It’s nice to occasionally encounter a more balanced article on the reality of wild and farmed salmon. I don’t think it will be too terribly long before salmon fishing in BC, at least in some areas, will be completely closed. The commercial fishery for some species, in some regions, is completely unsustainable and the life cycles of the different species and stocks don’t lend themselves easily to management decisions. The public calls out fisheries managers for ineptitude when it’s virtually impossible to pin down, with any measure of accuracy, what a run will look like. Salmon leave the freshwater systems and go to sea for anywhere from one to six or more years; in many cases, within the same population, cohorts will return in different years. We have no way to predict those variations as yet.

It’s impossible to determine how many will come back, for any number of reasons. No one really understands the black box out there past the shelf and how it varies from year to year. Commercial fishers from all countries don’t necessarily all follow the rules, and there are rogues in every sector of every industry. Size selective fishing gear lends itself to pulling out the largest fish that capture the best economic return; unfortunately these are often the biggest females and their removal reduces the overall productivity of a given population.

Changing temperatures, changing pH, changing water currents….all of these change the composition of the lower trophic levels, the prey that salmon and other species of fish prey upon. If those prey species have lower levels of energetic nutrients contained within them, the fish have to work that much harder and expend that much more energy to meet their physiological demands, and that extra energy expenditure results in fish with a lower fitness that may require them to spend longer at sea to gain the resources they need to return to freshwater to spawn. Longer residency in the marine environment means greater risk of predation or capture in a fishery, and that means fewer larger fish coming back.

And then they return to freshwater, where things may not be all that much better. In recent years there has been lower snowpack and warm weather has been arriving earlier and with more intensity, melting what is present on the mountains at a faster rate. Spring freshets have been earlier and more intense, leaving systems with lower water that absorbs greater heat later in the season when the adults are trying to return to spawn. Warmer water holds less oxygen, and salmon demand cold, oxygen rich, water. Warmer water and lower oxygen are both physiological stressors to fish; warm waters are also highly conducive to bacterial and parasite reproduction. It’s a vicious cycle and the fish are on the losing end of it all.

And yet there is a faction of the population that is steadfastly blind to all of the clear science and points their fingers at an industry that seeks to fill the gap, indirectly reducing the overall pressures associated with hunting an animal that is on the decline. When it was clear that animals such as buffalo, deer, elk, boar, and other large mammals could not sustain the human desire for animal protein, humans learned to culture those that lent themselves to domestication and hunting declined in our largest human centres. Yet many seem to think that those same principles don’t apply to hunting in the ocean. Populations are finite, regardless of what blinders we choose to don.

Aquaculture has a history going back thousands of years. It is a vital part of farming in many parts of the world, and in most cases, is quite sustainable. Tilapia, milkfish, carp, and many other species, are a normal part of widespread polyculture in tropical and subtropical regions.

And then there is the salmon.

Arguably, it is odd to culture a carnivorous species, but there is more to the visceral pushback. Salmon are a cultural and ecological symbol and we have a massive emotional attachment to them. Why then do we think it is OK to continue to hunt them in large numbers, and not OK to farm them?

And why is catch-and-release OK? Why is it OK to go out to willfully torture an animal and then release it? The survival of that animal is not assured after release, in fact it probably only has between a 10-40% chance of surviving after it has been played, held out of water for photos, and then released.

But farming is bad.

There are dozens of arguments against fish farming, and I can poke a hole in all but one of them, sustainability surrounding their feed. Salmon are carnivorous, therefore they need high quality animal based protein in their diet. Specifically, other fish. To me that has been the weak spot that needs addressing, and it is being addressed. Researchers are looking at novel protein sources, at modifying plant based proteins to make them more digestible, and at introducing more rapidly regenerating sources such as insect based proteins.

But all of those other arguments?

