Three heavy hitters in BC’s fisheries and aquaculture science community have published a new study after a laboratory challenge of several different species of salmon.
The study investigated the phenomenon of yellow (jaundiced) fish from a Chinook farming operation in Clayoquot Sound; the level of Piscene Reovirus (PRV) in these fish compared to other species; and any disease associated with jaundiced fish and PRV infection.
In our controlled laboratory exposure study, we demonstrated that PRV persisted in each of the Chinook Salmon, Sockeye Salmon and Atlantic Salmon for 5 months after ip challenge without resulting in microscopic evidence of HSMI or any other disease.
Our study supports the hypothesis that exposure to PRV is not solely responsible for the development of Jaundice Syndrome. It may be possible that the presence of PRV is not contributory towards jaundice in Chinook but rather that its association is merely a reflection of the ubiquitous presence of PRV in wild and farmed salmon species of BC.
The research supports the conclusion that in Pacific waters, PRV is not connected to the Heart and Skeletal Muscular Inflammation (HSMI) disease, and that there is no connection between PRV and the jaundice phenomenon in farmed Chinook salmon.
The most concerning risks in Norway, according to the research, are:
Wild Atlantic salmon face a moderate to high risk for “genetic introgression” (cross-breeding) from escaped farmed Atlantic salmon.
About 27 of 109 farms investigated for sea lice infection indicate moderate to high risk of likelihood for passing wild salmon smolts, and 67 farms indicated moderate to high risk of mortality from sea lice for wild sea trout.
The interesting results are in what doesn’t appear to be a concern:
Despite “extensive release of virus in many areas,” screening of wild salmonids showed low to very low presence of the same viruses.
Only 2% of all farms displayed unacceptable levels of “organic loading” (fish poop and feed) below the farms; therefore the “risk of eutrophication and organic load beyond the production area of the farm is considered low.“
It’s interesting that, in Norway at least, the two points that salmon farm critics seize on the most — viruses and fish poop — are of least concern.
It’s debatable how meaningful it would be to extrapolate these findings to BC, but they raise some interesting points. Here in BC, where we have strong populations of wild salmon, which are unable to interbreed with farmed Atlantic salmon, the issue of “genetic introgression” is moot.
The show was a generally fair representation of salmon farming in BC. I especially liked how the segment showing the seafloor beneath a fallowed salmon farm showed the seafloor was crawling with prawns.
Ending with a useless interview with a lawyer who refuses to say whether or not ISA is in BC.
I mean come on. A lawyer isn’t going to say anything definitive about a scientific question. This question should have been posed to a scientist, or several scientists, who could have provided a more responsible answer.
Sometimes we need to step back and look at the big picture, put things in context and re-evaluate what we think we know.
When we look at the global picture of aquaculture production, it’s quite interesting. If it wasn’t for aquaculture, we would have wiped out wild fisheries decades ago. But as it stands today, (or at least as of 2012, the most recent year for which complete data is available), aquaculture produces nearly 67 million metric tonnes of seafood.
That is enough to feed every single person on this planet two meals of seafood every week for one year.
Aquaculture CAN feed the world.
But in North America, “aquaculture” sometimes gets used as a dirty word, and people have been primed to think bad thoughts when they hear “fish farming.”
And the worst associations are with salmon farms.
Salmon farms are not perfect, true. They do have environmental effects, just like any human food-producing or harvesting activity. Let’s not pretend that harvesting up to 80% of a wild salmon run before it can spawn doesn’t have environmental effects.
I’m not trying to blame-shift or suggest we shouldn’t be critical.
What I’m trying to say is that the negative effects of salmon farming you’ve heard about have been grossly exaggerated.
Diadromous fishes, which are fish with a freshwater and saltwater phase, make up only a small part of global production at 7%.
And farmed Atlantic salmon, the most talked-about and scrutinized form of aquaculture in the world, make up only 3% of the world’s global aquaculture production.
Why does farmed Atlantic salmon get all the attention?
Don’t people have concerns about the 37 million tonnes of freshwater fish being farmed each year consuming our precious freshwater resources, or leaching waste and antibiotics into our watersheds?
Not that I think this is a problem — most freshwater aquaculture farmers are responsible and careful, just like most saltwater salmon farmers. But why aren’t we talking about the elephant in the room? Why aren’t the biggest forms of aquaculture with the biggest potential to impact our environment getting at least the same amount of scrutiny as salmon farming?
One possibility — salmon farming really IS evil
One possible explanation is that farmed salmon deserves all the hate, and that it is the dirtiest, riskiest and most polluting form of farming imaginable. That’s what our commenting visitors will likely say, and it’s the refrain we’ve heard from Alexandra Morton and other activists who have dedicated their lives to opposing farmed salmon (but not, oddly enough, to presenting any useful or constructive feedback to help make salmon farming better).
