Marine biologist and research scientist Alexandra Morton was quietly studying whales in a remote archipelago in British Columbia 20 years ago when the first fish farms arrived in the area.
She has since gone from thinking aquaculture a good idea to believing that the industry must be dramatically curbed or else wild salmon will disappear for good—taking B.C.’s coastal communities along with them.
In the years since, the population of Echo Bay in the Broughton Archipelago, roughly 250 miles north of Vancouver, has shrunk from 100 to about nine.
Morton, who has studied the negative impact of aquaculture on wild salmon stocks and written extensively about it, lays the blame squarely on the fish farms.
“My community, I don’t know if it will ever survive this, or revive, because as the wild fish go, so go these little communities. The fishermen here are just destroyed. The foundation of this community is gone. It’s the same for Alert Bay, because nobody can make money fishing salmon they’ve been so depleted,” she says.
The problem is that the farms in the Broughton Archipelago, currently numbering 29, are located on vital migratory routes for wild pink salmon.
The open-net cage farms, which at times contain as many as 1.3 million non-native Atlantic salmon in what are essentially large floating feedlots, provide a fertile breeding ground for parasitic sea lice. This results in high levels of sea lice in the waters around the farms, which attack the juvenile salmon as they swim past on their way to the open ocean.
Too young to have formed protective scales, the tiny smolts have no defenses against the predatory sea lice. Morton’s studies have shown that the presence of even one louse can kill a young pink salmon. Pink and chum salmon native to B.C. can’t tolerate as many lice as the hardier Atlantic salmon.
A study by Morton and University of Alberta fisheries ecologist Martin Krkošek published in the journal “Science” predicted that 99 percent of wild pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago could be extinct in four years unless action is taken to address the impact of sea lice from fish farms.
Another study by Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform links the decline in sockeye in the Fraser River—B.C.’s most important salmon river—to sea lice infestation from salmon farms in the Georgia Strait.
“The big decline that we’re seeing in the Fraser sockeye—I have every reason to believe that that is related to salmon farms. Because there’s no population of wild salmon anywhere in the world that is surviving with this industry,” says Morton.
Fish farm operators argue that the use of the drug Slice, a pesticide that is mixed with fish feed to kill sea lice, greatly reduces the incidence of lice at the farms.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has questioned the scientific modeling used by Morton and Krkošek. What muddies the waters is that wild salmon populations are known to fluctuate, and stocks are also impacted by such factors as logging, commercial fishing, habitat loss, and fish hatcheries.
“The wild salmon are in decline in most places for a variety of reasons, but where there are salmon farms they just head straight to the bottom,” counters Morton.
More than 40 percent of the world's seafood is farm-raised, and B.C. is home to the fourth largest aquaculture industry in the world, the majority of it controlled by the Norwegian companies Marine Harvest Canada, Cermaq, and Greig Seafoods.
Based in Campbell River, Marine Harvest is the largest salmon farming company in the province, employing 500 staff who raise and process 40,000 tonnes of farmed salmon annually, most of which is exported to the United States.
Marine Harvest has said that the aquaculture industry “is committed to stringent standards and sustainability on the British Columbia coast.”
Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwicksutaineuk-ah-kwa-mish First Nation says that since the farms started operating in the Broughton, not only pink salmon but also chum stocks, various species of clam, herring, and bouligan have all declined.
“Right now there’s not one species that’s doing well, and the only thing new in our territory is the aquaculture industry,” he says.
Chamberlin is representing eight native tribes in a class action lawsuit launched in February against the provincial government for damages by salmon farms on wild stocks, for which the tribes have constitutionally protected rights.
He says the lawsuit was not a decision arrived at lightly, but negotiations with the provincial government and “impassioned pleas and presentations” to the boards of directors of the Norwegian companies fell on deaf ears.
As well as travelling to Norway several times, Chamberlin sent a letter to Harald V, the King of Norway, asking him to visit the Broughton and see the “devastating effects” Norwegian-owned salmon farms are having on B.C. wild salmon.
Tourism operators are also concerned as wild salmon, which provide food for bears, whales, and eagles, fuel B.C.’s $1.5-billion wilderness tourism industry.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Lands said in an email to The Epoch Times that the government has engaged in discussions with area First Nations, industry and NGO’s regarding a “fallowing and production plan” for the Broughton Archipelago that would leave migrating corridors free of farmed fish in alternate years.
“Fallowing and treatment when necessary is proven to be an effective method to ensure sea lice from farms is not an issue for migrating salmon fry. This spring, the Tribune/Fife Channel will essentially be free of farmed fish. This government recognizes that implementation of a Coordinated Area Management Plan on an on-going basis is key for this area,” the ministry said.
A court challenge by Morton and three groups resulted in a ruling in February that salmon farms are actually not farms but fisheries and therefore lie under federal jurisdiction—a landmark decision seen as positive for the wellbeing of the wild salmon. Marine Harvest has appealed the ruling.
Morton has since repeatedly sent a letter—along with over 12,000 signatures gathered online—to federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea asking her to apply the Fisheries Act to the aquaculture industry. As of this writing, Morton has not received a reply.
“The Fisheries Act is a powerful piece of Canadian legislation written to protect the extremely valuable wild fish populations of Canada. It is the law, not an optional course of action,” she says.
A recent comprehensive study by the B.C. Pacific Salmon Forum found “strong indirect evidence” that sea lice are having a detrimental effect on wild juvenile pink and chum salmon. The forum recommended sweeping changes, including that the provincial government fund a commercial-scale closed containment project for farming salmon.
However, the study concluded that aquaculture and wild salmon can coexist, and that current production levels—which critics say are far too high—can be maintained.
A global assessment of the impacts of aquaculture on wild salmon published in February 2008 found that in multiple locations in Canada and Europe, in many cases the presence of salmon farms reduced wild salmon survival by more than 50 percent per generation.
The assessment also found that because salmon farming uses large volumes of processed wild fish for feed, it results in a net loss of fish rather than a net gain.
This, says Morton, is one of the many reasons why salmon farming in the ocean is not viable. She suggests offering incentives to Canadian fish farmers to build tanks on land where they can work on farming a range of fish species, creating an industry with lasting infrastructure that doesn’t endanger wild stocks or create pollution in the ocean.
“Raising fish is a successful endeavour—people have been doing it for thousands of years,” she says.
She’s convinced that wild stocks can bounce back if given the chance.
“These farms are cutting off the blood flow. The wild salmon are going out to the open ocean, picking up energy, and bringing it back. We need that influx of nutrients or the whole province is going to go dim. I’m very certain that if we pull these farms out we’d be amazed at what would happen. We’d be absolutely astonished at how good our ocean really is at raising salmon.”