The Great Auks, Wild Salmon, and Money
by Kim Petersen

January 15, 2004

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It is important to hold on to these things in the face of a barrage of criticism from anti-fish farm activists, who want to portray the industry as another Chernobyl. To listen to them, we would be surprised not to find the whole of the west coast as dead, poisoned waters, ripe with algal blooms and gender-changing chemicals….Intensive farming operations which use cannibalism in feeding gave us BSE and scrapie: to avoid a silent spring in the sea, the farmers must speed up research into how to get omega-three fatty oils, essential for growing the salmon, from a vegetable source. The cycle of contamination must be broken.


-- Melanie Reid in The Herald, 13 January


I don’t eat farmed salmon. I don’t let my family eat farmed salmon and I don’t serve my restaurant customers farmed salmon.


-- celebrity TV chef Antony Worrall-Thompson on ITV’s “Tonight”


The recent peer-reviewed article in the journal Science on the risks of consuming wild versus farmed salmon instantly drew a barrage of counter claims by fish-farming advocates. How is the public to decide between the opposing messages? Of course one should endeavor to determine what the facts are and then decide. But how does one distinguish between factually accurate versus inaccurate information? A look at the messengers and who their backers are would be helpful in this regard. The biggest indicator usually is to follow the money trail.


The researchers in the Science study investigated the concentrations of 14 toxins in salmon. The toxins they studied included polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and toxaphene. Many are suspected carcinogens and listed among the notorious “Dirty Dozen.”


EPA versus FDA Standards


The study interpreted the results with US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards whereas the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) maintains that the laxer US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards are the applicable standards. The EPA standards were supposedly drawn up with the seafood consumption of fishers in mind. What is the logic of having differing standards for fishers and non-fishers? Shouldn’t the standard be the same? Are non-fishers more resistant to toxins than fishers? What nonsense is this? What other reason might be behind these recommended maximum consumption levels?


The EPA levels for PCBs in wild salmon were arrived at in 1999 according to the science then available. The EPA levels are 500 times more stringent than comparable FDA levels, which have not been updated since first promulgated in 1984. The FDA standards are based on old science. New evidence has since emerged of the potential carcinogenic effects of PCBs and the risk humans face.


Nnimo Bassey and Lawrence Bohlen write that the FDA does not always carry out its own testing of foods but sometimes relies on industry-generated results. The industry data is described by the National Academy of Sciences as “woefully inadequate.” How should one regard the FDA when it places the fox in charge of the chicken coop? What does this indicate about the trustworthiness of the FDA standards and data?


The EPA fares little better. In another case of a fox guarding the henhouse, President Bush has appointed former Utah governor Mike Leavitt to head the EPA. Jeffrey St. Clair comments that during Leavitt’s governorship “Utah has outpaced nearly every other state in a dubious category: generation of toxic waste. The Beehive State, the 37th most populous in the nation, now ranks second in industrial pollution, trailing only Nevada.”


Leavitt’s environmental record is besmirched. St. Clair discloses how the Leavitt family’s trout-hatchery was the source of an outbreak of whirling disease, which wreaked havoc on thousands of wild trout. A subsequent investigation by the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) revealed an under-inspected operation run beyond the bounds of its license. The Attorney General filed charges against the family business to which it was pled “No contest.”


The sad outcome as described by St. Clair:


Allegations later surfaced in the media that someone at the Leavitt operation had intentionally dumped whirling disease infected trout into six Utah rivers. The motive? To wipe out native populations of cutthroat and rainbow trout and have the state replace them by purchasing hatchery fish. By this time, Leavitt was governor and the head of the DWR felt uncomfortable in pursuing the matter. "I have not been able to take some of the actions I would have liked out of fear that I would do the Governor more harm than good," wrote Ted Stewart, director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources, in 1996.


The EPA website comments on the risks posed by PCBs:

PCBs have been demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health effects. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals. PCBs have also been shown to cause a number of serious non-cancer health effects in animals, including effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects. Studies in humans provide supportive evidence for potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects of PCBs.

Regarding the risk of contracting cancer from exposure to PCBs, the EPA states that this is “conclusive” in animals and “probable” in humans.

EPA uses a weight-of-evidence approach in evaluating the potential carcinogenicity of environmental contaminants. EPA's approach permits evaluation of the complete carcinogenicity database, and allows the results of individual studies to be viewed in the context of all of the other available studies. Studies in animals provide conclusive evidence that PCBs cause cancer. Studies in humans raise further concerns regarding the potential carcinogenicity of PCBs. Taken together, the data strongly suggest that PCBs are probable human carcinogens. 

