Just growing pains for salmon farms

We found a great column in a box of old files and articles we would like to share here. The column was published in the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper on March 5, 2003, and was written by Michael Moore. Its points still hold true today.

Like all Victorians, I have watched the debate on salmon farms heat up. Unlike most Victorians, I spent five years in the mid-1980s building a family-run salmon farm, and seven years directing a non-profit society focused on sustainable development in marine resource management in the mid-coast.

Our board of directors represented the public, private, academic and native communities. This experience has often led me into debates with strong opposing views, to say the least. I always focus on the underlying premises that salmon farm opponents use to support their positions, and after 20 years, have remained unconvinced that there is a significant danger to the overall coastal ecosystem or society.

If salmon farming is so benign, why is there such broad opposition to it?

There have been four main social groups actively opposing salmon aquaculture:

– The native community, with pending claims on all land and sea around their territory, are logically opposed to any leasing or tenure granted to third parties before their claims are settled. The exception to this is the Klemtu community, which has actively farmed salmon for over a decade. Their recent letter of support in this newspaper was enlightening.

– Fishermen, who see a strong economic competitor to their livelihood in farm-raised fish, have lobbied against it. As hunters, fishermen are not pre-disposed to work with salmon in the setting of cultivation, with its timetables and 24-hour commitments, so there has been very little transference of labour between these groups, and much antagonism. The Broughton area is the heart of the coast’s surviving fishing community, and this is reflected in the current situation.

– Upland owners, who may have enjoyed a small piece of paradise on their property overlooking the sea, find it highly offensive that some business thinks it can fire up an industrial operation in their view shed. This group was active in the initial development period of aquaculture, but mostly solved their problem when farms moved out of the populated Sunshine Coast due to plankton blooms.

– Environmentalists, who lead the charge today. The structure of their opposition greatly parallels the campaign against forestry, a mixture of wildlife protection, anti-corporatism, social justice and political ideology all in opposition to salmon farms. Sports fishermen generally fall into this group as well. Many in this group are high-profile and politically sophisticated.

Even if each of these groups has its own specific reasons for opposition, they create a broad force, and explain why the debate continues.

But consider the following:

Whenever environmentalists tell me they are deeply concerned about the sea lice issue, and that salmon farming should stop because of it, I ask them if the root of their concern is that the sea farms (via the sea lice) are going to kill some wild salmon. Of course it is.

When I ask how many years they have campaigned against the commercial salmon fishery, which intentionally kills millions of salmon every year, I usually get a sudden blank look. Further investigation often reveals that the multi-national corporations that own salmon farms are the real targets, and the mom-and-pop salmon fishery is not seen as a danger to salmon.

Or take the “foreign exotic” issue – the introduction of Atlantic salmon being a threat to the ecosystem, since some will inevitably escapt into the sea, and introduction of unregulated foreign species is inherently high-risk. I always ask if they are equally worried about the 3,000 unregulated species of exotic plants we all have growing in our backyards. These are not making headlines for threatening the collapse of our forests.

I am not saying all fears are unfounded, or that all opposition to salmon aquaculture is hypocritical. I do believe that the charges are greatly amplified by the fear of losing something personally precious — be it a fishing livelihood, tenure over territory, a recreational hobby or freedom from “corporate dominance.”

To the point, the most instructive story I have found is in the history of other industries arriving to the Pacific Northwest. It goes like this:

When the first loggers arrived here, the existing inhabitants — natives and pioneers — just had to put up with it. But when the first cattle farmers arrived, the logging sector lobbied hard to keep them out, as the cattle would “erode the forest watersheds and spread diseases.”

Eventually the cattle industry was established. But 50 years later, when the sheep farmers began to arrive, the forest and cattle sectors lobbied hard to keep them out, as the sheep would “erode the watersheds, and their hoof and mouth disease and barbed wire fences would kill all the wildlife.” Eventually the sheep farming industry was established.

So I tend to see aquaculture as the next group elbowing its seat at the table, and in another 10 or 15 years or so the slamon farming families will be seen as part of the coastal community.

I tent to believe the basic story will always remain the same, however, and some other unfortunate activity will find itself the focus of dark accusations of foul play, and imminent disaster for all who tolerate it. Any volunteers for the black hat?

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