  • Escapes
    • For years there was an outcry that escaped salmon would displace natural populations or interbreed. It has never happened, and when one considers that for close to a century Atlantic salmon have been, or were, released in large numbers in an attempt to establish a self sustaining run on the Pacific coast. All of that effort ended in failure. There is no reason to believe that some escapes would succeed where a concerted effort failed.
  • Diseases
    • There seems to be a hysteria about disease in salmon, almost as if all wild fish are disease free. The claim is that farmed salmon bring diseases to the wild fish, that they introduce them into our waters. That couldn’t be more twisted. Farmed fish are placed into the marine net pens as naive animals, they have never been exposed tot he marine pathogens as they come from the freshwater hatcheries, marine pathogens don’t live in freshwater, so the farmed fish are exposed to the naturally present pathogens when they are placed into the salt water environment. In an effort to protect the fish and reduce disease incidence and spread, farmed fish are vaccinated, the same way we are vaccinated as children to avoid diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, polio, etc. The principle is the same, and the vaccines are little different.That said, if a disease does break in a net pen, due to the close proximity of the animals to each other, and owing to the fact that the fish are largely protected from predation, the higher density of animals can amplify a disease signal and act as a reservoir. But the disease arises from the natural environment, the initial transfer is from wild to farmed, not the other way around. Like sea lice…they don’t magically arise through parthenogenesis, they are already present in the marine environment, on wild fish, and htey take advantage of a population whether it be wild or farmed.
  • Antibiotics
    • Just not a significant concern. The antibiotics that are used in salmon aquaculture are broad spectrum and highly restricted. They are available only under prescription from a licenced veterinarian and they are designed to weaken a bacterial pathogen enough that the immune system of the animal can gain the upper hand and deal with the infection such that it gains memory and can better mount a stronger and more effective immune response should the same pathogen be encountered at a later date.There are more antibiotics flushed down the toilets in unfinished prescriptions and as unmetabolized waste released via the urinary systems of the populations of our community sewage systems. There are more antibiotics used in terrestrial animal culture than are ever applied or released from a salmon farm. That’s the point of vaccinating, to increase resistance to bacterial pathogens without using drugs.
  • Nasty chemicals
    • The majority of chemicals used at fish culture sites are more benign than what most people use in their homes. Iodine and chlorine based disinfectants are used to reduce pathogen transfer and maintain biosecurity. Only one anaesthetic is licenced for use with food fish. Formalin based parasiticides break down quickly into non-harmful compounds and near- and far-field effects are minimal.
  • Killing of marine mammals
    • Marine mammals are protected and their euthanasia is regulated and requires permitting. It’s not the wild west out there.
  • They eat wild fish that enter the nets
    • So?
  • Feed and faeces buildup on the ocean floor
    • If that’s true, then the farm is poorly located and the water quality will deteriorate for the fish int eh pen. Salmon farmers know that the most important thing their fish need is high quality water, they aren’t out to pollute the environment that they rear their commodity in.
  • They interfere with my boating pleasure
    • This argument makes me laugh, and I’m glad I don’t hear it anymore. The first time someone said that to me I asked how much chain they had on their boat and what depth they normally anchored in. Most pleasure boaters like to anchor in about 30-40 feet of depth. That means that for a lunch-hook at a scope of 3:1 they will put out about 90-120′ of rode, or for an overnight scope of 5:1 or 7:1 they will put out about 150-200′. That’s a lot of scope, and without a windlass, who wants to pull it in, so most of us tend to anchor in shallower water.Net pens are usually in water much, much deeper than that what pleasure boaters want to anchor in, so those areas really aren’t of interest to boaters.
  • I just don’t like them…..

That last one is probably the real reason so many people rail against salmon farms. It’s different than fishing, and we are resistant to change so we will cling to whatever hollow belief resonates with us.

I hear them referred to as inhumane feedlots, and there has been a major push from some corners to put them on land, because there is a mistaken belief that they will have no environmental impact on land. This argument confuses me a bit, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is still an impact on the environment when fish are reared in contained systems on land, the effluent has to be dealt with and it is in a much more concentrated form as a result of a high density intensive closed system.

