40 years after its introduction, the British Columbia salmon aquaculture industry is controversial. As most of us have seen on social media, in 2017 videographer Tavish Campbell, took photos of bloody fish waste being discharged directly into the ocean from two farmed fish processing plants in BC. The video made headlines, and it prompted a federal investigation that, in my opinion, enabled the negative, complex, and somewhat still-unknown impacts of salmon aquaculture to come to light.
In this short article, we will investigate some issues surrounding salmon net farming in BC and what the government is planning for the future of this industry.
Many of the companies operating farmed salmon open net pens in B.C. are Norwegian, they are responsible for most farmed salmon worldwide. Currently, Norway does not allow for the discharge of fish processing waste into the ocean, which means they turn to other Nations with more relaxed rules.
There are 109 fish processing plants in B.C, located up and down the coast. If they are all able to release aqua cultural affluent, as we saw in Brown’s Bay plant, that’s roughly ten Olympic swimming pools of effluent being released into B.C. waters daily. Moreover, The Brown’s Bay plant was inspected in 2013 and found to be out of compliance with the province’s environmental laws.
But why is this an issue?
A lot of the controversy around salmon farming is the complexity behind what we know and how our waters are being protected (or left unprotected) under current legislation.
One of the main reasons salmon farming activities are condemned by different groups is Piscene Reovirus. Piscene Reovirus is a disease carried in an estimated 80 percent of the Atlantic farmed salmon on the B.C. coast. The virus is linked to heart and skeletal muscle inflammation. Further, it can cause lesions on the heart, weaken the muscular system, and cause death rates between up to 100%.
This disease is found naturally, but with salmon farming and the release of high volumes of waste into the ocean, the prevalence of this virus is growing in wild stocks. This is a problem because wild stocks are already much smaller than they used to be due to overfishing and climate change.
Given the prevalence of disease occurring in farmed salmon enclosures, it is important to point out that many, if not all of B.C.’s wild baby salmon will pass at least one salmon farm on their out-migration. Research reports that only one to three salmon lice will kill a juvenile wild salmon. Further, scientists report approximately one percent of the farmed salmon leak from their pens (escape). That means up to 160,000 unreported farmed salmon escapes annually. Not only does this mean that wild stocks must compete for the same resources as these escaped fish, but Native stocks, and more specifically juvenile salmon, are faced with many challenges that threaten their survival during their migration; this raises huge questions regarding the volume of juvenile salmon deaths due to contact with farmed salmon and their associated disease.
What does this information tell us about salmon farming and its governance? For some, it may reaffirm that DFO is in many ways a conflicted organization with dual mandates to protect wild salmon and promote salmon aquaculture. Simultaneously, these mandates often play favorably into the hands of largely foreign-owned enterprises. In B.C., more than 90 percent of the salmon farming industry is owned by three Norwegian companies: Marine Harvest, Cermaq, and Grieg Seafood. The result is negative socio-economic impacts to smaller subsistence fishers, often from remote communities, relying on salmon fishing.
Thus, the research and issues highlighted beg the question that has not been answered for many decades ... If the purpose and selling point of salmon farming in open nets is to enable native stocks to flourish, but they do the opposite, is BC making the right decisions by allowing these activities to continue at the current rate?