Aquaculture, in theory, could be a very beneficial for both the environment and consumers. Wild fish stocks are in severe decline and relieving these stocks from commercial predation should be a win-win situation for most of the stakeholders. Unfortunately, salmon farming has introduced new threats into the environment: sea lice, pollution of the marine system in the vicinity of salmon enclosures, and depletion of wild fish stock needed to feed the carnivorous salmon. Furthermore, the Pacific coast salmon-farming operations have preferred to farm the nonnative Atlantic salmon in sea pens, which threatens the natural system with genetic contamination.
Since the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) unapologetically secured the spin services of Hill and Knowlton, it is interesting to observe the spate of communications on salmon farming.
Those bad environmentalists
The salmon-farming industry has identified itself as a “target of relentless propaganda campaign” (1), the major foe being environmentalists who are labeled an “anti-fish farm group.” Environmentalists are attacked on many fronts. One brunt of attack pictures environmentalists as opposing all progress and unrealistically striving to return society to pre-industrial days. The Bellingham Herald writes that “those days are long gone and frankly, they are no more likely to come back than the homes and farms that affect [salmon] habitats are likely to disappear and return the environment to pristine condition.” (2) Aphorisms, seemingly inspired out of the President Bush’s lexicon abound; e.g., “When it comes to aquaculture, the horse is already out of the barn.”
The onus is shifted from the salmon-farming industry to prove the safety of their operations to its opponents to prove that they are unsafe. The Bellingham newspaper states the science is ambiguous and that therefore: “The real argument is whether farmed fish pose a threat to the environment. It simply hasn't been proven that they do so.” (3)
The supporters of salmon farming took exception to efforts to label additives in the feed of farmed salmon -- an exception to the consumer’s right to know. An Idaho weekly posed the question with probable answer: “So who's really driving this effort to drown fish farming? Environmentalists? That’s our bet.” (4)
The level of bombastic vitriol from the corporate press reached the heights of absurdity when Fazil Mihlar of the Vancouver Sun likened the environmentalist opposition to unsound salmon-farming practices to the US-UK aggression against Iraq. “While the bombing of Iraq has stopped, the bombardment of British Columbia’s fisheries and aquaculture industry by environmental groups is continuing.” (5)
Kevin Bight of the Washington Fish Grower’s Association declares: “Historically, there are many examples of how the commercial harvesting of marine fish has led to a collapse of ocean fisheries throughout the world.” As such, aquaculture is, what might be construed as, a necessary evil. “Marine aquaculture,” according to Mr. Bight, “is whether you like it or not, a necessary alternative to simply relying on the natural ecosystems for our food production. (6)
The environmental movement is also critiqued for its success. It is described as immensely well funded and able to pay its CEOs top dollar. Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental reporter Tom Knudson writes: “Chief executives at nine of the top ten U.S. environmental groups make over $US 200,000 per year. One makes over US $300,000. Canadian aquaculture CEOs make 50-66% less in comparison.” (7) This is a very deceptive tactic comparing the salaries of Canadian aquaculture CEOs to the upper echelon of American environmental CEOs -- rather like comparing apples to oranges.
Claire Westby of the Sierra Club of BC states that the Sierra Club’s executive officer makes between C$ 48,000-60,000 depending upon qualifications but added the Sierra Club had even made due with a volunteer executive officer “when the organization couldn’t afford the salary at all.”
Besides, what is the connection between CEO salaries and the environmental impact of salmon farming?
Mr. Knudson reasons that the environmental movement is a growth industry dependent on finding a ‘crisis’ to maintain its growth in funding.
Aquaculture is depicted as “a particularly easy target” for the environmental movement. Industry is likened to a relatively poor underdog in battle against the environmental behemoth. It is rather mysterious then that the salmon-farming industry can afford the high-priced services of Hill and Knowlton. While the industry hires big league mendacity wizards, its supporters bemoan the attraction of the environmental movements to “high profile and powerful individuals.”
From the town of Campbell River, BC, which boasts itself as the salmon capital of the world, Calvin Clandening casts aspersions on the source of funding for the environmentalist movements, alleging it is primarily of shady, foreign origin. Mr. Clandening challenges skeptics: “If in doubt, ask each activist group operating in B.C. to fully disclose an audited source of all their funding. You will find that our opinions are being orchestrated and molded by foreign fund managers and ‘donor advised grantors’ who have far murkier agendas than simply protecting ‘our’ environment.” (8)
I asked about the ‘murky agenda’ and Theresa Bullock of the environmental David Suzuki Foundation responded “all non-profit organizations are responsible for making their annual report and financial statements publicly available.” Ms. Bullock also added that the Executive Director salaries and other executive salaries “are a fraction of those quoted [by Mr. Knudson].”