I’ve looked long and hard for evidence to support this extreme position. I’ve never found it. I’ve found evidence that shows salmon farms do have impacts and do pose potential risks to wild fish, but I have not found evidence that shows these impacts and potential risks are any worse than the impacts already caused by myriad human activities in the ocean.
In fact, I believe that if we were to farm more and fish less, that wild salmon would thrive like they did before the post-WWII boom in technology allowed us to catch more fish than ever before.
I am always open to changing my mind if new evidence comes to light. But I haven’t seen anything convincing, just failed predictions, speculation, and flawed mathematical models.
Demarketing is the negative sell, promoting your product by criticizing your competition. It’s the core of the long-standing Coke versus Pepsi ads, and the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads.
This sales technique is as old as the barter system. “No, you don’t want Hannu’s cows. They have parasites. Mine are clean and healthy!” It’s easy and effective.
The problem is, the salmon farming industry had no idea how to fight back. Instead of mounting their own ad campaigns, like Pepsi and Microsoft, they spent very little on self-promotion during the past decade, allowing negative public sentiment to fester and grow.
Today, it’s commonly accepted that wild salmon is somehow better than farmed salmon.
This means different things for different people. Some think it’s more nutritious, some think it tastes better, some think it’s more environmentally friendly. Ask them why, though, and they rarely have a solid answer.
That’s because there isn’t really any evidence for those beliefs, other than personal preference and feelings.
Follow the money
Who has benefited the most from negative views of farmed salmon?
Those fishermen who remained adapted and changed, and began marketing their salmon like never before. They marketed it as a special, niche product associated with wildness and emotion and nature and before long prices had greatly improved.
And some of those people are more than happy to lob a few stink grenades at farmed salmon every now and then to make themselves look good.
Salmon farmers suck at promoting themselves
But while wild fishermen successfully adapted to new market conditions, salmon farmers didn’t defend their reputation because they didn’t have to — demand for farmed salmon has continued to grow, regardless of criticism, so salmon farmers kept quietly growing their fish.
There’s a new challenge on the horizon, however. The same groups who were paid to condemn farmed salmon in favour of wild salmon are now being paid to condemn farmed salmon in favour of promoting land-based experiments. Salmon farms are once again being used as the strawman in promotions for products that haven’t even been proven to work.
That’s right. None of these land-based salmon farms have been proven to work on a scale that is economically and environmentally sustainable. Sure, you’ll hear a lot about projects in the works, or how they’re going to change the world. But look deeper for their actual harvest numbers. How much fish are these “successful” systems actually producing?
But facts are boring, it’s emotion and exciting stories and controversy that gets our attention.
That’s why people remember Pepsi versus Coke and Mac versus PC, because there’s a Gallant and a Goofus.
Salmon farmers need to stop letting their critics paint them as Goofus and start getting out there and promoting themselves.
Full circle — let’s start looking at the big picture
Bringing it back to my original point, the debate over salmon farming is only a tiny part of the whole. Aquaculture — including salmon farming — is here to stay, regardless of what a few critics say.
If we are really concerned about making sure that aquaculture has minimal environmental impacts, let’s stop focusing purely on the salmon farming scapegoat and look at things in context. There’s room for improvement in all aquaculture, and salmon farmers have led the way in positive change.
This needs to be acknowledged, and if we really want to help our planet, we need to change the discussion to a debate about farmed versus wild, to a discussion about how we can do both in a way that ensures a sustainable seafood supply for future generations of people, and for the ocean ecosystem.
Just because a study is peer-reviewed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good science.
Here’s a perfect example. A new paper published by John Volpe, Michael Price and Alexandra Morton — who have published more than a few studies among them with spurious claims and questionable data — suggests that farmed salmon from Nootka Sound processed on Quadra Island are threatening wild salmon with sea lice and diseases coming out the processing plant’s effluent pipe.
But there are some serious flaws with this paper that suggest it should be retracted.
For one thing, at the core of the study’s premise is the claim that “Walcan Seafood only processes fish from open-net salmon farms on the west coast of Vancouver Island (Dill 2011); therefore, the sea lice we recovered undoubtedly originated from infected Atlantic Salmon that were farmed in a distant region.”
Most people in Campbell River and on Quadra Island know that Walcan processes a lot more than farmed salmon. Walcan processes farmed salmon and wild sockeye. They process shellfish. They process whatever people pay them to process, and they do a great job of it.
But wait, there’s more. The source this paper cites says nothing that backs up the author’s claim. Click on the “Dill 2011” link above and look on page 29. Nowhere does Dill say that Walcan only processes farmed salmon from the west coast of Vancouver Island.
