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Expired · 15th December 2010
Ray Grigg
After years of documenting the damaging environmental effects of open net-pen salmon farms to BC's coastal ecology, Alexandra Morton had an epiphany. She recounted a meeting in Norway with the major shareholders of the very fish farms she was struggling to reform. They were clearly aware of her scientific work and her growing influence as a critic of their industry's practices. Her recollection of the salient parts of their conversation went something like this:
"What do you want us to do?" they asked her.
Well, Morton thought to herself, many things would help. But an important one came to mind. "Get your salmon farms out of the northern migration route of the Fraser River's wild salmon."
"We can't do that," they told her.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because that would reduce the value of our company's stock."

This was the moment Alexandra's epiphany. For years she had been studying the transfer of fish farm sea lice to wild smolts, complaining about benthic pollution, warning about the effects of the toxins used at fish farms, fretting about escaped Atlantics spawning in local rivers, documenting disease transfer from farmed to wild fish, worrying about the inadvertent importation of alien viruses to the West Coast's salmon-dependent ecology. Her concerns were the damaged vitality of wildlife, the impaired salmon runs, the starving bears, the displaced orcas, the drowned sea-lions, the shot seals, the impact of salmon farms on aboriginal culture, and the loss of people in her home community of Echo Bay in the Broughton Archipelago. Her concern was environmental. Their concern, she realized, was the value of their stock – money.

Alexandra's epiphany offers instructive guidance to anyone with environmental concerns about the salmon farming industry. It is not really here to provide seafood to affluent consumers, to create employment in coastal communities suffering from an ailing wild fishery, to nourish supportive businesses, or to willingly pay taxes. These are merely inadvertent effects, the collateral benefits of keeping stock value high and returning generous dividends to investors. Its objective is continual profit and perpetual growth. Everything it does is a means to this primary objective.

Does the industry embrace the notion of clean oceans, disease-free waters, healthy wild salmon runs and contented, prosperous communities? Of course. But these are secondary objectives that are in service to the primary one. Does the industry have congenial, dedicated, principled, proud and talented people working for it? Of course. But if the economics of salmon farming should fail because of any number of reasons – note the collapse of salmon farming in Chile because of a viral epidemic – then the industry would offer its condolences to dependent communities, dismiss its employees, minimize its losses, and take its money elsewhere. This is the unspoken rule in the real-life game being played in our West Coast ecology. Alexandra's epiphany illuminates everything the industry says and does with a clarity that is sobering, stark and maturing.

Will the industry participate in the Cohen Commission investigation, the federal government's Fraser River Sockeye Inquiry? Of course. But its words in its "We're Farming For the Future" brochure are informative. "...[W]e feel that all the issues need to be looked at, from climate change to urbanization. We hope that providing factual, straight-forward information about our industry will help the inquiry consider the complex culmination of factors that are affecting the Sockeye run."

Is there a "complex culmination of factors...affecting the Sockeye run"? Of course. But why mention "climate change" and "urbanization" while excluding the salmon farming industry itself? Why doesn't its net-pen lice data constitute "factual, straight-forward information"? Surely the innumerable scientific studies implicating open net-pen salmon farming in damage to wild salmon populations is a significant enough factor to mention. But this would imply culpability. And culpability would have a negative affect on stock prices. So the industry assumes a strategy of wholesale denial. Deny responsibility to the edge of absurdity. Evade, deflect, divert, obscure and delay is its response to solid, peer-reviewed science. Anything to keep its stock prices high.

So the industry's response to the latest peer-reviewed scientific study will be predictable. Dr. John Reynolds of Simon Fraser University led a team of researchers studying the relationship between salmon farms, sea lice and wild fish. The findings once again confirmed earlier studies: first, where open net-pen fish farms do not exist, the level of lice infection in wild salmon is about 5%; second, after migrating fish pass salmon farms, their level of infection is 7 to 30 times higher; and three, of the two species of lice that live in these West Coast waters, the ones infecting these migrating fish are so-called "salmon specialists".

But this is bad news for stock prices. So it will be denied with the same obscure rationalizations applied to the mounting barrage of other damning scientific studies. The salmon farming industry will feign innocence to maintain the illusion that supports its stock prices. And all its players will dutifully strut their little defensive parts on the stage of economic necessity, each performing a helpful role in the drama of perpetual profitability. Of course, they will appear as honest employees, conscientious persons, upright citizens and caring community members who are principled and honourable. Indeed, this is who they are.

What they may lack, however, is Alexandra's epiphany, the stark realization that the operating principle behind all this facade of integrity and concern is the cold and ruthless exercise of making money.