streams and rivers. Genetic diversity has been reduced. But west coast salmon farmers point out that here, escaped Atlantic salmon have to compete with the more aggressive Pacific varieties. None of the Atlantics have yet been found spawning in Canadian streams. But some scientists say it's only a matter of time, especially as over-fishing weakens the stocks of Pacific salmon. Another part of the debate about farm salmon is the issue of disease. Katherine Stewart of Greenpeace.

STEWART: Fish farms cram 60, 80,000 salmon in a pen in very densely-packed conditions. The salmon are stressed, this is not their natural habitat at all. You're taking a highly-migratory species and confining it to a very small, little pen. So there are outbreaks of disease, and there are antibiotics used to treat those diseases. In Norway the government has deliberately poisoned, with the pesticide rotenone, 24 rivers, wild salmon rivers, because of the spread of sea lice from farm fish to wild fish. The government felt they had no other choice but to kill every living thing in the river and try to start all over again.

DAVIGNON: Again, this is the emotional nonsense that's put out by opponents that would see this industry undermined. They're referring to something called gyrodactylus. Gyrodactylus in Norway was imported with live fish by the state for enhancement purposes. You cannot import live salmon into Canada. You can only import eggs. They're brought into quarantine in Canada and tested 4 separate times for disease. They're surface disinfected, so in that instance gyrodactylus is something that would never come into British Columbia.

CARTY: Salmon farming spokesman Greg Davignon's counter-argument is true, but not failsafe. Eggs disinfected on the surface can carry foreign diseases inside. But the greater concern is that the salmon net cages, dense with fish, food, and feces, are perfect places for native diseases. Those diseases could be passed to wild fish swimming by, and that worries Julian Davies, who heads the Department of Microbiology at the University of British Columbia.

DAVIES: It's like a childcare center. We all know that our children get one of them gets a cold, the whole school gets a cold. And it's the same thing with a fish farm. One of them gets a virus and they all get the virus. And providing that they are kept in the pens and things like this, then I, there's not a problem. But if the fish get out and they infect the wild salmon, then that's clearly a major problem, and that could affect, you know, the fish stocks for some time.

CARTY: Microbiologist Julian Davies says salmon farming may even pose dangers to humans because of the use of antibiotics to fight infections in the net cages. The industry points out that it is reducing the amount of antibiotics it uses. Instead, fish are vaccinated against diseases. And in relative terms, many more antibiotics are used in human medicine and agriculture than in fish farming. But Julian Davies is still concerned. The antibiotics used in fish are also used in humans. So Dr. Davies worries that bacteria on fish farms could transfer their antibiotic resistance to bacteria that affect humans.

DAVIES: Humans could acquire this just simply by handling fish. Eating it is not so much of a problem. I mean, if you cook it, it's all right. I sometimes wonder about sushi, seriously. (Laughs) I don't eat sushi, myself. There is a finite possibility that people could ingest antibiotic-resistant organisms. Now, those organisms are not going to be pathogens to the human host, but they can transfer their resistance to the human host, and that's the thing that we're really concerned about.

CARTY: The environmental challenges of salmon farming have been studied by British Columbia's Environmental Assessment Office. It just submitted a massive, 1,800-page report to the government, recommending that salmon farming be given a yellow light: allowing it to expand but with caution and conditions. Those conditions include better siting of fish farms, the protection of shellfish from farm wastes, a reduction in the number of mammals killed, and overall, much better regulation. The report calls for more research on the issues of escaped fish, disease transfer, waste disposal, and antibiotic use. The Suzuki Foundation's Jim Fulton welcomes the report, but it didn't go as far as he would have liked.

FULTON: Salmon farming must be regulated with closed loop systems. Those are hard-sided tanks that can float in the ocean, where you completely contain feces, sewage, drugs, disease pathogens, and the fish themselves. And while you're doing that, it also means that the sea lions and seals and otters and diving birds won't be killed by the sea farms, by going to a technology that is available now, and it's cost-competitive.

(Mechanical sounds)

VERNON: Out on the end of the dock here you see our processing plant. We bring the fish in here and unload them here, and then they're gutted and gills are removed. And they're stowed in totes in ice and sent off to market.

CARTY: In the town of Tofino, on the waters of Claquad Sound, Bill Vernon shows off his company's processing plant. Fish leaving here today may tomorrow be on the menu of a fine restaurant in San Francisco. Salmon farmers say that if the government gives them a green light, they could invest millions of dollars that could increase production 5-fold in a matter of years. But native groups say they'll fight new salmon farms with civil disobedience if necessary. Environmentalists still want more controls. And fishermen complain farm salmon will hurt the wild catch. Salmon farming is turning out to be a messy kettle of fish. For Living on Earth I'm Bob Carty in Tofino, British Columbia.



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