That’s a serious flaw in this paper that the peer-reviewers missed.
And it’s important, because again, the paper’s central premise is that “Marine salmon farms and their processing facilities can serve as sources of virulent fish pathogens; our study is the first to confirm the broadcast of a live fish pathogen from a farmed salmon processing facility into the marine waters of Canada’s Pacific coast.”
Why didn’t the authors of the paper do a comparison with at least one of these other processing plants?
The answer is because they knew the comparison would disprove their hypothesis instantly.
Wild fish carry sea lice and diseases, too. They have done so since long before the first people came to BC and they continue to do so. Anyone who denies this fact is either lying to you, or just plain ignorant.
It’s guaranteed that if you go test the effluent pipes coming out of wild salmon processing facilities you will find stuff.
In fact, you will probably find more stuff than this paper shows, because farmed salmon processing facilities in BC — including Walcan — have spent more than $4 million installing effluent treatment and collection systems, which are not even required. They installed them because they believe it’s the right and responsible thing to do, and to show BC that salmon farmers and processors are doing everything they can to make sure there is no risk to wild salmon from their operations.
There’s another reason why farmed salmon processors have spent millions on these systems — so they can achieve the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices standard, assuring customers that salmon from those facilities are among the safest, most environmentally-sound and safest sources of seafood in the world.
In contrast, most wild processors discharge untreated effluent and bloodwater directly into the ocean.
The authors of this junk science paper fail to acknowledge any of that, instead building on a flimsy (and false) detail to construct a spurious conclusion, unsupported by any data — even their own.
This should never have been published. The authors should be ashamed of themselves for trying to fool people with such an obviously biased, flimsy piece of junk science and at the very least it should be retracted, corrected and the data compared with data collected from a wild salmon processing plant.
Then we might have some useful science that can actually tell us something instead of what this says, which is “We, the authors, hate farmed salmon and are willing to say anything to get you to agree with us.”
Way back in the early days of salmon farming in B.C. farmers experimented with growing practically every kind of fish.
During the first salmon farming “gold rush” in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of people saw dollar signs and thought they could make a fortune by throwing some fish in an old fishing net and tossing feed at them. There were some successes, but there were a lot more failures, as the old-timers will tell you.
One big set of failures were the attempts to grow sockeye to market size in net pens.
It didn’t work out very well; sockeye are highly susceptible to disease. This is simply a fact farmers and enhancement facilities have encountered when they have tried to culture sockeye. In salmon enhancement facilities in Alaska, where they raise hundreds of millions of sockeye to smolt size and then release them, nearly half of the cultured fish routinely died from IHN virus and other diseases in the 1990s, before hatcheries were finally able to get a better handle on biosecurity.
Other attempts to grow sockeye bigger than smolt size have met with dismal failure.
Today, only Atlantic salmon and some Chinook salmon are raised in ocean pens, because of the farming expertise that has been developed for those species as well as the high-quality broodstock that has been developed to pass on farm-friendly genetics from generation to generation.
Because it’s the dominant salmon in the marketplace, many people have tried (and failed) to grow Atlantic salmon in tanks to market size.
Why has one group of sockeye salmon from the Fraser River system experienced a growth in productivity over the past decade while other Fraser River stocks have declined?
Storytellers playing scientist have tried to convince people Harrison River sockeye don`t pass salmon farms when they migrate north, therefore they are doing well simply because they don’t pass salmon farms. This explains everything if you’re already predisposed to blame salmon farms for everything and accept simple answers to tough questions.
It’s true that at least some Harrison sockeye migrate out of the river delta and go along the West Coast of Vancouver Island, unlike most other stocks which generally migrate along the East Coast of Vancouver Island.
However, as usual with activism-driven science claims, there`s a lot more to the story.
But the most important piece of the puzzle is that Harrison sockeye have a very different life strategy than other salmon stocks.
Unlike other sockeye, which feed and grow in lakes for several years before going to sea, Harrison sockeye go to sea shortly after they emerge from the gravel where they hatched. They are in the ocean nearly a year earlier than other sockeye stocks. This may give them an advantage in early marine survival growth, occupying a niche that few other species do. They may enjoy better feeding conditions as fry and juveniles, less competition for food and less threats from predators.
Let’s say that again. A significant amount of Harrison River sockeye winter off the West Coast of Vancouver Island when they are very small, young and vulnerable.
There are approximately 30 active salmon farms on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, from Quatsino Sound south to Alberni Inlet. Clearly they are not having any negative impacts on wintering Harrison sockeye, not even when they are at a young and vulnerable stage.
The Harrison sockeye appear to have developed a very successful survival strategy, and it appears it co-exists very well with salmon farms. More research is needed to explore this connection.