A few months ago I took a course on recirculating land-based aquaculture systems. And I came away with some new opinions. The biggest thing I walked away with was the knowledge that I will forever avoid salmon grown on land in intensive recirculating systems and when I buy farmed salmon, I will only buy fish that have been reared in ocean netpens, for a number of reasons.

  1. Welfare: Fish in open net pens have access to natural fluctuations in water temperature, in light, in water chemistry. They have access to a limited amount of naturally occurring prey that swims into the net pen, and that allows the fish to exercise some natural behaviours. I’ve been to salmon farms and seen salmon in net pens, and to me it differs little from cattle in a fenced field. In a closed containment system the fish are exposed to light 24 hours a day and are fed via automatic feeder every 15 minutes. The water is thick and unnatural. People rail against caged chickens and veal, if they understood that fish in closed containment are subjected to the same negative welfare issues they might think again about calling for fish to be moved to land. I could find nothing positive about the way the animals existed in the system I saw.
  2. Salmon reared in a closed recirculating system on land produce a massive amount of nitrogenous waste and this needs to be dealt with through drum filtration, biological filtration, and clarifiers. The water they live in during their grow-out causes the flesh to be tainted and foul tasting. Prior to harvest they have to be moved/changed over to a flow through water system for a period in order to depurate their flesh so it actually tastes like salmon. I’d rather eat a salmon that tastes like a salmon without it having to go through a depuration process to clear out the impurities in its flesh. That thoroughly turned me off.

And those are two very significant reason why I won’t pay a premium price for what I see as an inferior product, and why I won’t support land based salmon farming; honestly, it’s horrible.

The debate is a strongly emotional one, and there are those that are masterfully skilled at manipulating the media, and the public via that messaging. But it’s not as straightforward as those sailing about with celebrities who understand little  about what they are condemning.

And every time I hear messaging that amounts to “Save wild salmon, eat wild salmon” it makes me cranky because it completely ignores the other factors involved in our declining stocks. It’s understandable to want a smoking gun to point at, but there isn’t one single thing that has caused their decline, except perhaps us.

Wild Salmon’s Dismal Outlook

Randy Shore – September 10, 2016


Wild B.C. salmon may be on its way to luxury item status.

“We are seeing prices beyond what I ever expected it to reach,” said Guy Dean, vice-president of Albion Fisheries. “King salmon (Chinook) are going for $13 or $14 a pound in whole form, not even filets. It’s starting to become a luxury item.”

That’s if you can buy it at all.

The wild catch of B.C. salmon has declined nearly 80 per cent since 1990, according to statistics supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture. Aquaculture has replaced nearly all of that decline, and today produces about three quarters of B.C.’s total salmon haul.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-08-40-amThe Fraser River sockeye fishery was closed altogether this year based on spawner return estimates of just 853,000 fish, numbers once reckoned in the tens of millions. It is the worst return in 120 years, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission.

The Fraser River sockeye may well be the canary in the climate-change coal mine, a harbinger of the decline of wild fisheries around the world expected to result from rising ocean temperatures, changing salinity and oxygen levels.

A University of B.C. study released this week projects global fishing revenue will drop seven to 10 per cent by 2050.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-02-39-amCold-water species such as salmon are already dropping as a proportion of the world’s wild caught fish, said co-author William Cheung, a professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.

Another study co-authored by Cheung released earlier this year estimates that the geographic range of commercially important fish in B.C. will move north by 10 to 18 kilometres per decade in the coming years, permanently altering the viability of fisheries on the South Coast. The catch available to First Nations communities most dependent on food fisheries could drop by 50 per cent for herring and 29 per cent for salmon.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-10-02-amSalmon abundance is also affected by decades-long fluctuations in ocean temperature, in which warm parts of the cycle are associated with poor fisheries in southern waters.