Ms. Westby of the Sierra Club of BC admits that “there are a lot of US foundations interested in protecting the Canadian environment, just as there are US private companies and shareholders interested in Canada for our natural resources, including logging the last of our old growth forests and putting fish farms along our coasts, which endanger the wild salmon population.”
The alarm over foreign involvement in the environmental movement might equally well be expressed about transnational salmon-farm concerns.
The majority is never right. -- Henrik Ibsen, Enemy of the People
Mr. Knudson takes a cue from playwright Henrik Ibsen’s character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who railed against by the tyranny of the ill-informed masses. Mr. Knudson avers that there are many in the environmental movement who hype, select, and ignore information to support the environmental agenda. He asserts that much of the information presented by the environmental organizations is inaccurate and “it doesn’t seem to matter” because “[f]or the most part, the general public who are not particularly expert on the particulars of the issue, often give the environmental organization the benefit of the doubt over industry or government.” Writes Mr. Knudson, “Many people feel almost religious about the environment. Rational arguments don’t persuade them.” (9)
Skirting the issues
The Economist is a publication that always seems to present the issues in such a seemingly unbiased manner, citing the pros and cons of each position but in such a way that the corporate interest approximates the best solution. A similar sophistry is used to push the argument that the benefits of aquaculture outweigh the risks. It argues land agriculture was a worse culprit and that “there is no sense in expecting modern aquaculture to emerge immediately as a perfect food supply that pleases everyone.” (10)
The market-loving magazine readily confesses that “plenty of fish farming makes a nasty mess” but reasons that even “industrialists made a nasty mess” [italics added] early on, phrasing this in the past tense as if industry were squeaky clean today. To paraphrase: others made mistakes in the beginning too. The oddity of the premise is that, of the exemplar proffered, much of industry still continues to pollute.
The Economist cites renowned biology expert, Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, who contends that salmon farming is a bad kind of farming in that it increases pressure on the marine system by depleting feedstock. The Economist acknowledges “a fatal weakness” as revealed by scientific evidence that “several kilos of wild caught fish were needed to feed every kilo of farmed salmon.” It is noted, however, that good aquaculture, of vegetarian or filter-feeding marine creatures, represents the bulk of global aquaculture production and thereby downplays the effects of bad aquaculture.
“[A]quaculture’s promise” is touted to relieve pressure on wild-caught fish, and “alleviate poverty and food shortages in some of the world’s poorest countries.” This is all laudable but salmon farming is an aquaculture, Chile excluded, that is practiced primarily in economically privileged economies of the North. In another article The Economist warns of “the diversion of low-value fish from the mouths of people in developing countries into the mouths of well-fed fish in the developed world.” (11)
Focusing on salmon’s nutritional value
The proponents of salmon farming are quick to defend the nutritional value of farmed salmon. Salmon is a good source of protein with the health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids in abundance. While there are also questions over the use of additives and medication in feed, there are few who dispute the wholesomeness of uncontaminated salmon as food. A recent article in Time though warns of PCB levels in salmon that exceed US EPA standards. (12)
Questioning the Science
The salmon-farming industry while often ducking scientific evidence does on occasion challenge the science.
On the topic of feed, Mr. Bight notes “that the feed utilized in salmon farming is essentially the same as the feed given to the 5 billion hatchery salmon released each year into the Pacific Ocean. Incidentally, those fish are fed hatchery feeds that contain the same synthetic pigments used by salmon farmers. Shouldn’t those fish be labeled at the grocery store also?” (13) The short answer is: no. First, not all wild-caught salmon were hatchery raised. Second, even if the salmon were hatchery raised, they were hatchery fed for only a brief duration in their life cycle whereas the farmed salmon are fed their entire life cycle in captivity.
Regarding the use of antibiotics in feed, Mr. Bight declares that medication is not “a staple item” and it “accounts for less than 1.5% of the total feed used per year by salmon farmers.” It sounds like a small number but it is unnatural. The danger of feeding antibiotics to stock destined for human consumption is well delineated. (14)
Executive Director of the BCSFA, Mary Ellen Walling, responding to the danger of genetic contamination posed by escaped farm stock argues that “there are no wild Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean and therefore if BC farm-raised Atlantic salmon were to escape, there would be no wild counterparts for them to breed with. Salmon species do not cross-breed naturally.” [italics added] (15) This is basically true but The Economist notes that in the last decade one million escaped Atlantic salmon have “established” themselves in the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest. (16) Cross-breeding is an obfuscation of that fact that the Atlantic species is successfully spawning in Pacific waterways and that represents the introduction of a nonnative species into the wild system.
Economic benefits of salmon farming
The salmon-farming industry adds to economic growth and creates jobs. Mr. Mihlar delineates the C$287 million in revenue generated by BC aquaculture in 2001 providing employment for 1900 people. (17)
The Economist maintains that as aquaculture becomes more profitable, “it may start to undercut the costs of open-seas fishing.” (18) This may destroy a traditional livelihood. The Bellingham Herald laments: “There is no doubt that farmed fish pose a threat to fishers' livelihoods, but that is a part of living in a free-market economy.” (19)
The newspaper rationalizes this job loss. “It's unrealistic to think that we can meet the world's demand for fish using solely wild fish. That, in part, is what led us to depleted stocks in the first place.”
