By Jay Ritchlin
Someone pinch me. Seven years ago when I would talk about shifting open net cage salmon farming to closed containment systems, people thought I was crazy. But here it is in Overwaitea stores: salmon raised on a closed containment farm in Washington State. It's a huge step forward in the efforts to stop open net cages from harming wild salmon.
The David Suzuki Foundation and our partners in the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform thought it could be done — that it had to be done. We were confident that the weight of scientific evidence demonstrated real damage and risks from open net cages, but we also knew that coastal communities and some First Nations valued the jobs, and that in the long run our society will need to farm some seafood to meet human needs without stripping the oceans clean.
Yes, fish and shellfish that are lower on the food chain should take priority for large-scale protein production. But given the scale of the farmed-salmon industry and the social and economic factors supporting its continuation in some form, it didn't seem likely that the problems would go away. We also didn't want to be caught in the distraction of an "environment versus jobs" argument (even though we've been accused of that).
So we came to closed containment—keep the farmed fish separate from the wild fish and the environment. It's that simple but that profound at the same time.
The main threats to wild salmon and the environment from salmon farming come from waste, escapes, diseases and parasites like sea lice. Closed containment removes those problems. If that is not a quantum leap for protection of wild salmon, I don't know what is.
Now that we have broken the "it can't be done" barrier, we have to work to make sure the existing open nets get out of the way of wild salmon, especially in their most vulnerable juvenile stages. We need to transform salmon farming into an industry that creates green-technology jobs for B.C. and possibly even technology that we can export to other areas. Evidence that this can work is growing.
Is it perfect? Are we done? No. We have to make sure the systems we support meet the environmental promise — monitoring and science are still important. We have to make sure that we address energy-use issues and keep working to reduce the demand of aquaculture for wild fish to make feed for farmed fish. A lot of dedicated people are working to resolve those issues. (And let's not forget that chickens and pigs also eat lots of wild fish in their feed; they're probably even worse places to use fish meal and fish oil than salmon.)
Salmon aquaculture is a contentious issue in B.C. In the past month alone, there have been public protests against net-pen aquaculture, a government report supporting net-pen aquaculture, and an expert workshop that explored solutions to net-pen aquaculture. A lot of people are trying to figure this out.
We've made real progress over the past year. But we need to make more. Change is too slow. Alexandra Morton and the Get Out Migration are rightly expressing the need to act now and the frustration that there always seems to be just one more excuse against taking bold action. I hope all the politicians and business leaders listen to them in Victoria on May 8. I hope the federal and provincial governments will finally put some real money into moving the industry out of open net cages and into closed tanks.
Still, a major grocery chain is selling closed containment farmed salmon and a DFO-funded engineer has published a paper showing the economics make sense. We should celebrate these successes and use the momentum we are all creating with our deep love and respect for wild salmon to keep pushing for more.