Scientists not hooked on fish farms

🕔Sep 22, 2005

Alexandra Morton didn’t object to salmon farms 20 years ago, when they surfaced in the water near her home in the Broughton Archipelago, across from Port Hardy on the central coast of British Columbia.

Morton filmed and studied killer whales until their as-yet unexplained disappearance from her area in recent years. Her opposition to salmon farms began in earnest in 2000, when a friend showed her juvenile Pacific salmon, called smolts, infested with sea lice.

She was aware of parasite and disease issues related to aquaculture sites in Norway, Scotland and Ireland, where Atlantic salmon have been farmed for decades—and she was also aware that politicians in Victoria, B.C., knew of those problems.

“I have the minutes of meetings at the Parliament buildings, with ministers from Norway saying ‘We don’t think you should allow them to import Atlantics into here,’” Morton says. “We think,” the Norwegians told B.C.’s politicians, “this is going to be a problem for you,” she said.

Concerned for the wild salmon, Morton asked the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to study lice in the Broughton, but she says her requests went unanswered. “I realized I would have to do it myself.”

In 2001, wielding a dip net with the agility of a fishing heron, she began collecting juvenile pink and chum salmon. Her subsequent report passed the difficult peer review process in 2003 and was published on the National Research Council website as well as in the Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science. According to Morton, DFO continues to question the validity of her work, despite endorsement by the scientific community.

Neil Frazer, originally from Comox, Vancouver Island, now teaches geophysics at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, Hawaii. He is more than worried about how B.C. fish farms will affect the natural life in the ocean, and supports the Norwegians’ dire prediction. “It’s a mathematical certainty that putting farm fish in the water will cause wild fish to decline through infections—we know this without ever putting a fish in the water.”

Neil Frazer criticizes DFO’s lack of productive study for the same period. “All DFO had to do was sample above and below the [fish] farms, which is what Alexandra Morton subsequently did.”

Talking to this scientist in Hawaii proved far easier than finding someone in DFO or the salmon farming industry who will talk about sea lice.

DFO’s communications department offered an interview with the new federal executive director of Fisheries and Aquaculture Management, Yves Bastien. Bastien failed to keep his scheduled interview with Northword, instead e-mailing a form letter from a blocked address.

While aquaculture commissioner in 2004, he recommended that aquaculture, which is the cultivation or rearing of fish or aquatic plants for human consumption, be exempt from the normal workings of the Fisheries and Environmental Assessment Acts. This immediately generated written and verbal condemnations from the United Fishermen and Allied Worker’s Union (UFAWU), the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), and environmental groups.

“The UBCIC finds the recommendation contained in the report that fish farms be exempted from the provisions of the Fisheries Act to be repugnant and a flagrant disregard of our Aboriginal Right to fish,” Chief Stewart Phillip wrote to federal fisheries minister Geoff Regan after Bastien’s report was released.

Jim Fulton, executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation wrote, “Minister Regan, we urge you to seriously consider our comments and to reject the majority of Commissioner Bastien’s recommendations. In particular, the suggestion that aquaculture operations be given any exemption from the strictest scrutiny under the Fisheries Act must be dismissed.”

Irvin Figg, President, UFAWU, wrote to Regan, “To recommend an exemption from habitat and pollution provisions of the federal Fisheries Act for one industry flies in the face of the entire mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.”

In 1999, as guest speaker at the Aquaculture Canada Conference in Victoria, Bastien indicated his own inability to promise that fish farming would cause no harm to wild fish stocks when he said, “We are starting out, however, with a rather ironic handicap—a strong fishing industry and a still abundant supply of marine resources. The very existence of this industry and the abundance of marine resources naturally give rise to debate. Should we turn to aquaculture? Will aquaculture development not adversely affect the fishing industry and our marine resources?”

John Pringle, at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station, dismissed the independent science that suggests sea lice hurt salmon. “There’s a lot of information. What is really missing is good, hard science.”

Pringle co-ordinated a sea lice study in 2004. The scientific community criticized DFO’s collection methods but the results still revealed about 60 per cent infestation. Morton recorded almost 98 per cent.

Despite similar observations, their conclusions differ. Pringle claims the lice don’t hurt the smolts. Morton says the load is lethal.

Pringle says, “What we look at is something that has been accepted worldwide, a condition factor. It’s a mathematical relationship between length and weight and we have yet to see a significant difference between those infected, even at these rates, and those uninfected.”

Morton doesn’t agree. “The reason they’re saying no harm is this magic number called a condition factor. You basically use the weight and length of the fish. In Europe they don’t use the conditioning factor on young fish because it just doesn’t seem to work.”

A Norwegian formula for small fish predicts mortality at more than one louse per gram of body weight. Juvenile Atlantics weigh around 10 grams when they out-migrate from their birth streams, but Pacific pinks and chums weigh from 0.2 to 0.4 grams.

That would indicate between 90-98 per cent of the infested smolts will die, Morton explains, but Pringle argues the lice are harmless because the ones they found on the young salmon in the DFO study were mostly immature.

That doesn’t sit well with Morton. “To a parasitologist that is ridiculous. I did a study where we…held [fish] in barrels in the ocean. The paper is still in the review process but I can tell you that if you had lice you died, and if you didn’t you lived.”