“As ocean temperatures rise generally we will see that problem exacerbated,” said Cheung. “Sockeye physiology is very sensitive to temperature, and we see warmer temperatures in the Fraser River associated with high mortality.”

Warm ocean conditions last year also resulted in a coast-wide outbreak of sea lice that led to increased infestations on ocean-based salmon farms and on wild salmon. Sea lice are associated with increased mortality in juvenile salmon.

As if to put an exclamation point on a dismal outlook for Pacific salmon, four chinook and coho fisheries on the South Coast were red-listed by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program earlier this week.

Consumers should be aware, though, that little if any of the fish rated as “avoid” would have made it to market this year. About 99 per cent of the coho and chinook in stores comes from fisheries that are rated as “good alternatives”.

Demand for fresh wild B.C. salmon is strong, but it is increasingly sold at a significant price premium, and only when it is available. So, as our wild catch continues its steady decline, salmon farmers are set to begin a modest expansion.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada issued four new aquaculture licences for the West Coast last summer, three of which are beginning operations this year. A handful of other farms have been expanded.

“Our five-year plan calls for an increase of 12,000 metric tonnes, about 14 per cent,” Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said in an interview. “That’s all the growth we have planned, and that is mostly salmon.”

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-11-24-amThe government is continuing to accept applications, but all approvals are on hold while Letnick awaits a report from a minister’s advisory committee on finfish that will make recommendations on the future of the marine-based aquaculture industry.

“We have to ensure that aquaculture operations are socially and ecologically sustainable and can co-exist with our wild fishery resource,” Letnick said.

The food service industry tends to favour farmed salmon because the size and cost of the fish is consistent, it’s available every day of the year, and its high fat content keeps cooked portions from drying out.

Farmed Atlantic salmon is already the province’s top seafood export, worth $255 million a year, more than all wild salmon varieties combined.

“There is a market for our farmed salmon pretty much everywhere outside of B.C.,” said Dean. “But I see inroads being made in B.C., too.”

The farmed vs. wild debate is somewhat muted beyond our provincial borders, but larger firms with corporate responsibility goals are paying attention to how the aquaculture industry conducts itself.

That’s why the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has pledged to see every salmon farm in the province certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council by 2020. ASC’s certification program was developed by the World Wildlife Fund in cooperation with the aquaculture industry.

“It’s incredibly labour intensive and expensive but we are committed to getting everyone certified,” said executive director Jeremy Dunn.

In just under three years, Cermaq has achieved certification at five of 27 locations. Marine Harvest has certified four sites and is in process at six others.

Despite that progress, the debate over ocean-based salmon farms remains highly polarized, dominated by environmental groups and many First Nations that consider net-pen farms vectors for disease and infestations that harm wild salmon.

“We learned from the Cohen Commission that there are many stressors on wild salmon,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance. “Some of these stressors are beyond our reach to change, but let’s identify which ones are within our reach to change and create a situation in which wild salmon can head out to the ocean in the highest possible numbers.”

First on Chamberlin’s list is net-pens salmon farms.

“Mining, logging, oil and gas, all these industries have evolved,” said Chamberlin. “It’s time now for the fish farms to get out of the ocean and move to land-based closed containment, it’s time for that evolution.”

The question is less clear cut at the DFO, where scientists are sorting through a myriad of potential smoking guns to explain the general decline in salmon abundance, said Jennifer Nener, director of salmon, Pacific region

“Over the past 20 years we’ve seen declines in marine productivity, in particular with coho which we have had significant concerns about since the late 90s,” she said. “With the Fraser River sockeye, we’ve seen more variable returns with some really high years and some really low years.”

The factors affecting the health of salmon fisheries are enormously complex, a problem compounded by the fact that much of the salmon life cycle plays out beyond our observation in a kind of oceanic black box.

“It’s difficult to unravel because returns have been so inconsistent,” she said. “This year we are wondering whether the infamous warm blob is responsible for the weak (Fraser River) sockeye return, but other stocks have done very well.”