By Mary Ellen Walling
In January 2009, after four years of study, consultation, and debate, the Pacific Salmon Forum released its final report and recommendations for the long-term conservation of perhaps this province’s most significant cultural symbol.
“Today, in many watersheds, across the Province, wild salmon face unprecedented threats to their survival and many stocks are declining. Worse yet, these threats are growing because of changes in climate affecting both ocean and freshwater habitat,” said the panel of independent citizens.
Their extensive report says that, with the right management, B.C.’s salmon farming industry is an important economic driver. They made clear recommendations which continue to be worked on—much of them focused on how to build public trust, ensure the long-term success of marine environments, and reach the highest standard of operations. All of these are goals B.C. salmon farmers strive to exceed.
The report, however, also talks about much more and highlights just how complicated the issue of wild salmon declines is. From climate change to logging, industrial activity in key watersheds to development of important habitats, the forum’s members said it simply with this: “No single human activity or industry is responsible for endangering wild salmon. We all share in the responsibility.”
Now, the federal government will take its own look at the great salmon question with the Cohen Commission, an inquiry into poor returns of the Fraser River sockeye in 2009.
It’s certainly a passionate issue. The Honourable Bruce Cohen received more applications for standing than other judges did for inquiries into the Air India bombing or the Liberal party’s sponsorship scandal. Opponents to salmon farming would like to make this inquiry one about the industry alone—we feel that glosses over bigger issues.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, representing the 6,000 men and women who work in the province’s industry, was granted standing at the inquiry. We want to be there to answer any questions, share information about our operations, and correct misinformation that’s been spread.
Some of those messages are simple: sea lice on B.C.’s salmon farms are well managed. Their numbers, along with the amount of treatment used on farmed fish have declined in the last five years, and the industry, along with its government regulators, is open about its reporting and auditing process. Our regulations are among the strictest in the world, and our fish health management protocols are exemplary. That information is made public through a regular auditing process with the provincial government and reports are posted on its Web site. Our companies are working to increase the information available publicly as well—for example, the two largest producers post site-by-site lice counts on their Web sites.
That being said, science is still trying to determine the relationship between sea lice, wild fish, and farmed salmon. Research has shown that the naturally occurring parasite doesn’t seem to harm Pacific salmon once they reach a certain size—and that even in lab tests where lice are concentrated onto the fish, they are even in some cases able to shed them. Genetics testing has determined that the sea louse found in the Pacific ocean is different than that of the Atlantic ocean. While critics said the pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago were going to be decimated due to sea lice, last year saw such a large return that a commercial fishery was opened while farms continued their fish health management plans.
There are lots of questions about the salmon-farming industry and we’re happy to answer them. Public farm tours, informational mail-outs, and a detailed Web site are among the ways we reach out to the residents of the province. They should know that sustainability—for the environment, communities, and economy—is always top of mind. If we don’t make every effort to constantly improve we won’t be able to continue operating—it’s as simple as that.
And while it might feel like a simple answer to blame salmon declines on our farmers, it misses all the other issues—and these are the ones more challenging to address and require every British Columbians’ involvement.
Mary Ellen Walling is the executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.