Photo: Salmon farms: Has anything changed after a decade of controversy?

With significant expansion planned for the West Coast, the question remains: Has B.C.'s salmon farm industry improved?

By David Suzuki with contributions from Western Region director-general Jay Ritchlin.

The David Suzuki Foundation and others have run ads over the past decade decrying British Columbia's open net-cage salmon farm industry. With significant expansion planned for the West Coast, the question remains: Has B.C.'s salmon farm industry improved?

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Salmon farming threatens some of the planet's last remaining viable wild salmon — a keystone species that touches all our coastal ecosystems. The issues in dispute include feed ingredients, disease transmission between farms and wild salmon, bird and marine mammal deaths, pesticide and antibiotic use, and the effects of multiple farms in concentrated areas.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program recently released science-based ranking reports on open net-cage farmed salmon in B.C., Norway, Chile and Scotland. All received a "red" or "avoid buying" designation. Canada's SeaChoice followed suit.

More than 90 per cent of migrating juvenile salmon die before returning to freshwater to spawn, most in the first months after entering the ocean. Pathogens may be a significant factor, although not all specifics about diseases are fully known. Justice Bruce Cohen's Commission of Inquiry investigating the decline of Fraser River sockeye included pathogen risk — along with habitat loss, predation and contaminant exposure — as a factor in the 2009 sockeye collapse. Disease from salmon farms is one risk to wild salmon that can be controlled.

Salmon-farming shouldn't be done at the expense of wild salmon. Both wild- and farmed-salmon industries provide fish and create economic activity, but the province's sports and commercial wild salmon fisheries and marine tourism contribute more to B.C.'s economy and quality of life than salmon farming. Employment, revenue generation and food creation are important, but so are preserving wild salmon and protecting the environment for our children and grandchildren.

Aquaculture must stop using the ocean as a free waste-treatment system. Closed-containment — in the ocean or on land — is better at controlling water and removing feces and chemicals like antibiotics and pesticides used for sea lice. One B.C. open net-cage company lost over $200 million in one year because of disease, enough to build 10 closed-containment farms. Yet the industry claims closed alternatives cost too much.

Although the salmon farm industry has decreased pesticide use, improved parasite management and reduced feed waste and wild fish used for feed, it hasn't eliminated the problems. Continuing threats to wild salmon and the environment prevent us from supporting expansion of the industry or advising people to eat ocean-farmed salmon.

Despite the risks, last year the federal government quietly opened the door to expand B.C.'s aquaculture industry. Thirteen applications for new or larger farms along the coast have been submitted. Fish farm expansion avoids the bigger question: What kind of economic development is best for our coastal ecosystems?

As Justice Cohen said, more federal research into the effects of fish farms on wild salmon stocks is critical. We need to address this research gap, along with the lack of availability and transparency of data from farming operations, before allowing the industry to expand.

A promising partnership between Genome British Columbia, the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to discover the microbes that may cause disease in B.C.'s wild salmon and hinder their ability to reproduce could provide answers. But those answers don't yet exist.

The fish farming industry is making efforts. In 2013, a farm in Norway was the first to be certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Although certification doesn't fully address the risk to wild salmon, it indicates which farms are best operated and includes requirements to consider cumulative impacts. It is not a signal that the entire industry is free to expand.

Closed-containment systems, which have fewer impacts on the environment and wild fish, are also growing. The Namgis First Nation on northeastern Vancouver Island recently starting shipping its first closed-containment 'Kuterra' Atlantic salmon to Safeway stores in B.C. and Alberta. The aquaculture industry could also improve environmental performance by producing food such as scallops, mussels, tilapia and seaweed that are a lower risk to the environment and use less feed and chemicals.

Our coastal waters are rich in opportunity. They can contribute to food security and community resilience without open net-cage salmon farms. Unless we chart a sound course, salmon will lose — but so will we, and the bears, eagles and magnificent coastal forests that support so much life.

May 1, 2014

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Jul 20, 2014
10:19 PM

This comment is in regards to Alina’s comment about farmed Atlantic Salmon, Salmo salar, in BC waters on Vancouver Island. I read the abstract of the paper and it says that Atlantic salmon were found in 36.6% of surveyed rivers, however it does not say how many Atlantic salmon were actually found. This is up to interpretation. The snorklers could have found 50 Atlantics in a river or maybe 1.

People of British Columbia have great concern as to why Atlantics are farmed instead of Pacific Salmon. However, there is a reason as to why. Atlantics do not tend to colonize, however Chinook salmon, Oncorhynchus tshawytsha, and coho, Oncorhynchus kisutch, do. If an Atlantic escapes into BC waters the likelihood that it will create a sufficient run is very salmon. Atlantics cannot compete with aggressive feeders such as Chinooks and Cohos.

I must also add that Atlantics were introduced to BC waters in the early 1900’s in hope to start a fishery, yet it failed. The Atlantics were not able to compete with the Pacific Salmon.

I understand everyone’s concern with regards to salmon farming, I used to be totally against it, but I have been educated on the topic and I have seen both sides of the story. Salmon farming is not perfect by any means, but it is certainly not as bad as the public thinks.

I would never trust a paper that quotes Alexandra Morton, for she has written papers/was involved with proclaiming that pink salmon would be extinct now due to salmon farms, yet pinks have had record years with salmon farms in BC waters. Morton leaves out data to make it seem like her hypothesis are correct. Here is the paper that describes it:

Just some food for your thought.

Also Magdalen in regards to your comment, the Bay of Fundy has some of the largest tides in the world, and is probably an ideal place to have a salmon farm. The tides would flush away the waste and would be very diluted.

May 08, 2014
12:44 PM

In addition to these concerns raised over concentrated contaminants, disease and pathogens, we have proof that chronic net pen leakage of open-net pen Atlantic Salmon is wide-spread. Atlantic Salmon were found in over half of Pacific BC rivers, and they seem to select rivers with high native Pacific Salmon diversity. It has huge management implications. For more info, read the paper at

May 02, 2014
5:54 PM

the Vancouver aquarium should use the mammal aquariums to demonstrate closed containment fish farming the proceeds could be used to sustain itself

May 02, 2014
8:08 AM

Out here in New Brunswick there is also salmon farming. A year or so ago I had a chat with a salmon farmer as I was paddling around Grand Manan Island. He told me that the strong tides in the Bay of Fundy were good for salmon farming because they flush a lot water through the pens, making it a healthier environment.

This sounds reasonable but could someone knowledgeable about aquaculture please comment on this? Do the Fundy tides make a difference from fish-health and environmental perspectives?

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