On the west coast of Canada, biologist Alexandra Morton warned about salmon farms acting as a conduit for sea lice infestation of wild salmon. Sea lice infestation has been associated with the annihilation of wild salmon. The salmon world is abuzz again with corroborative research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in late March. The scientific conclusions set the salmon-farming operators back on the defensive again.
The peer-reviewed primary scientific literature on sea lice interactions between wild and farmed salmon in British Columbia makes the following conclusions: (1) infection rates on wild juvenile pink salmon were greater in salmon farming regions than in regions without salmon farms; (2) within a salmon farming region most lice on wild juvenile pink and chum salmon originated from farmed salmon; and (3) transmission of lice from farmed to wild salmon leads to population growth and spread of lice in wild salmon populations. Salmon aquaculture likely has negative impacts on wild salmon populations and the next scientific challenge is to quantify this impact. (1)
Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA), complained in an editorial that “when public scrutiny is driven by activist agendas with little regard for the truth, companies, communities and consumers are the losers.” (2) The listed order is significant: companies are primary with consumers listed last.
The BCSFA cloaks itself in casuistry and victimhood: “As many people will know, the British Columbia salmon farming industry is a current target of environmental activist groups. These groups have engaged in a well-funded and well-coordinated campaign to misrepresent the truth and malign our industry.” This is a strange accusation coming from an industry composed mainly of foreign-owned multinational corporations -- an industry that stooped to hiring notorious spinmeister Hill and Knowlton: a firm that specializes in weaving lies for its clients. (3)
Walling posed a challenge to “activists” based on three examples.
She cited the 2004 study in the peer-review journal Science, which indicated significantly higher levels of PCBs in farmed versus wild salmon. (4) Walling didn’t dispute the finding but argued the “PCB levels in both wild and farmed fish to be well within safe limits set by Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration.” A contradiction appears here. The BCSFA decries decision-making not based on facts and science, and yet it laments conclusions drawn from published scientific studies. Concerning toxin levels, Rachel Carson noted in her environmental classic: “One part in a million sounds like a very small amount -- and so it is. But such substances are so potent that a minute quantity can bring about vast changes in the body.” (5) Walling neglected to mention that unlike the US Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has more stringent guidelines that are health-based and that the toxicity levels of farmed salmon exceeded EPA “safe” limits. It is also important to realize that toxicity levels are only guidelines and not regulations.
Walling added that “regrettably, PCBs are a ubiquitous environmental contaminant found in almost every food we eat and that levels in salmon are much lower than in many other foods.”
What, one wonders, is meant by the fact that PCBs are a ubiquitous contaminant? Is this not rather a cause for alarm -- an alarm sounded over four decades ago by Carson? PCBs are synthetic toxins and are only present in the environment because of human actions. Walling is, in fact, suggesting that consumers should eschew caution about toxins in their food.
Walling raised the issue of sea lice levels in the Broughton Archipelago of northern Vancouver Island: “Ironically the activist critics chose to raise this issue at a time when the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans reported that pink returns in the Broughton were higher than anticipated and that this year’s numbers were a significant improvement over the low brood returns of 2002.
This is absurd. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is very much considered to be a government creature pandering to corporate interests and any pronouncements coming from the DFO must be greeted with extreme skepticism. (6) Nevertheless, assuming DFO projections of returning salmon were reasonable, boasting about a significant improvement over the pink salmon crash of 2001-2002, where the population plunged a whopping 99 per cent (7), is unmitigated chutzpah.
Walling took issue with “they” who alleged that “the treatment salmon-farmers use to treat sea lice outbreaks was a banned substance and that drug residues are showing up in salmon going to market. In fact, this substance is not banned, it is registered or regulated -- in several countries in Europe and is in the process of registration in Canada and the United States.”
This appears to be an admission of the use of an unregistered substance within Canadian jurisdiction. But whether the pesticide is regulated or not is a distraction. The sea lice pesticides are highly toxic and dangerous. They are deleterious to other organisms such as shellfish. Further, the sea lice quickly develop resistance leading to a “warped chemical weapons race.” (8)
Walling never mentioned the name of the allegers or the banned substance. I emailed Don Staniford, aquaculture campaigner with Friends of Clayoquot Sound. He responded, “As far as I am aware, ‘they’ (whoever ‘they’ are) have never alleged Emamectin Benzoate (aka Slice - presumably this is what she is referring to) is a banned substance.” (9)
“The BCSFA is being deliberately disingenuous in asserting that the toxic chemical Slice is legal and hence it must be safe. Just take the cocktail of legalized chemicals (dichlorvos, TBT, cypermethrin, azamethiphos, malachite green etc) used extensively by salmon farmers but later found to be carcinogenic, mutagenic and/or highly toxic. The use of Slice in Canadian waters (and anywhere else in the world) is nothing more than state-sponsored pollution. To suggest that using a marine pollutant in the marine environment is a safe way of doing business is morally and ecologically bankrupt.”
Noted Walling, “In addition, there has not been a single fish found that exceeds the allowable residue limit set by Health Canada.” Carson was clear that allowable residue levels should be zero. “[T]o establish tolerances is to authorize contamination of public supplies with poisonous chemicals in order that the farmer and the processor may enjoy the benefit of cheaper production -- then penalize the consumer by forcing him to maintain a policing agency to make certain that he shall not get a lethal dose.” (10)
Walling asserted, “Farmed salmon from BC is a safe and nutritious product scientifically proven to combat the number one killer in North America: heart disease.” In other words, to combat heart disease, one should consume a product polluted with toxins. What about other diseases? The liver is the body’s detoxification center and increased exposure to toxins is correlated with liver malfunction. Carson pointed out “… common sense suggests that the relation between a soaring rate of liver disease and the prevalence of liver poisons in the environment is no coincidence.” (11)
That the campaign for safe salmon is having an affect, is adduced by Walling’s frustration: “The frustrating thing for us has been to watch the activist critics change their tactics as we address the concerns they raise: first they focused on environmental issues; then they moved to food safety, most recently they returned to sea lice. Each time, they position themselves as ‘experts’ and disparage the academic credentials of those who disagree with them, including scientists who work for industry or government, many of whom hold PhDs from prestigious universities but who are discredited as having a biased position on aquaculture.”
