Last June, Brian Gunn, president of the Campbell River–based Wilderness Tourism Association, travelled to Norway with a group of environmentalists to meet with the CEO and shareholders of the second-largest fish-farming company in the world. He hoped to convey the message that net-pen salmon aquaculture is threatening B.C.’s coastal-tourism industry.
“He said he was willing to work with the tourism industry but not with environmentalists,” Gunn says of his brief meeting with Geir Isaksen, CEO of Cermaq ASA. “I told him that we’re not enviros. We have businesses and we take people fishing and wildlife-viewing, and what you’re doing is hurting our business. He didn’t buy it.”
Under its subsidiary Mainstream Canada Ltd., Cermaq operates 29 salmon farms, two processing plants, three distribution centres, and three hatcheries on B.C.’s coast. A Norwegian triad of companies—Cermaq, Marine Harvest, and Greig Seafoods—controls about 90 percent of B.C. salmon-farm licences.
For several years, environmentalists have claimed that sea lice from fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago, west of northern Vancouver Island at the mouth of Knight Inlet, are killing juvenile pink salmon. A study by University of Alberta fisheries ecologist Martin KrkoÅ¡ek, Salmon Coast Field Station director Alexandra Morton, and others, published in December in the journal Science, examined historical fish data from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Their conclusions were troubling. They found that sea-lice infestations from salmon farms in the Tribune Channel area are having potentially disastrous impacts on young pink and chum salmon migrating past the farms, and that pink salmon populations in those waters have dropped by some 80 percent in the past four years. It’s an alarming decline that they say could lead to the extinction of some pink salmon stocks in just four years.
That’s more than enough to get the WTA’s attention. In recent years WTA members have provided dollars and logistical support for researchers and conservationists studying the Broughton sea-lice
issue. Gunn estimates that nature-based tourism on the coast generates some $700 million in annual revenue, and if you’re in the West Coast tourism game, it’s hard to imagine a coastline without wild salmon. The countless sparkling streams and rivers along the West Coast would be lifeless. In springtime, the waters wouldn’t ripple with the rush of smolts swimming toward the ocean. Come fall, estuaries would no longer hum with adult salmon returning to spawn in their natal streams, ending a journey where it began two, even four years previous. Salmon are the lifeblood of the coast. Grizzly and black bears, wolves, and eagles all congregate during spawning season to gorge on fish, leaving their carcasses to rot on the forest floor and, in turn, replenish the riparian ecosystem with their nutrient load of nitrogen. It’s the kind of key ecosystem component upon which, it’s safe to say, tourism operators depend.
“Pink and chum salmon are the electrical cord of the coast; if you pull this plug, then everything dims,” says Morton over the phone from her research station on Echo Bay. “In the next four or five years, if nothing changes with fish-farming, we’ll be down to populations of pink and chums that are at one percent of historic levels.”
Sea lice, about the size of a sesame seed, occur naturally and are found on adult salmon throughout the coast. However, fish farms, some with more than a million fish each, provide ideal breeding grounds for this parasite. When juvenile pink and chum salmon migrate to the ocean from their natal streams in springtime and swim in close proximity to fish farms, they make ideal hosts for sea lice. And unlike sockeye and chinook salmon, young pinks and chums lack scales and are, therefore, particularly vulnerable. On a single smolt measuring just four centimetres long, Morton counted a whopping 68 sea lice. An adult fish might be able to survive this level of infection, but not a thin-skinned juvenile. According to Morton, in the spring of 2003, when provincial-government officials ordered the temporary removal of fish from farms in the waters of Tribune Channel and Fife Sound, the results were almost instantaneous: counts of sea lice dropped to normal, sustainable levels. However, those farms have since been restocked.
Craig Murray, owner of Nimmo Bay Resort, believes his part of the coast is perched on an ecological precipice.
“Let’s not even talk about the human element. Sea lice are killing baby salmon, and if the pinks go, then food for bears, whales, eagles is also gone and the whole tourism industry will be affected,” says the plainspoken Murray. “In the past four years, I’ve seen major declines in fish.”
Murray has built up his business in Nimmo Bay—on the mainland opposite Vancouver Island’s Port Hardy and at the head of McKenzie Sound—since 1980, well before the first fish farms arrived. The contentious issue of salmon-farming on B.C.’s coast reached millions of American television viewers after an episode of Boston Legal was filmed at Nimmo Bay in 2005. Since then, Murray has received donations from guests and has contributed his own resources to help raise public awareness of fish-farming’s impact and to fund the work of researchers like Morton and KrkoÅ¡ek.
Dean Wyatt is another coastal-tourism pioneer well aware of the threats facing wild salmon. Since he started offering bear-viewing trips on the Glendale River back in 1998, he has welcomed more than 14,000 guests from around the globe to his Knight Inlet Lodge. Wyatt works closely with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to count fish and do in-stream enhancement and is intimately familiar with the state of pink and chum salmon in Knight Inlet.
“We’re very, very concerned because we had such low returns this year. We were hoping to get 20 to 30 million pinks coming out, but if we get more than a million I’ll be surprised,” says Wyatt, who has been bankrolling sea-lice research efforts to the tune of roughly $10,000 per year for the past few years. “From a tourism-industry perspective, the only way we’re going to get some action is to get our politicians to listen, but honestly I’m afraid KrkoÅ¡ek’s study won’t have much of an impact.”