Morton says young lice change shape within hours of hatching, indicating the collection areas around the farms are the breeding ground.

Pringle says DFO’s science was “peer reviewed,” meaning it was accepted as valid by scientists but Neil Frazer disagrees. “There’s a word left out: anonymous.”

Passing the paper by a selected panel does not equal the independent, anonymous and therefore “egalitarian” process recognized as peer review, he says.

No DFO science has endured this process, he says; yet it is the science that government and industry frequently refer to when they claim that fish farming causes no harm.

“What I object to, as a scientist,” Frazer says, “is they [industry and government] captured DFO. Some of the scientists are very good, but know that if they do any research that has a conclusion that is unfavourable to aquaculture, and especially salmon aquaculture, they’re toast.”

Today, in the salmon rich headwaters of the Skeena River, there are more than 20 new farm sites under federal and provincial consideration.

The Pacific Fisheries Resource Conser-vation Council, chaired by Former federal fisheries minister John Fraser, recommended in 2003 that: “The selection and approval of fish farm sites should recognize and avoid wild salmon migration routes and feeding locations,” such as the Skeena headwaters.

Fraser is part of the Pacific Salmon Forum, into which the provincial government has just pumped $5.4 million. Opponents fear the forum is a smoke screen for the quiet expansion of salmon farms into northern B.C.

During the Liberal caucus before Christ-mas, Liberal MLA for the North Coast, Bill Belsey, called for fast-tracking the approval process for these sites despite opposition and convincing science that contra-indicates haste.

In 2004, the Prince Rupert Environmental Society (PRES) asked: “Do you think we should have salmon farms in the north coast?” Seventy-one per cent of decided respondents from Prince Rupert and surrounding communities said “no.” For a population sampling area of 10,000 or less, the 307 decided responses were deemed sufficient to consider the survey accurate to within a five point error margin by analysts at Simon Fraser University.

Luanne Roth, president of PRES, fishes commercially with her husband. Depressed prices drove them out of the salmon fishery some time back. They fish ling cod, selling live fish at a high market value.

Roth brings out a copy of the final screening for the first site approved in the Skeena’s headwaters, at Anger Island.

“It talks about the harm to the wild salmon; it has levels of risk. After the fish farms have done everything they can to stop harm, what’s the risk that’s left over? And they said there was an ‘intermediate risk.’ It’s unclear whether that risk takes into account the effects on the people who rely on the wild salmon: the cultural, economic risk.”

Approval was granted. “So somehow they have gone from saying ‘intermediate adverse effects on the wild salmon’ to say it’s unlikely there would be ‘significant’ adverse effects, so either they haven’t valued the wild salmon highly or they haven’t valued its impact on the people in the region.”

Roth says the government’s fiduciary responsibility to consult with First Nations Bands, who depend on Skeena salmon, was ignored. Of those consulted, only Kitimat embraced the concept of salmon farming but, typical to etiquette, others did not wish to impose a pro or con position. Their silence was interpreted as approval, Roth said, creating a biased report on First Nations acceptance. Instead of saying they didn’t object, the report could have read “they didn’t express support,” Roth suggested.

The imminent release of a local study injects a new element of risk into expansion in Skeena waters. In 2004, scientists recorded regional lice numbers, together with locals from Oona River and representatives of Pan Fish (farmers).

They found levels 20-60 times lower than in the Broughton. Another surprise finding was a large numbers of sockeye smolts in Ogden Channel, but very few in Chatham Sound, to the north, where they expected to find them.

“A report has just come out that says nobody has checked to see which way the Skeena sockeye out-migrate, so there’s a worry they’re going out right through these (future) salmon farms,” Roth explains.

“They found a whole bunch of sockeye and lots of pinks—huge amounts of pinks come out of there—we’re talking millions. What this is telling us is that if the sockeye are going to be affected, the affected people aren’t just Kitkatla; they’re Lax Kw’alaams, Haida, Gitxsan and all up-river people.”

There is a conciliatory point that could quiet the dragon of negative public and environmentalist attention: closed containment farming systems.

“If you want to do the farmed thing, great, just separate the two. You’ve got to follow natural laws,” Morton says.

Roth further qualifies her definition of closed containment fish cages. “Our group has no problem with closed containment, but put a little band around the top and leave it open to the water and call it closed—no,” she says emphatically.

As for Pringle, he doesn’t have an opinion. “I actually know nothing about it.”

Government and industry claim the people of the world need salmon farms to meet protein needs, yet can our waters survive the addition of millions of foreign Atlantic salmon, scientists wonder.

Is there another answer—in the humble pink and chum salmon with their thriving population? Morton thinks so. She mentions a hot button that the salmon farming industry cannot ignore: science even they accept, that indicates higher levels of environmental pollutants found in farmed salmon than in wild salmon. Commercial salmon feed has been identified as the likely source of the contaminants.

“In the study that was done on PCBs the pink salmon and the chum salmon rated cleaner than any other salmon in the world. And I’ll bet you they are one of the cleanest proteins left on earth, especially the pink salmon because they eat low on the food chain; they’re mainly plankton feeders and they only live two years.

“So here’s this beautiful, family-sized fish and if someone would fillet and vacuum-pack them you’ve got a fish you could sell frozen or fresh. Someone might not know what to do with a big Chinook, but if you had a filleted pink in front of you, anybody could deal with it.”