The province of British Columbia, on the Pacific coast of Canada, is powered by wild salmon. The relatively young post-glacial soils are lacking in nutrients necessary for plant growth, such as nitrogen. Yet the coastal temperate rain forests of BC grow globally famous ancient Western Red Cedars, and Sitka Spruce trees of monumental proportions. Scientists discovered relatively recently that the missing nitrogen is transported from the ocean up rivers (sometimes hundreds of kilometres) by five species of wild Pacific salmon, which return to their natal streams to spawn and die. Animals such as bears, wolves and eagles then spread the nitrogen throughout the ecosystem. Everything on the coast, from the wildlife to the economy, from the rain forests to indigenous cultures, is dependent on the health of the wild salmon. Yet wild salmon are in serious decline, with runs where I live returning in the tens, rather than tens of thousands.
The BC salmon farming industry is over 90% owned by Norwegian companies. Industry practices have been exported from Norway to Canada. But when we look back to Norway, we see an industry plagued with problems such as sea lice outbreaks, viruses, and escaped farmed fish. The situation in Norway provides a roadmap to where British Columbia may be headed, unless changes are made soon.
Norway is currently experiencing record levels of sea lice infestations. Desperate attempts to control these critters are failing. Because sea lice are crustaceans, chemicals which kill them harm other crustaceans as well. Collateral damage in the war against sea lice includes shrimp, prawns, and crabs. The situation in Norway has gotten so out of hand that the government recently shut down nearly an entire district in order to prevent further damage to the environment. Prawn and shrimp fishermen are reporting dramatic declines in catch levels.
Here in BC, we find a similar scenario unfolding. Last spring we saw record levels of sea lice infestations during the out-migration of wild salmon smolts, with some farms reporting over twenty lice per fish (three lice per fish is the threshold for treatment). Prawn and shrimp fishermen are reporting dead prawns and shrimps in their traps, or no shrimp at all in places they’ve fished for years.
Salmon farming is also known to import deadly European fish viruses to BC. Of particular note are Piscine Reovirus (PRV) and Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISAV). These diseases, which do not occur naturally in BC, have been found in both farmed and wild populations of salmon. The ISA virus nearly destroyed the salmon farming industry in Chile in 2007, which has not yet fully recovered. Outbreaks of ISA in eastern Canada in the 90s resulted in millions of dollars of compensation paid to the industry there. The potential for such diseases to spread to wild salmon poses a serious and grave risk.
A 2011 study detected ISA in wild BC salmon. That study prompted Justice Cohen to reconvene his $26 million Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River for 3 days. He uncovered the fact that government scientists had found positive test results for ISAV in both farmed and wild salmon. His report stated "I therefore conclude that the potential harm posed by salmon farms to Fraser River sockeye salmon is serious or irreversible."
Several of the Cohen Commission’s recommendations made in 2012 called for fish health data, samples, and monitoring results to be made available to both government and independent researchers, yet this has not yet happened.
Pacific salmon are key to First Nations cultures as a food source, and as fertilizer for the cedars traditionally used to make everything from houses to canoes to clothing. Salmon farming has impacts on other important indigenous food sources such as herring, clams and crabs. First Nations culture contains strong ethics around passing the lands and waters on in a healthy condition, so as not to impair the ability of future generations to live full and rich lives. This is the core definition of sustainability, and salmon farming impedes their indigenous right to sustain their cultures.
The solution to the environmental risks posed by salmon farming is simple: get the farms out of the world’s oceans. If this industry wants to expand fourfold in British Columbia and fivefold in Norway, it's time to grow up, and learn how to behave responsibly. Getting the farms out of BC’s waters would give wild salmon breathing space to recover, which in turn would allow us to rebuild the wild salmon economy which has thrived here for millennia.
Salmon farming is a global industry based in Norway. I’m travelling to Norway this winter with a delegation from British Columbia. We’ll be appealing to the Norwegian people and their government to help us protect all that we hold dear on Canada’s west coast: a clean, healthy environment which can be sustained and will sustain us indefinitely.
Dan Lewis is Executive Director of ClayoquotAction.org.