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General · 20th October 2011
Ray Grigg
If spreading sea lice, diseases and pollution weren't justification enough for removing open net-pen salmon farms from BC's wild West Coast waters, the latest outrage is the slaughter of California sea lions and their marine cousins.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, in an unusual gesture of candidness, reported that between January and March, 2011, salmon farms were responsible for the killing of 141 California sea lions, 37 harbour seals and two Stellar sea lions – which are listed as a species of "special concern" under Canada's Species At Risk Act. All these magnificent marine mammals were shot ‹ another four animals got entangled in netting and suffered the horror of drowning – because they trespassed on salmon farms (Vancouver Sun, Sept 15/11).

Ian Roberts, a spokesperson for Marine West, a West Coast salmon farming corporation, said that, "Zero lethal interaction is our goal." Well, a "goal" is neither consolation to a dead sea lion nor deterrent for a hungry one accustomed to freely roaming the open ocean. And "lethal interaction" is a euphemism for "kill", slippery public relations jargon intent on massaging the gruesome into something that seems less brutal. Considering that these corporate salmon farms are camped in the middle of a marine thoroughfare for migrating mammals – and wild fish, too – the obvious way to ensure "zero lethal interaction" would be to get their net-pens out of the ocean.

But shareholders don't like expensive solutions. The more profitable alternative is to tame the West Coast wilderness with enough "lethal interactions" that troublesome marine mammals are eradicated, a tragedy considering that these waters have been their natural swimming, feeding and breeding territory for millennia.

But "lethal interaction" is the chosen course of action, evident from the information released by DFO in early 2011. The Director of Aquaculture for its western office, Andrew Thomson, who has been "monitoring" the kills during the last six years, offers the comforting assurance that the number of "culls" are down.

"Cull" is an revealing word. Since salmon farms are not mandated to manage the populations of marine mammals, authorization of a "cull" is yet another example of DFO managing the environment to suit corporate interests. Of course, DFO doesn't kill the trespassing sea lions and seals. Neither do the farm employees dirty their hands with guilt. In a gesture that is supposed to introduce an element of compassion to the slaughter and distance corporations from the blood of outright killing, the actual shooting is done by "licensed contractors". This attempted evasion of responsibility is analogous to the CIA avoiding charges of torture by "rendering" suspects to dictatorships so confessions can be forcibly extracted by less civilized regimes. Guilt cannot be contracted to others.

Not that salmon farmers are without a twinge of guilt. Mary Ellen Walling, Executive Director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, confessed that, "We don't take this lightly." Indeed. But her explanation that sea lions are "extremely intelligent" merely makes the act less defensible – killing highly sentient creatures carries more moral burden than killing dull ones. And her description of sea lions as "aggressive" doesn't elicit an image of a hapless and beleaguered industry suffering the terrible adversity of being surrounded and viciously attacked by marauding aliens.

So, what are the poor, victimized salmon farms to do? The burden of guilt must be extremely heavy – but not heavy enough to entice them to the safety of closed containment or land-based farms. Removing their net-pens from the natural habitat of unmanageable mammals while suffering the deprivation of less profitability must be a much more painful prospect than enduring the anguish of distributing sea lice, spreading diseases, polluting, and killing seals and sea lions.

And how many seals and sea lions? DFO's numbers are sobering. Of the 13 years reported, 1997 was the worst year for seals when 550 were killed – 500 were common at this time. The worst year for sea lions was 2000 when 250 were shot because they weren't "intelligent" enough to know that salmon farms are lethal. For anyone concerned with this bloodshed, the consolation is that those were only the most bloody years. The killing of 180 animals in 2011 – plus the four that drowned – is excused by the rise in their population, a defence that uses plentitude to justify slaughter. Although more marine mammals mean more predation and more "lethal interactions", more salmon farms don't count. What is a caring corporation to do with a conflict between its financial interests and the perils imposed by a marine wilderness?

Well, they could be honest enough to show visitors some of the gruesome events that actually occur on their farms. The sharp crack of a rifle will rivet attention while the dull impact of a bullet exploding through bone and brains will be vivid and memorable. The slumping body of a dying sea lion staining the cold ocean with a last ooze of blood should be informative for those who want to experience one of the unadvertised workings of salmon farms.

This unmitigated cruelty, this obscene and atrocious act of shooting magnificent marine mammals simply underscores the profound incongruity and the environmental folly of placing open net-pen salmon farms in the wild, natural ecology of the West Coast. The two have never belonged together, and the extent and severity of this conflict is getting worse. Orcas are scared away. Any native fish-eating creature – herons, otters, mink, eagles – all become the enemy of salmon farms. The diverse, vibrant and stunning character of BC's West Coast is being systematically neutered by foreign-owned corporations so they can use small-fish protein – a food needed by the world's poor – to grow an expensive product that most people cannot afford to buy.

Subduing the wild West Coast to suit salmon farming is ecological madness. The most sane option – especially for the sea lions, seals and wild salmon – is to get the salmon farms and their open net-pens out of the oceans. They are the trespassers.