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Once upon a salmon.....
Expired · 26th July 2009
Ray Grigg
Everyone who cares about the future of wild salmon on BC's West Coast should now have a sickening feeling in the pit of their stomachs. The recent decision of the Strathcona Regional District to zone Gunner Point for a huge open net-pen salmon farm is just another disquieting step in the fiasco that is endangering wild stocks, the linchpin of the region's entire marine ecology. So, unless an uncharacteristic epiphany stops the project or immediately converts it to closed containment, a major source of sea lice infection will be placed at the intersection of Sunderland Channel and Johnstone Strait, a major artery in the out-migration of about one-third of BC's wild salmon.

If the application by Greig Seafoods for a salmon farm at such a strategically important site did not have such serious implications, their contemptuous disregard for the damning research on the transfer of sea lice to wild juveniles would be laughable. If the continued mismanagement of fish farms by federal and provincial governments were not so tragic, the situation would be farcical.

If a hero is to be found in this dispiriting mess, it's Alexandra Morton, a biologist and researcher from the Broughton Archipelago who has been doing her utmost for 21 years to document the tragic effect of salmon farming on BC's marine ecology. Her latest effort was a fact-finding trip to the origin of the salmon farming industry in Norway where she hoped to discover if their long experience has solved any of the problems occurring here. It hasn't. Indeed, she reports, the sea lice in Norway are developing a resistance to toxins and some ecological damage seems beyond repair. "Fish farmers in Norway, Scotland, Ireland and BC," Morton concludes, "have taken 'great measures' to prevent transference of lice from net pens to wild fish for a decade and no one has succeeded. If this was possible to solve, it would have been solved."

Another ominous threat for BC's marine ecology is infectious salmon anemia (ISA). In Morton's conversation with Professor Are Nylund, head of the Fish Diseases Group at the University of Bergen, he reports that, "based on 20 years of experience, I can guarantee that if British Columbia continues to import salmon eggs from the eastern Atlantic, infectious salmon diseases, such as ISA, will arrive in Western Canada. Here in Hardangerfjord we have sacrificed our wild salmon stocks in exchange for farm salmon. With all your 5 species of wild salmon, BC is the last place you should have salmon farms." At least Professor Nylund appreciates that our native ecology is still relatively vital, rich, diverse and, consequently, vulnerable. If the salmon farming industry's "best practices" are not good enough in Norway, what can we expect in BC when the regulations of our Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are not even enforced?

In a recent letter to Gail Shea, Canada's Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Morton reveals the legal absurdity of salmon farming as it is practiced here. "It seems unrealistic," she reminds the Minister, "for you to write that the aquaculture operations are subject to the Fisheries Act when:
1. They have unlicensed packers moving fish over Canadian waters.
2. They use grow lights strictly prohibited by the Fisheries Act that are attracting wild fish into pens of 100,000 carnivorous fish.
3. There are no records on fish farm by-catch of highly valuable Pacific species such as herring, juvenile salmon, black cod, etc.
4. Fish farmers widely use a drug that is not approved for use in Canadian waters and they never post warnings that could protect the public from this toxic drug.
5. Salmon farming exists unconstitutionally in Canada...".

And if this were not enough, Morton notes that salmon farming is guilty of the "release of deleterious substances" into marine waters and of "habitat alteration". Any ordinary citizen who does either is punished firmly by the federal authorities. Disturb one tiny scale on the shiny hide of a young salmon and Fisheries' law penalizes the offender. When Morton wanted to save migrating pink salmon smolts by transporting them around the lice infections of salmon farms, she recounts officials warning her that "if I ever retain juvenile salmon without a permit again I would go to jail." Yet, she reports, "young Broughton pink salmon [were] spilling onto a road as farm fish were transferred out of a boat into a truck." Quite legitimately she asks, "What right do fish farmers have to possess wild juvenile salmon in their pens, boats and trucks?"

And even when the province regulates the "farm" component of salmon farming – unconstitutionally, as the Supreme Court of BC has ruled – this is done only within the boundaries of the leases, Morton claims. Beyond the leases, where the majority of the ecological damage is done, DFO disregards infractions because, as Minister Shea has finally stated publicly, "Our responsibility is to ensure that we have a sustainable industry." In ensuring a "sustainable industry", has Minister Shea considered the critical importance of a sustainable marine ecology?

So, when the Strathcona Regional District – this is the local government supposedly to be most familiar with the risks of salmon farming – grants zoning for a 4,400 tonne salmon farm at Gunner Point, no wonder Morton sounds despondent and discouraged.

In an effort to explain the zoning approval, Director Jim Abram writes that, "It is a test that could advance fish farming into a new era of closed containment OR it could prove that wild and farm fish cannot co-exist." In reality, any of the hundred or more existing salmon farms could be such a "test" for closed containment. And – if the SRD's high risk gamble to leverage the salmon farming industry toward closed containment facilities should fail – the cost to "prove that wild and farm fish cannot co-exist" will be borne by the wreckage of migrating young salmon from local waters and from sources as far away as the Fraser River, Washington and Oregon. "The concessions Greig responded with," in Morton's opinion, "are worthless trade-beads of deception as they are either impossible or irrelevant." The cause of that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach is just BC's wild salmon coming closer to the edge of catastrophe.