The waters surrounding Vancouver Island mean different things to our planet. They are beautiful, awe-inspiring, a source of recreation and employment, a habitat, a food source, a driver of climate and weather, and the background of our lives. Billions of organisms depend on the Pacific Ocean and the Georgia Strait, from micro-bacteria to whales and humans, to support their lives and generations to come. Among these organisms are the wild Pacific Salmon, which serve as a figurehead of many things as well. They are an icon of local First Nations culture, a tourist attraction, the heartbeat of our ecosystem, ambassadors of environmental health in the ocean, not to mention a keystone species of many different food chains, including that of humans.
For centuries, First Nations bands have maintained a sustainable balance and respect for the environment within their culture, including their fishing practices. Salmon have played a huge role in their food source, and through this, have become a figure of abundance, resilience, and cycles of life. Without the spawning migration of salmon, many communities would not have been sustainable, making the fish integral to their dietary and cultural needs.
When the Island was first colonized by the British government in 1848, the government and citizens recognized the important role that salmon played in surviving in this region and began to commercially fish the waters alongside First Nations. With a growing population came increased fishing, along with the creation of a global market for salmon in the early 1900s. Currently, salmon is one of the major contributors of BC’s GDP and employment. One of the major factors in this increased global market of salmon is not only tradition fishing, but also salmon “farming.”
After a period of decline in salmon return numbers in the early 1980s, the government launched the idea of “farming” the salmon to maintain employment for communities around the province. This method involves not fishing at all, but rather the raising of salmon species within open-net pens within our Coastal waters. The fish are released as hatchery-raised fry into these pens where they can be monitored for disease, weight and density of the population, and are then harvested when they reach a particular size. This practice now dominates the market. As reported by Statistics BC, this industry has risen from an annual income of $300k in 1984 to $214 million in 2005 and continues to grow.
However, what was once seen as a way to save the industry of salmon fishing is now being seen by many scientists and environmental groups as the end of wild salmon populations. There are many concerns being raised not only in the practices of these salmon farms, but also of the effects these practices have on larger populations and, therefore, the future of our ecosystem. These concerns include:
• the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides on captive fish
• sea lice and disease
• algae blooms created by imbalanced waters within pens
• escaped farmed fish, which can be alien species within our waters
• marine mammal deaths due to being ensnared in nets or risk of predation on salmon stocks
Many fish farms around the Island are located around major inlets in the Georgia Strait, as well as off the West Coast of the Island around Clayoquot. This means that all salmon returning to spawn in these areas, as well as the fry returning to sea, must move past these open-net pens. The fry, in particular, have the gravest danger in this situation, as most are less than 50mm in size with immune systems that have not developed to the diseases present in the adult stock present in the fish farms. As the future of salmon stocks for the next five years, these juvenile salmon are of great importance to scientists studying our waters. This generation of salmon also has resting on it the populations of bears, wolves, birds, insects who will feed on them when they return to spawn, and our forests which gain nutrients from the abundance of carcasses on the forest floor. Our entire ecosystem rests on wild salmon returns and spawning.
Not only are there grave environmental impacts, but there are also numerous concerns regarding the effects that farmed salmon have on human health. These include the consumption of antibiotics used on diseased fish, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, which have been shown in studies to cause cancer and Endosulfan, a systemic insecticide used on fish infested with sea lice.
The main source of these concerns is not actually the fish farms themselves, but the practices and by-products of them. One of the largest by-products of the farms is disease, and the most concerning of these is Piscene Reovirus (PRV) or the Norwegian Virus (HSMI). It was identified as the cause of the crash of stocks to the Fraser River wild salmon populations in 2009 and has also been spreading rapidly through Norway’s farmed salmon populations. Marine Harvest, which grows one-fifth of the world’s salmon in pens, lists it as the second largest cause of death in their stock in 2012. This virus is currently being identified in not only fish farms in BC, but also in our wild salmon returns this year.
