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Expired · 12th July 2010
Ray Grigg
Salmon farming has now been on BC's West Coast long enough to have a history. The controversy about its harmful environmental effects has been raging for more than a decade as the critics continue to garner damaging evidence, the industry continues to deny impacts, and the corporate owners tenaciously hold to their original business model. As a glimpse of how little and how much has changed, consider the following Shades of Green column drafted on February 16, 2003. It was not published at the time, presumably because it was preempted by another topical subject. But today it adds an informative perspective and commentary to a controversy that still persists. The following is that column:

Young pink salmon infected with sea lice die slowly and silently, the life sucked out of them through the bleeding lesions inflicted by the parasites. Sadly, more than three million of them died during the spring of 2001 as they migrated from their Broughton Archipelago rivers and followed the coastline on their seaward migration. The unprecedented infestation killed about 99% of the area's pinks, a catastrophic collapse previously unrecorded in the history of West Coast salmon studies.

Fortunately, journalists were not silent. Disclosure, an investigative CBC TV program, revealed that evidence implicating nearby salmon farms may have been compromised by the political interference of BC's Minister of Fisheries, John van Dongen. The possible interference led to his resignation and has focused further attention on a salmon farming industry already soaked in bad publicity.

Those who have been following the sea lice outbreak in the Broughton Archipelago will know that biologist Alexandra Morton was carefully testing for the suspected problem in the spring of 2001 after being alerted by a concerned fisher. She advised the Department of Fisheries and Oceans about a potentially serious outbreak, possibly linked to open net-pen salmon farms. DFO initially dismissed her concerns, although it eventually responded by conducting its own tests. But, by its own admission in internal memos that Disclosure obtained through freedom of information, the tests were conducted too late, in the wrong place, and done with nets that might have scraped off any existing lice.

Furthermore, according to Disclosure, DFO was aware of sea lice outbreaks that were being quietly reported by nearby salmon farms. The industry had publicly denied it had such outbreaks, a position reiterated by North Island MLA, Rod Visser. But John Fraser, chair of the prestigious Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (PFRCC), used Disclosure to openly chastise DFO for dereliction of its responsibilities, and to praise Morton as a competent and credible biologist who was responding conscientiously to a real problem.

The PFRCC, an independent body overseeing wild salmon populations in BC, recently condemned the industry as being "rife with uncertainty". The fish farm industry, however, clearly operates under the disguise of this uncertainty, contending that science has not determined any risks associated with farming Atlantic salmon on the West Coast. This defence exists precisely because, as Dr. John Volpe has pointed out, there is no science. Period. Escaped alien Atlantic salmon are parading by the thousands through a rich and extremely valuable ecology and we have no empirical knowledge about where they go, what they eat, how many escape, how they distribute sea lice and diseases, and what strains of the five Atlantics they are. The only thing that can be said about Atlantic salmon on the West Coast is that we do not know the risks. And that's irresponsible.

And on the subject of irresponsibility, a fish farm at Sir Edmund Bay – where, coincidentally, an outbreak of infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IHN) has occurred – is under investigation for violating the terms of its lease by operating 24 net pens instead of its limit of 12. This inadvertent oversight could have been avoided by counting ten fingers and adding two toes, a task that should have been within the technical skills of the operators.

And on the subject of counting, the Omega Salmon Group recently announced its intention to spend $185 million on farmed salmon feed production and processing facilities on Vancouver Island. The investment would include about $24 million and the prospect of 270 jobs at a Middle Point plant near Campbell River. This announcement, which appeared prominently on the front page of local newspapers in July 2001, was implicitly contingent upon a government decision to lift the moratorium on salmon farm expansion. The moratorium was subsequently lifted. Then the investment plans were abruptly cancelled, the notice appearing inconspicuously on an inner page of just one local newspaper....

Today, seven years and five months later, the innocuous biologist from the Broughton Archipelago is now Dr. Alexandra Morton, recognized with an honourary degree by Simon Fraser University for her exemplary and diligent work documenting the environmental problems associated with coastal open net-pen salmon farms. The moratorium is back in place. The loss of 10 million Fraser River sockeye – those that apparently migrated past salmon farms – has initiated yet another inquiry. A closed containment prototype for raising farmed salmon is nearly operational and a recent study has shown that land-based tanks are economically viable. Some supermarket chains are refusing to sell salmon raised in open net-pens because of the controversy. The perspective provided by history is now beginning to suggest the eventual outcome of this unhappy, unfortunate saga.