Critics claim wild fish still at risk from farm stock

Open-net-cage salmon farms are incubators of sea lice and diseases, according to opponents.

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Opponents of open-net-cage salmon farming maintain that the aquaculture practice is bad for wild stocks. With an estimated 34 million Fraser River sockeye coming back this summer, in what’s described as the biggest return in a century, does this mean they’ve got it wrong?

      Not at all, says Catherine Stewart, a Vancouver-based campaigner with Living Oceans Society.

      Her group believes that fish farms located in the waters between eastern Vancouver Island and the mainland are incubators of sea lice and diseases that waylay wild-salmon juveniles migrating out to sea through the Johnstone Strait.

      “This year has nothing to do with last year,” Stewart asserted in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “What we need to know from the aquaculture industry is what were the conditions of the farms in the strait when the 2009 fish migrated out to sea?”

      Young sockeye live their first two years in freshwater rivers and lakes, later swimming out to the ocean, where they spend another two years before returning to their natal streams to spawn.

      This means the fish that came back to the Fraser in 2009 made their way out to sea in 2007, while the sockeye surging back to the river this summer made their passage in 2008.

      “You can imagine that in one year if the lice levels were extraordinarily high, it could be harming their own farmed fish, and so they might have brought that situation under better control, and the following year—when the 2010 class of Fraser sockeye migrated past the farms—they had a better handle on the lice situation,” Stewart said. “But because the industry is so secretive and because they won’t release data and fight tooth and nail against release of data on what was actually going on in the farms, we don’t know.”

      Stewart also said that conservationists hope the ongoing federal inquiry into the 2009 collapse of the Fraser sockeye will lead to the disclosure of more information about fish farms.

      Salmon farming started in B.C. in 1971, and according to the most recent joint report by the ministries of agriculture and lands and environment, it had grown to a $406-million industry by 2008. During that same year, the initial estimate for the farmed-salmon harvest was 81,400 tonnes.

      Marine Harvest Canada, a Norwegian subsidiary, is the biggest salmon-farming company in the province. According to spokesperson Ian Roberts, the Vancouver Island firm operates 35 farms and accounts for half of the total production of mesh-net-grown salmon.

      In a phone interview from Campbell River, Roberts pointed out that it isn’t just sockeye that are making a strong return. He said that chinook, coho, and pink salmon have also done very well this year.

      “We disagreed back then that we were to blame for any low numbers of wild salmon, but we were very polite about it,” Roberts told the Straight. “We took the criticism. It was upsetting to be accused of something that you knew you weren’t responsible for. But we took it on the chin, knowing that salmon are cyclical and the salmon will return. And they have.”

      Carl Walters, a professor at the UBC Fisheries Centre, describes himself as a fish-population expert who has studied sockeye and pink salmon for 40 years.

      “My personal opinion is that the claims about fish-farming effects on either of those species are bogus,” Walters told the Straight by phone. “It is certainly not a matter of fact that fish farming has affected those populations. It is quite unlikely that fish farming has anything to do with the changes in sockeye-salmon numbers that we’ve seen, the downs or ups.”

      Like Living Oceans Society, the Coquitlam-based Watershed Watch Salmon Society considers net-cage aquaculture of salmon a threat to the wild species. Its resident fish biologist, Stan Proboszcz, explained by phone that although there are other factors involved in the changing numbers of spawning salmon, “it’s pretty tough to eliminate farms.”

      In April 2009, a group of scientists from Canada, Norway, and Scotland released a report on sea lice.

      Commissioned by the Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue, an international forum initiated by the World Wildlife Fund in 2004 that includes salmon producers, the paper noted that “evidence is largely indirect or circumstantial that sea lice emanating from salmon farms can and do exert detrimental effects on wild salmonids.”

      However, the report also stated that the “weight of evidence is that sea lice of farm origin can present, in some locations and for some host species populations, a significant threat”.



      Robert Wager

      Sep 2, 2010 at 10:24am

      Catherine Stewart knows or should have known (data has been available for years on the DFO website) that sea lice levels have been very low since the historic high of 2004. This fear story is OVER.

      Curious Salmon

      Sep 2, 2010 at 12:55pm

      Robert- please provide a link to those DFO data. I can only find data up to 2004, for Pink salmon in the Broughton Archipeligo and Coho in Knight Inlet.

      Annie Paddle

      Sep 2, 2010 at 1:12pm

      Time for the anti farm groups to give it up. Evidence points to the unlikely effects of salmon farming. ENOUGH with the propaganda. It's doing nothing to protect wild salmon. Time for real scientists to discuss the problem and for the public to stop listening to the well paid activist and her sea lice theory.

