Why is salmon farming so scary?

We’ve been thinking about this question during the past weekend (when we weren’t basking in the sun and consuming vast quantities of Lucky Lager, hot dogs and marshmallows).

Why is salmon farming so scary?

Some people react to it as if salmon farming is going to creep into their houses at night and abduct their children, then leave a giant underwater mountain of feces in the ocean blocking the Georgia Strait while evil Norwegians on the shoreline laugh maniacally and count their money.

It seems ridiculous when we put it that way, but we have honestly had people tell us they believe there is a conspiracy between government and salmon farmers to wipe out all the wild fish so there will be no salmon but farmed, so they can make more money.

Of course, they ignore the facts that although both are valuable, wild fish are worth more to the government than farmed fish. Fishing creates more jobs, more money for the economy and more revenue for the government in terms of licences. But still they believe there’s a conspiracy to get rid of the wild fish.

Salmon farm
Some people look at this and see a salmon farm. Others look at it and see the embodiment of everything they hate, fear and loathe and call it a “stain upon the sea.”

These sort of conspiracy theories and the visceral reactions some people have to salmon farming seems absurd to us. How can people react with such horror to something as benign as growing fish? How can people believe such ridiculous ideas of government conspiracies?

Here’s where we in the salmon farming business need to do something different. We have to change how we react to this horror. We need to show people that we are trustworthy.

The first thing we need to do is realize and understand that the fear and anger people feel is very real. We cannot dismiss these feelings, even though there’s probably not much we can do to change them.

Thanks to the horror stories of a few people who have dedicated their lives to stopping salmon farming, many people now have these feelings of fear and anger, and this mistrust of salmon farmers. We salmon farmers have our track record, our data and science. Guess which group wins in the media, which is built on conflict and drama and people pointing fingers at each other.

Thanks to millions of years of evolution, in our brains, feelings trump data every single time.

A bad two-man play in which one character gets eaten by a tiger

We are hard-wired to make quick, gut judgments about things.  Consider two early hominid hunters out on the plains. A poorly scripted dramatic re-enactment follows.

HUNTER 1: “What’s that rustling in the bushes? It must be a tiger, I’m outta here!”

HUNTER 2: “Well, it could be a tiger, but it ‘s probably just be the wind, or maybe a rabbit or AAAAARRRGH IT REALLY IS A TIGER OH GOD MY LEG TELL MY WIFE AND KIDS I LOVE THEM…”

Hunter 1 made a snap judgment from his gut and ran away before anything could eat him. Hunter 2 took a few extra moments to think logically about the possibilities and got eaten.

Guess which genetics got passed along to future generations?

But there can’t be a tiger in every bush. How likely is that? Let’s consider another small hunting party out on the plains.

HUNTER 1: “What’s that rustling in the bushes? It must be a tiger, let’s get outta here!”

HUNTER 2: “It could be a tiger, but it could also just be the wind, or maybe a rabbit. Look, I don’t see any tigers.”

HUNTER 1: “Maybe, but your father got eaten by a tiger that jumped out of the bushes, remember? Let’s not take any chances.”

HUNTER 2: “Good point. Let’s go hunt somewhere else and tell other people there might be a tiger here.”

While only one hunter was inclined to make a snap judgment from his gut and run away, they were both inclined to recall an example and apply it to their situation. In this case, both sets of genetics, the “run away” reaction and the “take no chances” reaction got passed along to future generations.

This is a crude and simplistic example but it shows how we as humans have evolved to have brains that make snap judgments about risks. Examples reinforce those judgments. We only consider the logic and the facts once we are sure there is no imminent danger.

Some people who have made it their mission in life to shut down salmon farms are experts at appealing to this part of our brain. They make people feel as though even stopping for a minute to logically consider the risks will lead to catastrophe.

They ridicule, ostracize and condemn anyone who doesn’t see the imminent danger that they do.

And why wouldn’t they? Their feelings are strong. They believe what they are saying. Their brains, programmed by millions of years of evolution, have switched into the position of believing that salmon farms could kill wild salmon, and no risk is worth taking in that scenario. People who disagree are making the risk even greater by their inaction.

