Anne Murray: A tale of two fish in B.C.

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      How much do we Canadians really care about wild fish? I have been pondering that question, having listened to two deeply committed and knowledgeable wild fish advocates relate shocking stories of political indifference. Alexandra Morton’s fight for Fraser River salmon runs threatened by introduced parasites and disease in the Broughton Archipelago will go down in history as the Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) story of the West Coast. Another quiet, yet significant, struggle is being waged by Michael Pearson on behalf of the little Nooksack dace, a rare and endangered fish that has won a court battle but not achieved protection. It was my privilege to hear talks by both these fish specialists in the last month.

      Morton spoke in Ladner to a hall full of fishers, environmentalists, and interested residents, with a sprinkling of political people, including a champion of the local fishing community, MP John Cummins. Morton’s presentation on the history of fish farm proliferation in the Broughton, in the northern part of the Georgia Strait, spelled out with compelling evidence the effects that disastrous government decisions and lack of oversight have had on our wild salmon. The Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s stated goal in its 2005 Wild Salmon Policy was “to restore and maintain healthy and diverse salmon populations and their habitats”. Despite this, and in the face of perfectly foreseeable consequences of farming alien, Atlantic salmon on the B.C. coast, governments continued to prioritize and advocate for open-cage farming of these large, predatory fish.

      Sea lice, a parasite common among the dense numbers of caged farm fish, attach themselves to wild, juvenile sockeye and pink salmon as they out-migrate through the network of islands toward the ocean. The fry are unable to cope with the infestation and millions weaken and perish. Chemicals used to defeat the lice spread into the ecosystem. Bright light and heat emanating from fish farms cause eutrophication of surrounding waters, essentially producing dead zones. Despite assurances to the contrary, Atlantic salmon have escaped and compete with wild fish.

      In its policy, DFO told us that “wild salmon and their habitat is the highest priority for resource management”. So, what went wrong? The key words came later: “Aquaculture operations will be regulated in a manner consistent with other human activities...” In other words, let people make money, and never mind the long-term ecological consequences. Morton and Chief Bob Chamberlain, who represents First Nations living in and around the Broughton Archipelago, are fighting in court to have the fish farms clean up their act and restore wild salmon to their rightful place in B.C. waters.

      No one eats the Nooksack dace, a subspecies of the long-nosed dace and an ice age relic that has somehow survived in just a few streams in the southern Lower Mainland and around Puget Sound. Nonetheless, Pearson has stood up for its survival, adding his expert voice to those of environmentalists in a legal battle for this tiny nocturnal fish that most people will never see. As he related at a recent Delta Naturalists’ meeting, all endangered species under the federal Species at Risk Act need to first be listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the arbitrating scientific body for assessing species. Having studied the dace and other local endangered fish since the early 1990s, getting his PhD in pioneering studies of their habitat and behaviour, Pearson was well-qualified to get the Nooksack dace listed and its critical habitat mapped, a legal requirement under the act.

      Then the fun began. The bureaucrats in Ottawa removed all the habitat information and maps from the Recovery Plan, a redaction exercise surprising for a small rare fish. Did the government not want the fish protected? Are they scared that Canadians will react too strongly if we protect a few natural riparian borders that shade the key streams and also give haven to insects, birds, and other animals? Ecojustice went to court on behalf of the environmental groups, with Pearson signing an affidavit on the need for critical habitat description. After many twists and turns over several years, the Nooksack dace and its supporters were victorious. DFO issued the full Recovery Plan report, maps and all, yet there it rests. The plan has not been implemented and the habitat is still not protected.

      Perhaps wild fish, big and small, just do not matter that much to us Canadians, but in my heart I know that is not true. We should tell our politicians as much.

      Anne Murray is the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history: Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.

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      8 Comments

      Research The Facts

      Mar 18, 2010 at 2:01pm

      Pink salmon runs were actually in abudance in 2009. There is no definitive scientific evidence that sea lice are killing salmon stocks or that wild salmon are being infested by fish farms despite the numerous studies done by a variety of organizations. Some sockeye runs which are down, in fact, have never been in proximity to a fish farm during migration. I wish people would research fact before jumping onto someone else's theories. I wish having an unlimited budget to promote your theories wasn't a deciding factor in how credible they were. If wild fish stocks are declining, let's keep our minds open enough to all causes and cures - in order to not be distracted from a proper solution. If, indeed, a naturally cyclical statistic isn't what is actually happening.

