Celia Brauer: B.C.’s wild salmon have fallen prey to our industrial lifestyle

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      By Celia Brauer

      There is a fantastic initiative underway in British Columbia right now. It is called the Get Out Migration, and it is the brainchild of scientist and anti-fish-farm activist Alexandra Morton. She and her supporters are walking the 500 kilometres from her home in Sointula on Malcolm Island, off northern Vancouver Island, to Victoria, B.C.’s capital on the southern tip, in 17 days. The migration’s organizers are not mincing their words. They want the fish farms, largely owned by Norwegian companies that share the ocean inlets with Fraser River migrating juvenile salmon, to leave immediately. People join in the march as it passes through their communities. The main migration has spawned other feeder marches. Smaller coastal and inland communities are creating their own gatherings and, in further support, one long paddle down the Lower Fraser River is also taking place.

      To walk 500 kilometres for 17 days or paddle the mighty Fraser River for 10 days is no small feat. But Morton is no small person. She has become a modern day Joan of Arc, transfixed by the spirit of the wild Pacific salmon and willing to fight at all costs to save this iconic fish. What this means in the modern day is confronting an international consortium of politically influential, albeit foreign fish farm companies which are supposedly “creating jobs” in rural areas that have already lost many resource industries like logging and fishing. Yes, these farms provide jobs but the cost is high—an indigenous wild resource must be sacrificed for the sake of short-term financial gain.

      The case against the fish farms is clear. They employ large nets filled with thousands of alien fish—Atlantic salmon—which are reared to maturity and then harvested. There is heavy pollution of the surrounding ocean areas. Predators are often caught in nets. And to top it off, there is massive infection of the wild fish which are migrating through the area, as parasites like sea lice hosted by farmed fish plus other diseases float out of the nets into the ocean inlets. On our coast the migrating Fraser River salmon pass by several of these farms every spring. Last year, the numbers of returning Fraser River sockeye plummeted to less than one-tenth of their estimated number. The impact of poorly located and thus invasive fish farms on wild fish is not a hard connection to make.

      Morton and others have been fighting the fish farms for two decades with any method they could—lawsuits, petitions, scientific papers, and discussions. Last year, they even visited the fish farm companies in Norway. The Get Out Migration it seems has finally captured the imagination of many on the coast who are fuming over the wild salmon’s disappearance. It has the support of First Nations groups who have watched helplessly for over 100 years as overfishing and pollution have depleted their age-old staple food. There are fishers who have lost their livelihood. There are ecotour operators who are distressed to see the decline of salmon which feed the countless other species such as bears, eagles, and wolves which people come for from thousands of miles away to view. And there are many others—nature lovers who are very distressed that wild salmon are disappearing because of fish farms, especially since this seems so highly preventable.

      Here we are in the 11th hour, the eve of destruction. Why are we not yet moving toward fixing this problem? What on Earth are we waiting for?

      To answer these and other questions, one has to look at humankind’s history on the planet and the evolution of its world view. During the eras of the hunter-gatherer and pre-industrial agricultural economies, we had little choice but to work hand in hand with Mother Nature and her natural limitations. Since the industrial economy began three centuries ago, we started piercing the Earth’s safety barriers and extracting fossil fuels. Since then some people on Earth have been blessed with seemingly much easier access to food, shelter, and energy. But to this end we may have also sold our souls to the devil.

      We now have a society built on the myth that constant industrial growth is possible, and the human population is on track to reach the unsustainable number of seven billion. We address this concern by saying we can dig our way out of every disaster with applied human ingenuity, scientific research, and either private enterprise or public funding. Without downplaying the marvels of human ingenuity or modern science, it seems in the case of food production that this has caused us to become totally disconnected from the food which nourishes us. Go back one century and this wild coast was feeding many thousands of local First Nations people with plenty to spare; this was the original 100-Mile Diet. Today food creation is highly industrialized. From factory farms to agribusiness to large supermarkets, someone else now grows, processes, packages, and stores all of our food. So the proponents of further industrialization say, “Why should our relationship with fish be any different?”

      And that’s exactly what happens. After their long voyage from ocean nets to supermarkets, fish are staring at us with glazed dead eyes from piles of ice among long aisles of other food. Or they appear alive in a tank (much to the bizarre delight of some) or on shelves in cans and bottles. There seems to be no lack of fish to buy and they are still really cheap. But behind this veneer lies massive problems. We have no idea where these fish come from or how they were caught or how many are left. Nor do we ask. We just want our fish to show up headless and tailless on that Styrofoam tray or rolled into our sushi.