Enter cognitive dissonance

This belief is plagued by cognitive dissonance, holding several conflicting ideas in mind at the same time and convincing yourself there is no conflict. We’re not psychologists, but we find the science behind this term very interesting. Apparently, the term was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse.

Reminds us of an anti-salmon farming group, which has a few members who act like cult followers sometimes.

Cognitive Dissonance by Stephen Harper
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper provides a wonderful example of cognitive dissonance at work.

These believers ignore the risk from other real and imminent dangers, which could easily be argued to be far more risky than salmon farms. Overfishing. Climate change. Ocean pollution from cities. Habitat destruction. Bycatch.

But those are all things we are familiar with. We understand them, and usually think of them in terms that are “Good.” It’s not overfishing or bycatch, it’s fishing. Fishing has costs, and we accept it because we feel the benefits are greater than the costs. It’s not habitat destruction, it’s logging. We accept it because, like fishing ,we feel the benefits are greater than the costs. We accept these things as “Good” because they provide obvious benefits. Food. Lumber.

These real dangers might be things we don’t feel we can do anything about. Climate change, for example. How can we save salmon by altering climate change? Let’s worry about something else.

Or they are things we have come to accept as necessary, regardless of the cost. Cities, for example. People aren’t going to stop living in cities and creating pollution.

But salmon farming, well, that’s new and weird and kind of scary. People don’t know much about it. We haven’t had 10,ooo years to get used to it like chicken farming. Most of the things we remember hearing about it are BAD examples. And in our brains, new and scary plus BAD examples equals DANGER. We are primed to be fearful, and all it takes is a few skillful prods from individuals to turn that low-level fear into a sort of manic hysteria, and channel that into anger, hate and outrage against salmon farming.

We are all wired the same way

We’re not trying to sound better than anyone else. Our brains are wired this way, too. If someone pulled the fire alarm at our children’s school, and no one sounded the “false alarm” in time to avoid the local radio station reporting that “there appears to be a fire in progress at your children’s school,”  we would drive down there and take them home just like anyone else. We wouldn’t wait to get a phone call from the school that everything was OK.

And if we heard that someone who ate a chicken sandwich in our home town died from food poisoning, we would avoid that restaurant.

It’s just how our brains work.

But when we sit down and think about the real risks and dangers we face, we would realize that our kids are safe, and that driving down to the school in a mad dash to save them would likely be a bigger risk to ourselves and other kids than the threat from what is in all likelihood a false alarm (especially since we don’t see any smoke and if we bother to phone the school we would find out it’s false).

We would realize that the likelihood of getting food poisoning from that restaurant is incredibly remote (especially after someone died from eating there, the restaurant would make every effort to be as safe as possible).

And when it comes to salmon farming, we would realize that there is a lot more to it than just “GOOD” and “BAD.” We would see there are significant benefits, and that the risks are not as real as some have made them out to be.

Everyone in coastal Canada owes it to themselves to educate themselves about salmon farming. Read all sides. Take a tour. Ask questions. Read the science. Then make up their minds.

And farmers need to realize that they cannot tell their story in “GOOD” and “BAD” language, either. They need to be open, honest and consistent. Talk about the benefits of salmon farming. Answer questions. Show people how it’s not weird and scary and strange. Explain it. Explain the science. And let people make up their own minds.

Once we get beyond the primitive reaction, and the people who exploit this wiring in our brains to further their causes, we can all sit down and have a rational discussion about aquaculture.

And hopefully once we do this we can work together, critics and farmers, to make aquaculture in Canada the best, least risky and most environmentally friendly in the world.

We feel it’s apt to close with a Mark Twain quote here. We are trying to say that we believe fear and hostility towards salmon farming is a normal human reaction, under the circumstances. But we have got to have the courage to get past that.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.

4 thoughts on “Why is salmon farming so scary?”

  1. Great article and so true! I noticed your recent attempt to open a meaningful dialogue about salmon farming on a fishing site mainly occupied by saltwater anglers, guides and commercial fishers … not only were some responses rude but really they had no valid, defensible arguments against aquaculture. And most definitely they believe they are not part of the problem for declining wild salmon stocks.
    Please, keep up this fight against misinformation and fearmongering!
    A suggestion perhaps – how about posting these updates and articles on a few more sportfishing sites?

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