      Curious Salmon

      Sep 2, 2010 at 1:56pm

      Annie- What evidence?

      Tim Sampson

      Sep 2, 2010 at 3:14pm

      Dear Curious Salmon - you need to review the Pacific Salmon Forum final report. You'll find (like every other scientific report on salmon farming) that the risks are low to non-existent.

      Science says that salmon farming has little risk to wild salmon (no one can say "zero". The fish say that salmon farming has little risk to wild salmon. Yet, we hear the same tired messages from the Catherine Stewart's of this world - and that should make you question who's paying them (Catherine's organization just received close to $1 million from an American foundation to continue it's attack on salmon farming).

      So you can't fault Ms. Stewart, because she gets paid to deliver a message.

      Curious Salmon

      Sep 2, 2010 at 4:36pm

      Tim- While waiting for Annie and Robert to provide their evidence (c'mon, I don't want to be late for spawning!) I took you up on your suggestion. I am unconvinced.

      Firstly, you claim that every scientific report on salmon farming concludes that the risks to wild salmon from salmon farming are low to non-existent. Not so. There is a growing body of scientific study to show that indeed salmon farms do have negative impacts on wild salmon. I found this bibliography of peer-reviewed science for instance that demonstrates this:

      Secondly, the Pacific Salmon Forum was appointed by the provincial government. I prefer my science independent and peer-reviewed so when I come across a government funded report I get skeptical, especially when the government is so supportive of the industry. Seems I am not the only one: review_PSFsea lice science rpt.pdf

      In the critique is this statement from a 2007 SFU sponsored workshop of scientists from around the world:

      "European governments (Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Norway and the European Union) have recognized that salmon farming can be hazardous to the environment, including the proliferation of sea lice on salmon farms posing significant risk to wild salmonids. There was general agreement at the meeting on the following and that the situation on the British Columbia coast has many parallels, but that the risks to pink and chum salmon are exacerbated by their small size at emergence into the marine environment."

      Thirdly, I am not swayed by your argument that since Catherine Stewart is supported by an American foundation there must be some conspiracy against fish farms. Concern for wild salmon is widespread and held by Canadians and Americans both, where is the conspiracy in that?


      Sep 2, 2010 at 10:25pm

      If the fish farms are so sure they are not the cause or a major part of the cause to the salmon decline - why don't they open up their disease records etc for all to see? Is it not in their best interest to prove that they are right, thus making it easier on them to expand their operations without so much outcry? My guess is with all the evidence stacking up against fish farms(such as the SFU study and other data from Norway about how their fish farms destroyed their wild fish stocks) that they will do anything to prevent that info from seeing the light of day.

      These are our public waters, anything being done in our public waters should be 100% open and public. It is our right as these public waters are owned by us, as in we the people of this beautiful province and nation. And the gov't is supposed to work for us, representing us, not a subset of us that voted for the current party in power or those that bribed them with donations, but each and every one of us that live in the nation. Why is our gov't protecting these foreign owned fish farms that even their own nations won't allow, how is that in the public interest?

      Bill Davidson

      Sep 3, 2010 at 10:52am

      Habitat degradation is a big problem with fish farms. The sea lice problem is the focus of so much attention, but it is not the only problem. There are many life forms in coastal and tidal ecosystems. Their habitats are degraded by fish farms. The impact of such degradation is charted in the history of fish farms in other places on the planet as well as right here in BC. There's a lot of obfuscation going on. Fish farms detract from the health of the coastal/tidal eocsystems.


      Sep 3, 2010 at 11:23am

      Those who want to place their trust in the conclusions of the Pacific Salmon Forum might want to ask a few relevent questions about the scientific 'independence' of the Forum and its research products. Prof. Dr. Larry Dill of SFU and other members of the Forum's science advisory body resigned in protest mid-way through the process due to interference with scientific freedom. This was reported in the media. The Vancouver Sun reported on a scientific summary of sea lice research that was commissioned by the Forum then supressed. Its release and inclusion in the Forum's body of work was quashed by the Board -- apparently because the conclusions weren't supportive of open net-cage salmon farming. Scientific freedom? Independent research? I don't think so. If you want real independent research, look (for instance) at the peer-reviewed study by Dalhousie's late, revered Ransom Myers and his colleague Jennifer Ford. Wherever net-cage farms exist, wild salmon and trout decline. And maybe ask why the 'science' that vindicates the industry's impact on wild salmon always seems to be generated by government, government-funded bodies or industry-connected and/or funded institutions. Spot the trend?