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General · 19th November 2011
Ray Grigg
Perspective is an illuminating rarity that can take years to occur. Disparate pieces drift in an incoherent jumble until they begin to coalesce into a understandable pattern. Then clarity reveals connections and relationships. Insight comes out of confusion. Order replaces chaos. The pieces cohere into a meaningful whole. The design becomes obvious. Explanations are then both possible and credible. And the catalyst that makes all this happen can be something fairly small and innocuous.

Such a catalyst was a small newspaper report that Marine Harvest, BC's largest salmon farming corporation, was pleading guilty to two violations of the Fisheries Act (Courier-Islander, Nov. 2/11). Specifically, after two years of pleading innocent, Marine Harvest was now accepting responsibility for "incidental bycatch" in 2009 at two of its northern Vancouver Island facilities. Wild salmon and herring were captured and killed during the netting and transfer of farmed fish, adequate measures were not taken to prevent, recover and release the wild fish to minimize harm and mortality, and the bycatch was neither recorded nor reported as required by law.

"By their deeds shall ye know them" – the gospel of Matthew 7:16.

In the great scheme of things, the incident may seem small. But it is symbolic, important and revealing. Witnesses were present for the obvious infraction. They took photographs, collected the wild fish from beneath the trucks, then presented the evidence to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. DFO did not prosecute, an incredible lapse considering the violation was so obvious and the evidence so incriminating. So charges were laid by Alexandra Morton, a private citizen who decided to act when the appropriate enforcing agency would not. Furthermore, the Department of Justice apparently perceived DFO's negligence to be so serious that it undertook the prosecution itself – "the first time the Department of Justice had made such a move with a private prosecution," noted the newspaper report.

This simple incident raises a host of significant questions. Given the obvious evidence, why did DFO not lay charges? What was the relationship between DFO and Marine Harvest that warranted overlooking such an obvious violation of the Fisheries Act? When charges were laid and the evidence was so damning, why did Marine Harvest initially plead innocence? How does such a plea reflect on its attitude to the law, to the marine environment in which it operates its open net-pens, and to its role as a responsible corporate citizen? If Marine Harvest is capable of flagrant violations of the law and of denying obvious guilt, what other regulations is it capable of neglecting, disregarding or bending to its advantage? Does it perceive itself to be a law unto itself, a corporate body that is responsible only to its shareholders but not to the country or environment that host it?

Even worse, the federal agency that is supposed to supervise the salmon farming corporations seems to have abdicated its authority. First, DFO delegated that authority to the provinces, a transfer of power that the courts deemed to be a violation of its constitutional mandate. Now that this supervisory responsibility has been imposed by the courts, the salmon farms seem to function with impunity, as if DFO were a mere spectator rather than an enforcer of regulations. Leniency that DFO would never allow an individual violator is granted with apparent blessing to corporations: to suffocate the benthic environment with fish feces, to allow a restricted pesticide to be routinely used, to kill seals and sea-lions by the thousands (an astounding 6,243 between 1989 and 2000), to displace orcas and other marine threats with sonic scare devices, and to permit diseases and parasites from open net-pens to infect migrating wild salmon. And then, in two acts that hover somewhere between ludicrous and surreal, DFO has attempted to muzzle scientists critical of salmon farming and has allegedly financed the industry's attempt to win organic certification.

DFO and its political masters have effectively ceded portions of the ocean to corporate control, giving them the sovereign authority to do whatever they please. Restrictive regulations are mere formalities routinely excused. And the corporations have willingly assumed ownership, not just of their leases but of the entire marine ecology in which they operate. DFO seems to measure environmental risk and damage by its inconvenience to the corporations.

This description comes close to giving shape to the situation pertaining to salmon farms in BC's West Coast. The relationship of government to salmon farming corporations is too close and too accommodating to be healthy for society and for the environment. A loss of distinction is occurring between political and corporate interests. Supervision has become licence. While such an arrangement may benefit salmon farming employees, society as a whole perceives an unfair application of the law and suffers a loss of confidence in an agency that is supposed to protect their collective interests. The ceding of power to corporations disempowers people and erodes their confidence in democracy.

This ceding of power is the same motive force that is driving the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, an international reaction to the corporate behaviour that is bypassing democratic processes, stressing the global financial system, accentuating economic inequalities and causing environmental wreckage. The corporations that operate salmon farms in BC are now a noticeable example of this larger problem. "By their deeds shall ye know them."