Creating an environmentally-sound salmon-farming industry
One demand made of salmon farms is that they move their operations on land to eliminate the escape of the farmed species into the wild. John Duncan, a parliamentarian from North Vancouver Island uses data from Dr. Patrick Moore, former Greenpeace head, to calculate an operational cost of C$200 million to burn the fossil fuel needed to aerate a land-based farm system. (20) Seemingly the economics of a land-based operation are dubious and it is environmentally darned if you do, darned if you don’t. But as the Bellingham Herald states: “[K]eeping farmed fish cheap can't be the priority. If environmental safeguards cost more and drive up the price of farmed fish, then so be it.” (21)
The dangers posed to the environment must be addressed. Farming salmon at the peril of the wild native species is unacceptable. The benefits of environmentally-sound salmon farming practices are acknowledged and are welcomed. Mr. Bight agrees: “Certainly marine farming should be a well regulated, sustainable enterprise, just like any other human endeavor.” (22)
Don Staniford of The Salmon Farm Protest Group -- who also presides over the very informative Salmon Farm Monitor website -- makes clear that the salmon-farming industry has chosen to propagandize its way past its detractors:
“That salmon farmers in British Columbia are prepared to jump into bed with a PR company who deals in international disasters such as the Gulf War and Three Mile Island illustrates the depth of the crisis facing Canadian salmon farming. Yet, even the expensive fire-fighting emergency services of Hill and Knowlton cannot mask the stench of corruption and contamination currently coming from Canadian salmon farming. No amount of PR patter can hide the fact that farmed salmon is contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins. Like their Scottish, Irish and Chilean counterparts the BCSFA are fighting a losing battle to persuade the general public that farmed salmon is anything other than a fatty, artificially coloured, contaminated, cheap and nasty product. Money can clearly buy you the best PR company in the world but no amount of money can buy back consumer confidence and public trust.”
* Related Article: Farmageddon and the Spin-Doctors
Kim Petersen lives in Canada and is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Other Recent Articles by Kim Petersen
(1) Chris Hatfield, “Fishing for the Truth: BC’s salmon farms are the target of a relentless propaganda campaign fuelled by hearsay and unsupported by scientific fact,” Vancouver Province, Tuesday 1 April 2003. Available on BCSFA website: http://www.salmonfarmers.org/media/2003/04_01_03.htm
(2) Opinion, “Recent research indicates nonnative species might not cause as much environmental harm as previously thought,” Bellingham Herald, 4 April 2003:
(4) “Salmon lawsuit has a fishy aroma,” AG Weekly, 26 April 2003. Available on BCSFA website: http://www.salmonfarmers.org/media/2003/04_26_03.htm
(5) Fazil Mihlar, “A fish story that’s worth talking about,” The Vancouver Sun, Monday 12 May 2003, p A10 according to BCSFA email
(6) Kevin Bright, “WFGA Pres. Responds to Seattle Weekly Article,” Washington Fish Growers Association, 12 May 2003: http://www.wfga.net/news.asp?id=4014
(7) Tom Knudson, “What is in Store for Environmentalism?” BCSFA email, 25 May 2003
(8) Calvin Clandening, “The truth is out there,” Courier-Islander, 21 May 2003. Available on BCSFA website: http://www.salmonfarmers.org/media/2003/05_21_03.htm
(9) Knudson, Ibid
(10) Leaders, “A new way to feed the world,” The Economist, 9 August 2003, p 9
(11) Special Report, “The promise of a blue revolution,” The Economist, 9 August 2003, p 19-21
(12) Alice Park, “How safe is salmon?” Time, 11 August 2003. Available on EWG website: http://www.ewg.org/news/story.php?id=1899
(13) Bight, Ibid
(14) Laurent Belsie “Doctors Weigh in Against Antibiotics in Animal Feed,” Christian Science Monitor, 22 June 2001. Available on Common Dreams website: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines01/0622-01.htm
(15) Mary Ellen Walling, “Letter to the Province Newspaper – In Response to the ‘Oversexed, farmed, fugitive fish threaten wild salmon’ article written on June 5,” BCSFA, 5 June 2003: http://www.salmonfarmers.org/media/2003/06_05_03b.htm
(16) Special Report, Ibid
(17) Mihlar, Ibid
(18) Special Report, Ibid
(19) Opinion, Ibid
(20) John Duncan, “Exploding some myths about farmed salmon,” BCSFA, 2 July 2003: http://www.salmonfarmers.org/pdfs/myths.pdf
(21) Opinion, Ibid
(22) Bight, Ibid