To address some of these concerns, the government called a federal judicial inquiry in 2012, presided over by Justice Bruce Cohen. Dubbed the Cohen Commission, the report, which included research from many scientists, including the Raincoast Conservation Society’s Alexandra Morton, concluded that climate change and its changes to water temperatures, increased ocean acidity, and open-net fish farming were major factors in the record-low returns on salmon to our waters. Based on these results, Justice Cohen called for a “freeze on all fish farm expansion along important salmon migration routes…[and] removal of farms if impacts are not addressed by 2020.” This report offered a blueprint to the Canadian government, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who regulate fish farms, and the operators of farms on how to alter their practices to those which are more sustainable.
One aspect of salmon farming that came under scrutiny during the inquiry was ownership of farms operating in our waters. In British Columbia, 92 per cent of the farms are foreign-owned by companies in Norway, whose own salmon populations were decimated by PRV and HSMI in 1999. Moreover, these farms seem to be operating outside of the Canadian Constitution.
As stated by scientist Alexandra Morton, when these organizations first approached the Canadian government in the 1980s, they were first denied as the Constitution declared that is unlawful to privatize ocean waters regulated by the federal government, as well as to own fish within them. At that time, the issue was passed along to individual provinces (Nova Scotia and BC) and the hatcheries would be declared “farms” under provincial law, where this is not deemed unlawful, and a memorandum was passed, allowing salmon farms to be established. Morton and Ecojustice are currently campaigning against the federal government to take back their control of the farms.
The Harper government seems to be doing just that, but not in the way environmental groups would like. In January 2014, Stephen Harper began secretly reviewing proposed expansion of existing fish farms in our waters against urging from the Cohen Commission, which had placed a moratorium on expansion in 2011. There are nine applications for expansion, and the addition of two new farms would see an increase of 16,640 tonnes of capacity. This tonnage refers to the peak weight of fish a farm is allowed to have in the water.
This comes at a time of increased First Nations power in government decisions after the 2012 Idle No More protests. In response to the release of information of possible expansion, Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwicksutaineuk-ah-kwaw-ah-mish of BC’s Broughton Archipelago rallied First Nations bands across the province, stating “it’s time for us to hold this government to account. This is an urgent message to all the people who rely upon wild salmon in BC. They are now facing a threat which is in complete defiance of Cohen, and it is yet another example of the Stephen Harper Government laying waste to democracy—and in doing so, putting at risk aboriginal rights for First Nations people on the coast of BC and right up to the headwaters of the Fraser and other rivers.”
This is a cry we as residents of the province all need to take into consideration. Our environment as we know it relies entirely on the abundance of salmon returns to our coastal inlets. It is not only protests which make changes to salmon farming. We, as consumers of fish products, hold power we are not often aware of. In our daily lives, we can make decisions that help save our wild salmon. Advertising has been used as a tool against the wild salmon movement, even going so far as Skuna Bay Fish Farms, which state that by eating farm-raised fish, you are saving a wild salmon. This is against a recent Canadian study which reviewed international stock sizes in countries that have salmon aquaculture industries and concluded that “salmon farming operations have reduced wild salmon populations by up to 70 per cent in several areas around the world and are threatening the future of the endangered stocks.”
As consumers, we can create a knowledge base and make informed decisions when making purchases. When eating out and shopping for salmon products, be aware of where the fish has come from. Know that farmed salmon have often been dyed pink to give the appearance of wild salmon. These are usually marked as “Atlantic Salmon” as that is the species most used in fish farms. As residents of the province, we can help save salmon by petitioning our provincial and federal governments to make changes or end salmon farms in our waters or by donating to causes which support more sustainable fisheries.
As humans, we need to recognize the roles we play in our ecosystem. The landscape on which we live is the most important thing in our lives. Without it we have no air, water, food, or any of the beauty we encounter every day as Vancouver Island residents. We also need to recognize that salmon are not just a measure of economy for the province, but also an integral part of this ecosystem and culture. Ecosystems thrive on creating balances and working systems within them. There need to be great strides made toward replicating this balance within our coastal waters to protect the wild salmon populations.