The adverse effects are many.


Human health studies discussed in this summary indicate that 1) reproductive function may be disrupted by exposure to PCBs; 2) neurobehavioral and developmental deficits occur in newborns and continue through school-aged children who had in utero exposure to PCBs; 3) other systemic effects (e.g., self-reported liver disease and diabetes, and effects on the thyroid and immune systems) are associated with elevated serum levels of PCBs; and 4) increased cancer risks, e.g., non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, are associated with PCB exposures.


The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry a subdivision of the US Department of Health and Human Services discusses the effects of PBCs-contaminated fish consumption; the results were damning.


The weight of evidence clearly indicates that [human] populations continue to eat fish containing PCBs and that significant health consequences are associated with consumption of large amounts of some fish.


The Salmon-Farming Industry Responds


The BCSFA nonetheless disputes the conclusions of the salmon toxicity study.


In its newsletter the BCSFA touts its position through the national Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance. Obfuscation is immediately apparent with the admission that the salmon are indeed contaminated. This is important to bear in mind; there is no denial of contamination merely that salmon are still safe and the tu quoque contention that other foods are also contaminated. The industry attacks instead the scientists who are trying to turn “consumers away from farmed salmon.” The subject of toxin-contamination is skirted. There is an oft repeated paradoxical attempt to make salmon’s wholesomeness the cynosure of debate. The multimillion-dollar industry in BC has risibly shrouded itself in the mantle of victimhood. Implicit is the assumption that a group of scientists has launched a war on the industry. Just what might be the motivation of the scientists is unstated. 


To buttress their contention the BCSFA trots out its preferred experts.


Purdue University food toxicologist Charles Santerre criticized the Science study because it neglected the nutritional advantages of eating salmon. The benefit of consuming salmon abundant in salubrious omega-3 fatty acids purportedly outweighs the risk of cancer.


This claim drives the BBC’s Julian Pettifer to distraction. Says she in The Scotsman:


To my amazement the salmon industry and the [UK Food Standards Agency] FSA are saying exactly what they said two years ago: that the warnings about PCBs do not take into account the health benefits to be gained by eating oily fish such as salmon. I simply do not understand the logic of this argument. They appear to be saying that, even if farmed salmon is slowly poisoning you, worry not, because it will stop you having a heart attack.


Glenn McGregor, a seafood inspector for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), is quoted as saying: “In Canada, the fish is safe. Health Canada has been trying to promote fish as a healthy alternative for protein, certainly not trying to restrict its intake.”


McGregor’s western Canadian colleague Klaus Schallie more circumspectly advises, “This study just came out, so really what needs to be done is it has to be presented as new scientific data and it needs to be carefully reviewed and evaluated.”


He thoughtfully adds, “Certainly, if changes need to be made in the way we monitor or analyze the products or if Health Canada determines it’s necessary to change the standard, that’s going to happen.”


Even the CFIA has identified “fish meal and fish oil which are ingredients in feed may be sources of [PCBs and dioxin] contamination in the food chain.” Their studies, however, find that toxin levels of the farmed salmon are within Canadian guidelines for toxic contamination of fish. The Health of Canada Act was last rewritten in 1990 to include arrangements for “controlling” toxic materials. The CFIA confesses, however, “To date, this control has not been established.”


Next the BCSFA quotes Mark Burgham, an official with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO): “One thing that's very clear is that these amounts are well within CFIA standards, which are internationally accepted standards.”


The Pink Crash


The DFO is an arm of the federal government with wide-ranging responsibility for the aquatic environment. The DFO, however, has fallen into disrepute for its failure to protect the marine ecosystem. In 2002, for instance, an anticipated pink salmon spawning run in the Broughton Archipelago of northeast Vancouver Island was nearly obliterated. The salmon farms in the Broughton were singled out as the likely culprits. That the pink salmon crash was limited to this region gave credence to this argument.


Alexandra Morton, a biologist living in the Broughton, was alerted to an infestation of sea lice affecting the fish. When she informed the DFO of this, it investigated and found nothing worthy of special concern.


Dr. Don Noakes of the DFO concluded, “In general, there were low levels of sea lice on the pink salmon that we surveyed.”


The CBC TV program “Disclosure” spoke to local fisherman Billy Proctor.


“You could go anywhere and dip up a bucketful of fry with a little dip net,” he says with a laugh. “Dippin’ blind you’d get a bucketful and DFO couldn’t find anything.”


