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Expired · 16th May 2011
Ray Grigg
The Norwegian-owned salmon farming industry that has inundated BC's West Coast with open net-pen feedlots invariably defends itself against accusations of causing environmental damage by insisting that no evidence exists to definitively prove any such charges. Aside from spooking and drowning marine mammals, using toxins, pesticides and antibiotics in the ocean, and depositing a fetid mess of sludge from fish feces and rotting feed fermenting beneath their net-pens, this defence is technically correct.

Scientists concede that they have not been able to track the journey of individual sea lice originating from salmon farms to passing wild smolts. But they can demonstrate that lice-free fish that approach salmon farms are lice-infected after they have passed the open net-pens. Similarly, scientists cannot definitively prove that diseases are emanating from salmon farms and infecting wild fish. However, the noose of incriminating evidence continues to tighten. And the industry's protestations of innocence sound increasingly vacuous, particularly when a longer history of salmon farming in countries such as Norway, Ireland and Scotland reveals exactly the same suite of environmental damage that is now occurring here.

The latest weight of incriminating circumstantial evidence comes from the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon. A systematic ecological study of the entire Fraser River watershed concluded that the consistent decline of sockeye runs over the last 20 years cannot be attributed to anything in the salmon's freshwater environment. "Based on the evidence," writes Marc Nelitz in his report to the Commission, "it seems most likely that changes in the physical and biological conditions in the Strait of Georgia has led to an increase in mortality during marine life stages" (Globe & Mail, Mar. 11/11). In glaring contrast, specific runs of wild Fraser River sockeye that migrate around the south end of Vancouver Island, rather than northward past scores of salmon farms, have populations unaffected by abnormal mortality. While Nelitz's study does not specifically incriminate open net-pen salmon farms, it places them in both location and time exactly where and when the sockeye populations have declined.

In other incriminating evidence from the Cohen Commission, Dr. Laura Richards, the Pacific Director-General of Science for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), testified that a virus (salmon leukemia) had become epidemic during the 1990s in salmon farms located along sockeye migration routes. This information, although suspected as one of three major causes of the 2009 sockeye decline by DFO, was apparently never made public.

All this gives credence to the argument that BC's salmon farming industry is subjecting the West Coast's entire wild-salmon-based ecology to considerable risk, and that DFO and governments are cooperative agents in an endgame that could ultimately have catastrophic environmental and economic consequences. While much evidence already supports this argument, two more current examples are worth noting.

The first is an "extremely rare" $80,000 Federal Court judgment for legal costs against DFO for failing to protect orca habitat. In a case advanced by Ecojustice, Judge James Russell ruled that "[DFO] behaved in an evasive and obstructive way and unnecessarily provoked and prolonged the litigation in this case", and that DFO "adopted an unjustifiably evasive and obstructive approach... for no other purpose than to thwart attempts to bring important public issues before the court" (Courier Islander, Apr. 29/11). If this is the ethical and legal conduct of DFO with respect to orca habitat, can we expect any different behaviour with respect to its mandate to protect and nurture wild salmon stocks?

The second example pertains to an appeal initiated by both the federal and provincial governments to a BC Supreme Court ruling that a class action lawsuit by First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago may proceed against salmon farms for damage allegedly done to wild salmon runs by sea-lice emanating from open net pens. In Chief Bob Chamberlin's words, "We turned to the courts to ask for a fair determination as to the extent that open net-pen salmon aquaculture has impacted wild salmon stocks in the Broughton Archipelago and whether the province's authorization and regulation of salmon aquaculture has caused the impact. With certification of the class action we hoped that a long history of government delay, denial and distraction to avoid these questions would come to an end" (Ibid., Jan. 13/11). Although this appeal seems intended to protect the two levels of government from the tightening noose of culpability, it also shields the salmon farming industry from responsibility for the environmental damages its practices may have incurred.

These two examples – the orca judgment against DFO and the governmental appeal of a class action lawsuit – combine with complex and carefully designed scientific studies to reveal layers of subterfuge that critics of salmon farming have long suspected. If the Cohen Commission is to adequately illuminate the possible causes of the lost Fraser River sockeye, then it must explore and ultimately make public the dealings between DFO, governments and the salmon farming industry. The science is critically important. But the root and insidious threat is the politics beneath it, the force that decides whether the solid science is respected, whether the ecological warning signs are heeded, and whether the Precautionary Principle is honoured.

If a fatal oversight by either the salmon farming industry or government should result in a collapse of the West Coast's wild-salmon-based ecology – caused, for example, by a mutated form of Infectious Salmon Anemia – then the cultural and economic consequences would be catastrophic. The environmental cataclysm would be even worse. The present evidence suggests that these two players have placed a noose around the neck of BC's wild salmon and are fiddling with the trap door's lever.