      Fish comes from the wild oceans and there lies the problem. They are caught far away from the watchful eye of concerned citizens or police. Fishing methods are highly industrialized and inhumane. The goal is the biggest catch for the highest financial return. Fish has always been big business and today it is even worse. Some tuna fetch thousands of dollars on the international market—the image comes to mind of the thoughtful men walking around a frozen room bidding on hunks of tuna with tickets clipped to their fins. Other than the pure greed of using up a natural resource that looks like its free and endless, one wonders: do enough people care that we are raping and decimating a wild resource that we think “belongs to nobody” (a classic tale of the “tragedy of the commons”)? Are we doing this because there is a thought in the back of our minds that if we kill all the fish in the ocean, we can always grow them on farms? After all, haven’t we been clever enough to farm everything else?

      But there’s something about those slimy, smelly creatures with the eyes that don’t close that keeps calling us, if we listen. Those voices come from deep in the ocean. Fish are after all the last wild food we eat. They are an excellent source of low-fat protein. They are cheap (for the time being) and loaded with healthy omega-3 fatty acids—important nutrition we can’t get naturally from too many other foods. In essence, fish are a very healthy food.

      Our ancestors fished the rivers and the oceans as long as humans have lived near water. How can we not remember that connection, deep in our bones? Yet today we have delegated our fishing work to others and regardless of who exactly is to blame, under this system of remote delegation, they are doing a terrible job. Masses of fish are caught in areas where there is no responsibility for the future and little ownership of the rules that might actually exist. There is terrible waste. Governments talk about their ocean boundaries but there is inadequate political will to restrain domestic fishing and inadequate resources to restrain foreign fishing. Fisheries, by and large, remain a free-for all with a background attitude that it’s okay to take as much wild food for your dinner or livelihood as you want or can, without worrying unduly about the remaining populations until it is quite obvious that stocks are collapsing. In the meantime, the human population grows and the decimation of fish populations just keeps getting worse.

      On B.C.’s wild coast, we still have some wild salmon and this provides a chance to choose a more sustainable approach right now. Nature is resilient; we know salmon numbers will likely bounce back if we give them a clean, safe place to live in sufficient time. Why has this not happened?

      Again the answer lies in the myth where citizens believe government is “taking care of business”. Governments have never been particularly good at taking care of business, and today they seem even worse. Democracy hardly helps because citizens generally pay so little attention to common-property problems and economically interested groups lobby hard for their narrow short-term interests. Historically Canada was a fish-rich country. As a result of private short-sightedness and carelessness and ineffective (or worse) government intervention, fish stocks are depleted across the map—first the infamous cod collapse on the East Coast and now the salmon collapse on the West. Not only have the governments been doing a terrible job of minding the store, they have also given away most of the merchandise. They also seem to be in bed with the suppliers (unsustainable industrial-scale wild fisheries) and with the competition (unsustainable open-net fish farming businesses). And the worst of it is that they have the nerve to congratulate themselves in public when they do this! This is a tragedy and a comedy at the same time. More fish are disappearing, more money must be spent for more royal commissions—how pathetic can we get?

      There is much talk of basing “management” on sound science. While science provides plenty of “facts”, it never provides them all and never with complete certainty. Besides, who decides what should be done with these facts? And what if a lot of the facts seem to be pointing to the same thing? That fish farms are hurting wild stocks by damaging habitat, a fact that can be seen with the naked eye. A video shot during the migration shows an underwater camera trolling the depths of the sea beneath a fish farm and another in an area which was pristine. The difference is totally clear. One is full of wild sea creatures. The other is an underwater desert. You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out what is wrong with this picture.

      We live in strange times. The industrial growth economy, predicated on continuous growth, has created a monster and this is not one we cannot overcome in the traditional sense. There will not be a brave leader sending in soldiers or dropping bombs to defeat this enemy. We are essentially fighting ourselves and the lifestyle to which many of us have become all-too accustomed: quick food, quick energy, quick pleasure, rising living standards, and family size that is nobody’s business but our own. It is an embarrassment; our addictions and our myths are staring at us in the face and we don’t know what to do. Our leaders blurt out platitudes. Employees of government and big corporations feel compelled to tell lies keep their jobs and pensions. Verbal civil war rages between those who wish to save the planet and those who, perhaps sincerely but still erroneously think that highly dubious practices like open-net farming fish are “good for the economy”.

      From global climate change to bacterial pandemics to unhealthy factory food, these are monster problems of our own making to solve. After three centuries of gorging ourselves on what the Earth provided without offering much in return, the practices that support these monsters have become a threat to our future. We are likely entering into the global days of reckoning. Our addiction to the easy life is throwing up more frequent problems in increasingly bizarre ways. For example, at this very moment a massive oil slick threatens thousands of miles of highly productive coastline in the Gulf of Mexico and countless of species of animals and plants. These events are of biblical proportions and are inadvertently brought about by humanity against ourselves. They bring to mind the sayings of a famous fisher who lived 2,000 years ago and said, “Forgive them God for they know not what they do.”