That the case against salmon is open to attack on so many fronts is suggestive. As for the notion of bias, it is illustrative to ask a couple of questions. What does the average activist opposed to current fish-farming techniques have to gain? For Original Peoples, there is the sanctity of a cleaner environment; for everyone this would be true. For commercial fishermen, it would be less competition and better prices for wild caught fish. For the average consumer though, the result would be a more wholesome product but probably at a higher price. What does the salmon farmer have to gain from opposition to industry regulation? Regulations are feared as costly measures that will eat into profit.
With so much at stake, the greater question is how the salmon farmers are able to avoid implementing “safe” salmon-farming practices. Morton wrote:
Because wild salmon require functional habitat from the tops of mountains, down through richly forested watersheds, along the coastal shelf and out to sea, politicians can’t bear the consequence of taking a stand to protect them. They would say “no” to the loggers who want to take the most valuable trees now standing in the last thriving watersheds, “no” to those who scheme to dam, divert, and sell BC’s fresh water, “no” to miners wanting to dump tailings into the rivers, and most importantly, “no” to the oilmen greedily eyeing our coast. To these politicians, farm salmon means a salmon that means no habitat. It is a good deal for them. (12)
Walling went off on a tangent: “Wild stocks aren’t going to be protected by having us eat more of them -- there’s no viable commercial cod or wild salmon fishery in Atlantic Canada as an example -- and if we look at the BC Auditor General’s Report, published in October 2004, we can see that there are many risks to wild salmon. The impacts of aquaculture are well down the list.” Interesting, is the admission that salmon farming does impact on wild salmon stocks. Why did the east coast cod fishery collapse and why are the wild Atlantic salmon now so scarce? Overfishing led to the collapse of the east coast cod. (13) The Atlantic Salmon Federation cited “poorly-regulated salmon aquaculture practices” as a contributing factor to the plunging number of wild salmon on the Canadian and American Atlantic coast. (14)
Walling eventually overcame her frustration and optimistically proclaimed, “The 4000 men and women working in BC’s aquaculture industry are very confident that farmed salmon and wild salmon co-exist very well in BC waters.”
Walling began her editorial emphasizing the preeminence of science and fact over emotion and wound up her article by feeling “confident” in the co-existence of salmon in BC waters. However, that nonnative farmed salmon escape and “co-exist” (it is an Orwellian leap to characterize an invading species in competition with native species as co-existing) with wild salmon is a cause for great concern.
Wrote Walling: “We’re committed to being a part of the solution and we see a tremendous opportunity to build a sustainable future for aquaculture in BC.”
The commitment is to build a sustainable aquaculture in BC. This sounds fanciful but why not state a commitment to an environmentally safe and sustainable aquaculture? Why not state a commitment to rearing, insofar as possible, a toxin-, pesticide-, hormone-, antibiotic-, synthetic chemical-free farmed salmon? Instead the commitment is to the industry itself; in other words building a sustainable source of profit.
So the BCSFA was only posturing when it claimed it would “like to work in partnership to ensure wild salmon are protected” because the only “safe” solution has been advocated for a long time: closed-loop containment systems. But that would eat too much profit.
Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Martin Krkošek, Mark A. Lewis, and John P. Volpe, “Transmission Dynamics of Parasitic Sea Lice from Farm to Wild Salmon, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 30 March 2005
(2) Mary Ellen Walling, “Wild versus farmed Salmon: Emotion Versus Facts,” British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association, 15 April 2004
(3) Kim Petersen, “Farmageddon and the Spin-doctors,” Dissident Voice, 29 March 2003
(4) Ronald A. Hites, Jeffery A. Foran, David O. Carpenter, M. Coreen Hamilton, Barbara A. Knuth, Steven J. Schwager, “Global Assessment of Organic Contaminants in Farmed Salmon,” Science, 9 January 2004, 303: 226-229
(5) Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962, 1987), 21
(6) Stephen Hume, Alexandra Morton, Betty C. Keller, Rosella M. Leslie, Otto Langer, and Don Staniford, A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (Harbour Publishing, 2004). This book is scathing indictment of the salmon-farming industry. See review.
(7) Alexandra Morton, “Dying of Salmon Farming” in A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming, 199-237
(8) Don Staniford, “Silent Spring upon the Sea” in A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming, 145-198. Staniford draws inspiration from Carson’s classic to address the myriad dangers posed by the chemical stew in use by salmon farms today.
(9) Press Release, “Report Shows Health Canada Allowing Widespread Use of Emergency Drug in Farmed Salmon,” Raincoast Conservation Society, 9 December 2004
(10) Carson, op. cit., 183
(11) Ibid, 192
(12) Morton, op. cit., 235
(13) Robert Hunter, 2030: Confronting Thermogeddon in our Lifetime (McClelland and Stewart, 2002). A fish boat captain admitted that fishermen from every country had knowingly pillaged the east coast cod fishery, all for immediate gain.
(14) Press Release, “Wild Atlantic Salmon in Crisis,” Atlantic Salmon Federation, 3 June 2004
Other Recent Articles by Kim Petersen
* The Progressive Paradox: Defining Viability
* The Shame
* The Wrong Direction
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