When you see the babies dying all along the beach by the millions with lice all over them, it’s pretty well written there what’s happening when they’re dying like that.”


When asked how the scientists could get it so wrong, Proctor shakes his head. “Well, I don’t know… They’re not giving us the truth that’s what I think. I think they know but they don’t want to rock the boat.”


Geophysicist Neil Frazer was more forthcoming: “I’m a scientist and I don’t buy what they’re saying. I think it’s wrong, I think it’s unscientific. I think it’s untrue.”


Frazer believes the DFO is at the beck of the salmon-farming industry: “I think the word came down from someplace. There will be salmon aquaculture and you guys are gonna make it happen quickly.”


“Disclosuremanaged to come into possession of some government documents that show the DFO study was worryingly inept. Noakes consequently found himself on the very embarrassing end of an interview.


The BC government led by the corporate-back scratching Liberal Party along with the federal government colluded with the shoddy methodology of the DFO. Morton contemplated on the whys of this.


I find myself wondering why [the] Provincial government is working so hard to downplay the Broughton Archipelago pink crash. The most senior government fishery biologists in B.C. have given us their analysis of this situation and there is no reason any should doubt their conclusions.  These DFO scientists with the [Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council], are tasked to examine every fishery decline, and they report the Broughton crash was the biggest in recorded history and was caused by something in the nearshore marine environment.  They did not pull this out of hat.


If I had not done my sea lice research we would be at a loss as to what happened.  As it stands we can not know for certain it was sea lice, and if this were the first time salmon farms, sea lice and collapse had converged in time and space I would be more sceptical.  However, everywhere there are salmon farms and wild salmon, the wild salmon are eaten to death by sea lice.  Don't believe me?  Type “sea lice” on “Google” and see what comes up.


For the Province to be spinning myths designed to downplay the biggest BC collapse of a stock of fish that are both commercially and ecologically important should send up warning flags.  Why are they trying to sweep this under the carpet? The Province does not profit from wild marine fisheries, but they do profit in many ways from the salmon farms.  I don't think we need look any further than this.

Frazer compares the recent salmon wipeout to the once-bountiful-but-now-devastated Atlantic cod fishery.
“This is like the northern cod all over again, on a slightly smaller scale. When you mix scientists and politicians the politicians win every time.”


Political considerations too often encompass corporate motivations: greed. Robert Hunter wrote in his book 2030: Confronting Thermogeddon in our Lifetime of an Atlantic fishboat captain who admitted that every country’s fishers had knowingly pillaged the east coast cod until that fishery was completely devastated, all for the sake of immediate personal gain.


The DFO role in protecting the salmon resources of Canada has been scandalous. Former DFO official Otto Langer pointed out how the DFO has for years avoided its responsibility of performing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency reviews of salmon farms.


Science and Logic


The BCSFA quotes a New York Times article which attributes the following assertion to Dr. Michael Gallo of the Cancer Institute at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School: “PCB's have not been proved to cause cancer in people, and industry workers who were exposed to higher levels did not have a higher cancer rate.”


This is an extremely odd statement to attribute to a scientist. It was not a direct quotation. Scientists know better than to speak of something as being “proved.” In science one tests a certain subset of possibilities. As articulated by the philosopher Karl Popper, science looks to test the null hypothesis -- the hypothesis that states that there is no difference between or among the variables being investigated. Any finding that there is a statistically significant difference can only be stated as a probability and not as proof.


Besides it would be ethically impossible to carry out anything approaching a definitive study on this question. Researchers cannot conduct an experiment to investigate the effects of consuming PCBs-contaminated food for a causal link to contraction of cancer in humans. Scientists are only able to do post hoc analysis of the data and can then attempt to draw a correlation between the level of PCBs and carcinogenicity in humans.


Referring to the level of PCBs in farmed versus wild salmon, Gallo says, "PCBs are in all salmon. The difference between 5 ppb [parts per billion] and 30 ppb is meaningless. If you use the EPA’s mathematical model...there is no difference." Extremely tiny trace amounts of a substance are under consideration, but the fact that such miniscule amounts can be deleterious is greater cause for concern.


Dr. Mark E. Hahn, a toxicologist at the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says, "No one is really sure how important these interactions are in the real world." Hahn asks what one should substitute in place of salmon. "What else are you going to eat?"