      Inevitably change will have to come from the ground up. On this coast, disappearing wild salmon have hit a nerve. The Get Out Migration brings the whole underwater story of our fisheries “above water” for a bit and into the lives of the curious public who thought the government was doing its job and wonders how it went so wrong. The migration is asking clear questions of those we trusted—elected leaders, government officials, and scientists who were supposed to steward this resource for future generations and fishing enterprises which said, “Trust us, we know what we are doing.” The First Nations managed to coexist for thousands of years with healthy fish stocks. With all our advanced science, social science, and technology, why can’t we?

      The migration offers everyone a chance to join in and offer some personal creative energy to this noble endeavour. You can sign a petition, join the walk, or create or participate in an event. Or head to Victoria and join the throngs on Mother’s Day. It will be a big party and salmon will fly high. The salmon which fed our ancestors for thousands of years deserve your help and support.

      Celia Brauer is a member of the Livable Region Coalition. She is a cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society and works as a volunteer educating the public about the lost natural history of Vancouver, watershed issues, and the state of our wild Pacific salmon.




      May 4, 2010 at 9:26pm

      We now have a society built on the myth that constant industrial growth is possible, and the human population is on track to reach the unsustainable number of seven billion.

      So, the world's present and immediate future population is too large. Is that the conclusion here?

      Rod Smelser


      May 4, 2010 at 10:49pm

      While the ideals of this article are based with good intentions, I think that it is naive to think that it is just one thing (aquaculture) that is responsible. What happened to the sockeye that left the fraser and went out Juan de Fuca way, and nowhere near a farm site? The public needs to be properly educated on the multitude of issues facing salmon, from river conditions, to the City of Vancouver, to the open ocean. It is a massively complex ecosystem that cannot be summed up with one problem (namely aquaculture.)

      Carolyn Knight

      May 4, 2010 at 11:27pm

      A Note as to Migration Event Finale in Victoria May 8th:

      Please note - the date published is incorrect; event is not on Mother's Day.
      Please join the Migration Community Celebration @ Centennial Square, City Hall,
      SATURDAY MAY 8th 2-4pm. Speakers, live entertainment, Wild Salmon Guild's Fish on Sticks & Salmon Arms regalia-making and Mi'a, the huge salmon puppet. Then, join the migration with Masala International Percussion Ensemble, for the FINAL processional down to The BC Legislature for Alexandra Morton, Chief Stewart Phillip, Rafe Mair and the Migrator's rally. Many First Nations community members, dignitaries and elected chiefs are expected to make their presence resound.
      Come on, BC, you are invited to make your presence known. Show you care. Bring the kids and Nana and Grampa. AND your mum! It is for our interconnected future, for our beloved wild coast and for your esteemed dinner plates head long into the future. Many groups and individuals are coming together, lending support, to help host this effort. Please join us Sat May 8th 2-5pm in Victoria.

      Farm Fish here to stay

      May 5, 2010 at 2:57pm

      Fish farming will continue to improve, but fundamentally, fish farming - like farms everywhere - makes a whole lot more sense environmentally and economically than the traditional salmon hunting that has gone on.

      How much does our government pay to promote fish farming, versus all the pogey and structural support (much of the Coast Guard, lighthouses, radar/radio/weather/wharves...) that supports the fishing fleet?


      May 5, 2010 at 11:01pm

      @Farm fish here to stay
      Uhh guess what those farmed fish need to eat? Yup, you guessed it, other fish! Which guess what requires a fishing fleet...

      And if we would properly utilize the fresh fish resource so as to allow it to comeback and not overfish it, nature would do all the work of raising the fish for us.

      You are right it is not just fish farms but they play a major part. Action had to start somewhere especially considering that the fish farms were "above the law" and that they wanted to add more of them on fish migration routes. As for other things - we have warmer water in the fraser, damage to rivers(and nearby wetlands) that fish use for spawning such as the train derailments and other pollution, dams, etc. Oh and look now we are going to add RoR projects to rivers, damaging the rivers and surrounding wetlands even more.

      Bernadette Keenan

      May 6, 2010 at 2:09am

      Good to hear on this important topic Celia.
      In North Surrey and Delta it is the South Fraser Freeway which will destroy or damage a large number of salmon bearing or potentially salmon bearing streams as well as creating toxic runoff in to the river that is a major threat to Salmon. We greeted the Fraser River Paddlers for WIld Salmon in Bridgeview Tuesday with a huge Fish not Freeways Banner - Love Wild Salmon banner in Solidarity for their efforts to stop fish farming from ruining our wild salmon runs.
      Whether you doubt the importance of the issue and want to find out more or if you support the efforts of Alexandra Morton wholeheartedly, come out and meet the paddlers yourself today in Steveston.