Photo: Salmon farming: A grave concern, a great hope

Canada's Salmon are a national treasure — worthy of protection (Credit: Jeffery Young).

For most of us on the West Coast, salmon is more than just a delicious and nutritious food source. It's an icon with a deep history in First Nations culture and an evident link to the resiliency and prosperity of our natural environment.

From a purely monetary perspective, wild salmon are an unquestionable boon. Commercial and recreational fishing in B.C. alone provides $447 million in GDP and 3,880 full-time equivalent direct jobs, according to a 2005 report from the B.C. Legislature's Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture.

This noble fish is also an indicator species of the health of our oceans and rivers. In addition to nourishing people, salmon sustain everything from orca whales to coastal wolves. Even cedar trees in the coastal rainforest depend on salmon, harvesting nutrients from fish remnants left behind by grizzly, black and spirit bears.

A national treasure

This is not just a menu item. It's a national treasure, worthy of protection.

So, when we contemplate an issue like fish farming — potentially a worthy effort to protect wild salmon from overexploitation and create employment — we must demand more than a relatively acceptable substitute, produced at a price that people are willing to pay. We must insist that in satisfying our gastronomic desires and nutritional goals, we don't endanger the other contributions that salmon make to our economy, our environment and our society.

Early efforts at finding a farm-based salmon replacement have fallen short by that standard. Farmers dropped nets into sheltered bays and inlets and filled them with thousands of fish. They used other fish in the feed — from 1.5 to five kilos for every kilo of salmon they ultimately harvested. They used Atlantic salmon, which often escaped, sometimes carrying diseases and parasites and competing with steelhead for spawning and rearing habitat.

Because net-cage salmon are kept in close confinement, farmers also required drugs and other chemicals to combat disease and sea lice. Some of those drugs enter the environment, creating the potential for both antibiotic resistance and direct harm to other sea life like prawns and lobsters.

Death to the "by-catch"

If net cages have problems keeping farmed salmon in, they also have trouble keeping out predators out. Fisheries and Oceans Canada reports that between 1996 and 2008, fish farmers killed 3,239 harbour seals and 7,678 Steller's sea lions. Sometimes, the salmon farm nets themselves kill wildlife. In 2007, 51 sea lions got tangled in nets and drowned at a single farm.

There have been angry arguments over the severity of these risks. Environmentalists, urging a precautionary approach, have been accused of overstating them, while farm owners and some governments have minimized or denied the problems. But an increasing number of studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals raise undeniable issues (e.g., "Transmission Dynamics of Parasitic Sea Lice from Farm to Wild Salmon," Proceedings of the Royal Society; "A Global Assessment of Salmon Aquaculture Impacts on Wild Salmonids," PLoS Biology). We live in a "closed containment" world. We can no longer dump pollution into the oceans — or into the air — and believe that the currents will carry them away. On our finite planet, there is no "away."

A better way

That's why the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR), of which the David Suzuki Foundation is a charter member, is supporting experiments in closed-containment salmon farming. For example, in Washington State, Domsea Farms has launched a land-based, freshwater system to produce coho salmon. These "SweetSpring" salmon are now available in 124 Overwaitea stores in Western Canada.

In Middle Bay on Vancouver Island, AgriMarine Inc. has installed the first of four solid-wall floating tanks for farming chinook and coho salmon. Also on Vancouver Island, the Toquaht First Nation is planning a 60-hectare land-based aquaculture park with a recirculating tank system that will turn effluent into fertilizer for organic agriculture. And on Cormorant Island, the Namgis First Nation is developing a closed-tank project that will provide local training and jobs.

Health and diversity, now and forever

The David Suzuki Foundation's mission is clear: "To protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future."

Protecting our quality of life now means finding viable economic choices that employ fishers and fish farmers. But as with the quality and diversity of our environment, that employment will only be sustainable if we set a reasonable limit on the harvest of wild salmon and find a safe and healthy way to raise farm salmon.

You can help by making safe and sustainable choices. Support safe salmon farming and look to the SeaChoice guide when shopping.

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