In these days of mad cow disease and toxic tuna the question has some relevance but it distracts the public from a distinction borne out by the Science salmon study. The authors of the article made that it abundantly plain: to reduce one’s consumption of toxins it is better to eat wild salmon than farmed salmon.


The industry would much rather engage in subtle subterfuge by presenting the study as an attack on salmon consumption in general. The study wasn’t an attack. The methodology is seemingly sound but the conclusions are challenged.


The salmon farmers maintain that their salmon are safe.


There are clearly two choices regarding eating salmon:


1) the consumer can eat farmed salmon reared in the equivalent of a giant flushed toilet, fed  hormones, pesticides, hormones, dyes, and toxic feed at a reduced price or


2) pay a little bit more for wild salmon which has derived most of its sustenance naturally.


Trusting the Salmon-Farming Industry


The BCSFA will bemoan the portrayal of their farmed salmon but the fact is that the farmed fish are more contaminated than their wild brethren. The aquaculture industry can spin and cite various other figures and evade the crux of the matter.


Why should the consumer trust the salmon-farming industry? Why would the consumer trust an industry that solicited the shady spin services of beltway insiders Hill and Knowlton? The legitimacy of Hill and Knowlton in political circles should be nil after the debacle of having coached Nayirah, the teenage daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US, to pose as a hospital volunteer who had witnessed Iraqi soldiers removing infants from incubators -- a role she tearfully and mendaciously played before a gullible US Congress. Hill and Knowlton is the force behind this murderous deception. Nayirah’s testimony was a fillip to attacking Iraq -- an attack that saw hundreds of thousands killed through military violence and UN sanctions. Hill and Knowlton pocketed $10.8 million in blood money for this fraud.


The BC salmon-farming industry is in large part dominated by foreign transnational corporations. Its raison d’être is the pursuit of profit; it is not to grow the economy, or produce jobs, or care for the environment. The industry makes lofty claims about employment and economic activity generated. To accomplish this entailed harming another longstanding industry in BC: commercial fishing.


A Stanford University studydetermined that worldwide production of farmed salmon has increased fivefold since the late 1980s. Over that time, commercial fishing operations have seen their market share plummet to less than 40 percent.”


The same study also found that because of the economic competition salmon farming has increased commercial pressures on the wild salmon stock.


Many natives see their traditional salmon-based food culture threatened.


In BC the neoliberal government is clearing the way for an expansion of the salmon-farming industry. The obvious winners are the salmon-farming industry elites with the losers being the commercial fishers and average BCers. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reports that the government priorities are entrusted in an environmentally destructive industry whose expansion will have a negligible effect on the economy and job creation.


The peer-reviewed study, Fishy Business: The Economics of Salmon Farming in BC, shows that wild marine fisheries create seven times more jobs and wages, compared to industrial salmon aquaculture in BC. And wild fisheries are worth more than four times as much in terms of provincial GDP, and more than three times as much in terms of BC's exports.


"Fish farm expansion is being dangled before coastal communities as a panacea for jobs and economic stability. But this is a false promise," says study author and CCPA resource policy analyst Dale Marshall. "The fact is, running a fish farm takes very few people. And the record in BC, and major fish farm jurisdictions like Norway and Scotland, is that over time, fish farm operations require fewer and fewer workers." …


The study also warns that the economic risks posed by industrial salmon aquaculture to BC's lucrative and diverse coastal wild fisheries could be tremendous.


"We're basically playing Russian Roulette with our coastal-dependent economies - without knowing how many bullets are in the chamber," says Marshall. "The scientific community has already shown that there are risks to other marine industries, such as wild salmon fisheries, tourism and sport fishing," he adds.


"The fact is, wild fisheries are not only our most important economic drivers, they're critical to us culturally. That's why our tribe has adopted a strict no fish farm policy. It's just not worth the risk," says Chief Charlie Williams. Williams is the Hereditary Chief of Gwawaenuk and President of the Kwakiutl Territorial Fisheries Commission in Alert Bay.  


The supportive sources cited by the salmon-farming industry have been demonstrated to be questionable; the PR flaks are downright murderous; traditional and indigenous industry have been and are being adversely affected; the environment and ecosystem have been infiltrated and disrupted. Logically why would anyone, who is not directly or indirectly employed by the industry, support salmon farming?


Billy Proctor sees the logic but concludes there is another powerful force at play.


“Big money talks. Simple as that.”


The historical lesson of human plunder leading to the extinction of the great auk is seemingly unlearned. If big money has its way, wild salmon may well go the way of its cousin the Atlantic cod.


Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: kimpetersen@gyxi.dk.


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