Fishy business at B.C. fish farms

Widespread environmental degredation accompanies growing industry

“There are no commercial fisheries left in the world for Atlantic salmon. When you see ‘Fresh Atlantic Salmon,’ it’s farmed,” explained Catherine Stewart, salmon farming campaign manager for Living Oceans, a marine conservation agency in British Columbia.

“And you shouldn’t eat it until the industry cleans itself up,” Stewart added.

Farming of Atlantic Salmon – a non-native species to the Pacific – took root in B.C. during the late eighties due to the ideal conditions found in sheltered inlets and bays.

A Norwegian-owned company, Marine Harvest Canada, is typical of the industry. During the 20-month growing cycle for salmon, the company feeds its stocks fishmeal, a combination of processed fish and fish oil that comes in pellet form from fish farms in Chile or Peru.

According to Alexandra Morton, a marine biologist with the Raincoast Research Society, the use of fish meal requires a large amount of energy for processing, shipping, and feeding.

“You’re fishing huge stocks of fish that could be eaten directly by humans, instead of used to feed other fish” Morton said.

Clare Backman, Environmental Relations Director for Marine Harvest Canada, said a dye-colourant – SalmoFan – is often added to fish to mute the grey tint typical of the farmed species to make them resemble their shrimp-fed wild counterparts.

Backman said he did not doubt the safety of the additives, and that Canada has no regulations requiring a label to inform consumers of the dye.

Despite potential uncertainties regarding the dyes, marine activists are more concerned with the environmental degradation of the B.C. coastal ecosystem.

In 1988, the federal government transferred responsibility and oversight of fish farms to provincial governments. But Morton said there are no provincial regulations against waste dumping, and wild salmon stocks are hurt by escaping and diseased farmed fish.

“Every time there is an issue, the provincial and federal governments are pointing at each other,” Morton said. “If it went to the federal government, they would be responsible for environmental effects outside the pens.”

According to Stewart, fish farm location is problematic because fish faeces and waste are dumped straight into the ocean, and that sea lice, small marine parasites, pose an even larger problem because they breed quickly in overcrowded salmon farms.

“Sea lice on the farmed fish produce millions and millions of eggs, and the effect on wild salmon is causing a huge decline in cascading effects on the entire ecosystem,” she said, adding the fish are often treated with antibiotics, some of which aren’t legal under Health Canada.

“Companies are getting emergency use permits [for antibiotics], but they do it all the time and it becomes standard operating procedure,” she said.

While there is no evidence of interbreeding between the five kinds of Pacific salmon and the farmed Atlantic salmon, farmed fish escapes can hurt the wild stocks by competing for food and destroying river beds where wild salmon lay their eggs.

Backman said his company adhered to regulations and maintained environmental sustainability measures.

“We’ve been a leader in working with the regulatory community – there’s a zero tolerance for escapes.…We use the strongest nets available.”

Backman added that he didn’t think regulatory oversight would change because the current system was highly comprehensive.

“The current provincial regulation system is the most stringent in the world…. I don’t know how they would improve that,” she said.

Pamela Parker, Managing Director for Pacific Salmon Forum, a seven-person research team commission by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell in 2004, said the current debate over fish farms demonstrated public skepticism.

Stewart recommended a move to on-shore farms using containers would preserve jobs and lessen the environmental impact.

“There’s a tremendous number of pressures facing our wild salmon: overfishing, habitat destruction, and now climate change,” Parker said. “We’re tipping these stocks over the edge…and it’s imperative that we fix those threats that we can.”

The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands declined to comment for this piece, and the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans was unavailable before press time.