Salmon farming has long been a controversial issue, especially in British Columbia. But is the tide starting to turn? We think it is.
Many problems with salmon farming have yet to be addressed, but thanks in part to the work of organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation and its allies in the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, consumers, retailers and industry are all paying more attention to seafood sustainability.
We can now envision a future when Canadian seafood, wild and farmed, will provide healthy choices, regional food security, innovation and jobs while allowing us to live in balance with the natural world. We're not there yet, though. Some fisheries and aquaculture systems continue to put too much stress on our water and ocean environments. But with salmon farming, the tide is starting to turn.
Sign up for our newsletter
The idea of raising salmon in closed-containment systems that separate farmed fish from wild started as a ripple set off by researchers and environmental groups. It has now gained enough momentum that the question is no longer whether real progress toward sustainability is possible, but rather, how soon can we make it the norm?
People are increasingly looking for seafood products that are healthy for their families and the oceans. Companies recognize that long-term business success requires sustainable seafood sources. This has prompted grocery stores such as Overwaitea, IGA, Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro and Whole Foods to develop seafood sustainability plans, to offer more environmentally preferable choices and to provide better labelling.
The demand has also spurred innovation in salmon farming methods, including closed-containment systems that protect the local ecosystem and ensure that farmers, not the environment, are accountable for the costs of doing business. This year, Agrimarine Industries installed floating closed-containment salmon tanks near Campbell River. Washington's SweetSpring Salmon raises coho in a land-based, closed-loop recirculation system and sells them to Overwaitea in B.C. The Toquaht First Nation in Twin Rivers is planning a 60-hectare land-based aquaculture park with a recirculating tank system that turns effluent into fertilizer for organic agriculture. The Namgis First Nation on Cormorant Island is developing a closed-tank project that will provide local training and jobs. These efforts are bringing research, investment and entrepreneurs to our region.
Meanwhile, environmental groups and industry members are starting to work together. The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform and Marine Harvest Canada, part of the largest fish-farming company in the world, are working to get interim protection for wild salmon from sea lice and to test commercial-scale closed containment, something that would have seemed impossible even five years ago.
Conservation and industry representatives have also been working in a science-based global process called the Aquaculture Dialogues to develop standards for ecologically and socially preferable farming of salmon and other aquatic foods. Science assessments from organizations such as SeaChoice in Canada and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the U.S. also continue to refine our understanding of wild and farmed fish sustainability and to promote better purchasing choices by businesses and individuals.
These new technologies, better practices and wide acceptance of the need to overcome ecological challenges in salmon farming and other seafood production make it difficult for those who choose to swim against the tide. Some are trying to create false arguments, relive old battles or use misdirection to call into question basic facts.
Yes, the nature of the debate has shifted and the science has evolved over the past 10 years. For example, pressure from environmental groups helped reduce the amount of wild fish used in aquaculture feed and the risks from chemical contaminants like PCBs and dioxins — a win for all involved. However, real sustainability challenges remain for salmon aquaculture, including issues around parasites, disease, nutrient wastes, chemical use and escapes — issues being examined by the federal Cohen Commission inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye. Challenges also remain with farming carnivorous fish such as salmon. Efforts to move away from unsustainable wild fish for feed and improve feed efficiency must continue.
Trying to deny and avoid the problems is bad for the environment and for the long-term success of the aquaculture industry. Responsible producers focus on improving their operations rather than attacking their critics.
As the global population demands more from our food system, aquaculture holds great potential to provide healthy food to people around the world. It can also be managed in ways that are economically viable and work within nature's limits.
Sustainability in Canadian aquaculture can go from being "the wave of the future" to being our edge in the growing market if we support the operators using closed containment and ecologically preferable species and practices. We still need governments to implement strong sustainability standards that apply to all aquaculture and fisheries, but thanks to the efforts of First Nations, scientists, environmental organizations, fishermen, the aquaculture industry, investors, charitable donors, coastal community members, seafood retailers and conscientious seafood consumers, we're seeing positive signs.
This op-ed also appeared in the Vancouver Sun