      DB

      Mar 18, 2010 at 3:45pm

      I agree, with the previous comment. Scientific studies have yet to discern a clear link between the fitness (ability to survive and reproduce) of wild pink and sockeye salmon and sea lice parasite loading. Additionally, it is unclear (again, based on current scientific evidence) that net-pen salmon farms increase the abundance of sea lice and infestation rates of wild salmon. And I agree with the previous author that we must keep our mind open to all "causes and cures." However, how much risk are we willing to take in the meantime? Should native stocks (which have huge economic value for our coastal communities) be potentially put at risk for the interest of internationally-owned Atlantic salmon aquaculture? I think we must proceed cautiously with our wild fish stocks; the globe is rife with examples of the over harvest of the marine environment (the Atlantic cod fishery collapse is the easiest example to cite, but there are many more). It is very possible that we may be influencing the aquatic ecosystems which we rely on in more subtle, yet profound, ways. Salmon aquaculture may (notice I said "may" and not "is") be influencing our wild salmon stocks negatively (by increasing the parasitic burden on wild stocks, not to mention by creating anoxic zones around net pens). As we continue to manipulate the world around us, let us head the advice of Aldo Leopold who said" "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." Let's play it safe and ensure we don't lose any of the critical components of the marine ecosystem which sustains both our livelihoods and our lives.

      Good Science/Bad Science

      Mar 18, 2010 at 11:49pm

      The above link is really, really interesting. As a scientist, albeit in a totally different field, it really brings home the point that you need to keep an objective view when doing your research. If you start with an expected outcome, it will show in your methodology, and then the peer review system will rip you to shreds.

      Not to say that Ms. Morton is totally wrong... but she does appear to have failed in the rigourousness of her investigation, and it's hard to convince people you're right when that happens.

      The science is there...

      Mar 19, 2010 at 2:32pm

      The science is there, as long as you're willing to look for it and understand it. A global study published in 2008 by Ford and Myers shows the presence of fish farms reduces wild salmon and trout survival by 50% by generation. M. Krkosek has shown definitively an increase in sea lice infestation attributed to open-cage farms, and L. Dill has shown significant reduction in fitness and schooling by sea lice-loaded salmon fry and smolts, a key aspect to their survival. All of these were published in some of the worlds most rigorous peer reviewed journals such as Science.

      The science is also there, although not needed, to show that the ecological and social collapse caused by the ISA virus in Chile was brought in to that country by the Norwegian owned open-cage salmon farming operators.

      To fully understand the dynamics of our wild stocks, such as why so many pinks came back, we have to carefully consider many things such as species lifecycle length, stream and ocean water temperatures, predator and prey numbers, river flood events, ocean nutrient upswelling, farm fallowing and treatment for sea lice, etc.

      Indeed there are many things hurting our wild salmon that we must address, but open-cage salmon farming is undeniably one of them, and perhaps the easiest to fix. Closed containment salmon farming is being done quite successfully around the world including right here in BC, despite what the big industry players will have you believe.

      Flemming

      Mar 19, 2010 at 7:49pm

      Why do you think that the Norwegians are so heavily involved in Salmon farming here in BC. Maybe after having to many problems at home it was time to spread out. Family of mine were one of the first to experiment ocean farming in Denmark back in the 60 ties, found it too hard to control so gave up on it. At the time he said that closed/ contained farms was the way to go, but the technology was too expensive then

      My opinion

      Mar 21, 2010 at 12:57pm

      Follow the precautionary principle and force these profit-oriented, foreign-owned fish farms to build closed containment systems! (Heck, let's be fair and make the Canadian-owned fish farms do the same, too.)

      katharina heitzmann

      Mar 24, 2010 at 2:39am

      since there is a lot of evidence to show the harm done by fish farming, i think we should not take any chances in endangering our wild salmon. wild salmon also tastes far superior to salmon from fish farms.