According to the WTA’s Gunn, few members of his organization are calling for an outright ban on fish farms. Rather, they’re looking for a better way to coexist. To that end, the WTA is making three demands of government and the fish-farm industry: the immediate removal of farm fish from sensitive salmon migratory routes, with a commitment to relocate those farms in the future; a moratorium on new net-cage fish farms on the coast until peer-reviewed science shows “minimal or no impact on wild fish stocks”; and a willingness to support the development and testing of new fish-farming technology. A transition to closed-containment technology was one of the key recommendations made by the Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture, which held public hearings in 20 coastal communities before submitting its final report to the province in May 2007.
So far, Gunn says, the response to the demands has been tepid.
Gunn expressed the WTA’s concerns about status quo fish-farming in a meeting with Tourism, Sports, and the Arts Minister Stan Hagen; Gunn says the minister more or less dismissed the WTA’s concerns. Calls from the Georgia Straight requesting comment from the ministry were not returned. Similarly, Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, did not reply to phone calls requesting an interview to discuss the WTA’s demands.
Clare Backman, director of community relations and environmental compliance for fish-farming company Marine Harvest Canada, is no stranger to these demands. He says, contrary to some opinions in the environmental community, that fish farmers haven’t been asleep at the switch. He argues that stronger, more durable nets have reduced fish escapes, and the use of the drug Slice, a brand-name pharmaceutical that is mixed in with fish feed to fight sea lice, has already greatly reduced the incidence of lice at his farms.
Backman doesn’t rule out the possibility of moving some farms; however, he prefers finding ways to better manage farms located in sensitive waters. That’s not surprising, given that relocating fish farms is expensive and that First Nations on the central and north coasts—with the exception of the Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation in Klemtu and members of the Gitkaatla Nation southeast of Prince Rupert—have so far been hostile to the notion of salmon-farming in their territories. Backman also says that Marine Harvest is not opposed to exploring new technologies, such as the closed-containment models being developed by a number of entrepreneurs. However, he says attempts to grow fish to market size in closed-tank systems have so far proven cost-prohibitive, mostly because of the added energy costs of pumping water. As for the science around sea lice, he believes it’s not as cut-and-dried as it’s made out to be in Morton and KrkoÅ¡ek’s recent report in Science linking fish-farm–based sea lice with the imminent collapse of pink salmon stocks in the Broughton region.
“A study that makes extreme predictions based on models is not helpful in coming to some sort of agreement around managing wild salmon and maintaining salmon farms, which are important to the economy,” Backman says.
Both Backman and the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association argue that, based on available science, fish ecology is just too complex to narrow down the cause of wild-salmon declines to sea lice. The BCSFA is on record calling into question the scientific modelling used by Morton and KrkoÅ¡ek. Pink salmon populations are known to naturally fluctuate greatly from peak years to low return years, and when you factor in industrial logging and its impact on freshwater habitat, a century of commercial fishing, and changing ocean conditions, the picture quickly becomes hazy. However, the scientists who reviewed the latest sea-lice study found the research sound and fit enough for publication in Science.
Larry Dill is a Simon Fraser University ecologist familiar with the politics and science that swirl around the Broughton Archipelago like a flood tide. He was one of three scientific advisers recruited by the B.C. Pacific Salmon Forum, a provincial government-appointed body that was formed in April 2005 and handed a budget of $5 million. Dill’s job was to coordinate sea-lice research in the Broughton. The plan was to fallow, or remove fish from, farms on the sensitive Tribune Channel and Knight Inlet migratory routes in the spring of either 2007 or 2008, enabling comparison of fish-population data between years when the farms were fully stocked and years when they were empty. But this study hasn’t been carried out. In February 2007, Dill resigned from his post as scientific coordinator, saying that because fish farmers were not onside, the research would be compromised. He also felt that the forum lacked impartiality and was unwilling to apply pressure on the industry to comply with the study parameters. Dill says Morton and KrkoÅ¡ek’s study, based on historical data, is compelling but that if the PSF study had been allowed to proceed as planned, it would have helped bring more clarity to the issue.
The PSF is distancing itself from KrkoÅ¡ek and Morton, stating in a February 10 news release that based on the interim results of sea-lice research conducted in 2007 and overseen by the forum, “it does not appear that natural stocks of pink salmon in the Broughton would be subject to mass extinctions within four generations as predicted by the recent study by Martin Krkosek, et al.”
Dill says there’s nothing wrong with the forum’s science. The problem is, without fallow farms to provide comparative data, the forum lacks the necessary information to address Morton and KrkoÅ¡ek’s findings.
“We spent a lot of time and money setting up this research program, but the problem is the fish farms were never part of the process,” Dill says. “Without fallow fish farms, we were missing the key component. I really felt that we were just window dressing and that by lending my scientific reputation to the project I was legitimizing it. It was very frustrating.”
However, Jennifer Lash, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, says Marine Harvest, to its credit, has demonstrated a willingness to collaborate with the environmental community on research efforts. In January 2006, the company signed a so-called framework for dialogue with the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform aimed at better sharing of information and developing a fish-farming sector that both environmentalists and industry accountants can live with.
While the sea-lice issue is batted around by the fish-farm and scientific communities, Gunn and his WTA members await another spring freshet, when pink salmon smolts will make their run to the open ocean.
“It seems that we have to go the same route as Norway, Scotland, and Ireland, that have ruined their wild fisheries,” Gunn says. “It’s also hard not to think of the East Coast cod.”
If the pinks disappear, Gunn fears the ecological foundation of the Broughton could crumble, and with it the livelihoods of the people who depend on them.