David Suzuki: Struggling with salmon farming and sustainability

The past few weeks have marked an interesting time for salmon and salmon farming in B.C. The first commercial-scale ocean-based closed-containment salmon farm tanks are being installed near Campbell River, B.C., and the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) closed its public comment period on draft certification standards for salmon farms. Meanwhile, a survey commissioned by the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the Fraser Basin Council showed that most British Columbians support making wild Pacific salmon the province’s official fish. The Cohen Commission inquiry into Fraser River sockeye salmon also resumed its hearings.

Some of this activity illustrates our struggle to figure out whether or not farming salmon can be sustainable. It’s an important but difficult question, in part because the definition of “sustainable” is hard to pin down. And, along with issues such as sea lice and other challenges with salmon farming, raising carnivorous fish like salmon will continue to raise questions about sustainability unless we find a way to feed them that doesn’t lead to the depletion of other wild fish. It’s necessary to be clear about whether we’re getting closer to working in balance with nature or whether we are just trying things out without understanding the full impacts.

For example, the proposed GAA standards tell us little more than that the producers are obeying the law. Although the industry trade association asserts that its Best Aquaculture Practices “assure healthful foods produced through environmentally and socially responsible means”, the standards don’t address the most critical environmental and social threats of open net pen salmon farming, such as disease, parasites, and sustainable feed sources.

Another example of the controversy around trying to achieve better salmon farming has to do with integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, or IMTA. With IMTA, waste from raising one aquaculture species, like salmon, is used as food or fertilizer for other species grown at the same farm site. And so, for example, putting shellfish farms below a salmon farm helps feed the shellfish while cleaning up some of the mess and potential damage of waste from the fish farm. Cooke Aquaculture on Canada’s East Coast is now testing the method, but it’s actually an ancient practice, developed in China for food production thousands of years ago.

Although it has promising applications, it doesn’t move salmon farming out of the red or “Avoid” category of ranking systems like SeaChoice or the Monterey Bay Aquarium. To start, it doesn’t change some of the fundamental challenges of sea lice and disease from farms getting into the wild, nor does it change the fact that intensive open net cage aquaculture has a heavy impact on ecosystems. On top of that, it doesn’t address the crucial issue of what we feed to the farmed salmon.

And we don’t have enough information about how much improvement IMTA actually delivers. This makes a recent announcement by Loblaw that it will carry and promote IMTA farmed salmon from Canada’s East Coast frustrating and disappointing. The company has taken significant steps for seafood sustainability, but branding and promoting IMTA salmon, labelled WiseSource, muddies the waters.

At best, IMTA is one small step on a long ladder. Consumers don’t always have time to research every label, and so we must be rigorous about what we decide to promote.

If we want to farm salmon and protect wild salmon and ecosystems, the best approach involves closed containment systems that separate farmed fish from wild fish. The four closed containment tanks being installed by AgriMarine Inc. near Campbell River are a start, as is the SweetSpring Salmon land-based system that supplies Overwaitea stores. SweetSpring does an excellent job of reducing the use of wild fish for feed, but no matter what systems we use, we must diversify into farmed species that are lower down on the food chain than salmon, cod, or tuna, so that we can better manage the resources needed to feed the fish and shellfish we produce through aquaculture.

And if we continue to farm salmon, we must continue to find substitute feed sources that don’t lead to the depletion of other fish stocks.

British Columbians really do treasure wild salmon, but if we want to make it a symbol of the province, we must do everything we can to ensure that it remains a living symbol.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.




Jan 25, 2011 at 7:46pm

Davey, you just keep "struggling with salmon farming and sustainablity".
The rest of us will struggle with just what it is that keeps you from hearing that most of us have long ago realized that you're full of it.

The final nail in your cred was your referral to the CRU emails as "stolen hacked". If you can ignore those, AND ignore recent findings that the fish farms don't affect young salmon, AND ignore record salmon returns so you can pretend salmon are "threatened" or some such BS - you're just outside rational discussion. Heck, you're not even in the neighbourhood.


Jan 26, 2011 at 3:41am


I'm not a medical doctor but I think you may have a case of the wishful thinkings. First, most of us don't think he's "full of it." His TV series The Nature of Things is seen in 40 countries and he was voted into the final 5 in CBC's Greatest Canadian competition a few years ago. Seems there's a whole lot of us who see him as having some pretty important and interesting things to say even if they are not what we always want to hear.

Second, it's amazing that you think the CRU emails matter in the climate change debate today. There were five, yup, 5 reviews, none of which found any problem with the science though they did want scientists to be more open in terms of data sharing. Meanwhile, the world has moved on. Well, not completely.

Every national and international government and academies of science still confirms our role in destabilizing the climate through deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels and land use change (e.g. industrial agriculture). Oh yeah, businesses, even those in the fossil fuel game and funding denial campaigns, also admit this is happening. For example, here's ExxonMobil:

"Rising greenhouse gas emissions pose significant risks to society and ecosystems."

and, Shell:

"For us the debate on climate change is over. We are tackling the challenges of a new energy future. We continue to develop technologies to reduce CO2 from our operations and to produce more efficient fuels and lubricants for customers. We are calling on governments to establish policies that will encourage a reduction in CO2 emissions."

But in terms of the moving on:

- Globally: "Each of the last three decades has been much warmer than the decade before. At the time, the 1980 was the hottest decade on record. In the 1990s, every year was warmer than the average of the previous decade. And the 2000s were warmer still." http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2010/20100728_stateoftheclimate.html

- Globally: 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year on record http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2010-warmest-year.html

- Canada: 2010 was the hottest year on record; 4 of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred within the last decade, and 13 in the last 20 years.
Environment Canada: http://goo.gl/gtzT0

- "10 indicators of a warming world; 7 are increasing and 3 declining. Rising over the decades are average air temperature, the ratio of water vapor to air, ocean heat content, sea-surface temperature, sea level, air temperature over the ocean and air temperature over land. Indicators that are declining are snow cover, glaciers and sea ice."

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dave henderson

Jan 26, 2011 at 6:26am

The problem with the discussion about what to feed salmon is not as clear cut as the doctor says. Fish farmers are already working to reduce the amount of fish meal used in salmon feed and progress will continue down that road. The problem with that is that fish feed producers will pay a premium for fish protein but producers of swine and chicken feed will not. The fisherman in Central America have no social safety net so as the fish food producers buy less protein the fisherman must take more fish from the ocean in order to maintain their not very high standard of living. Therefore the reduction of fishmeal use by salmon farmers is actually going to result in increased pressure on the fish stocks.
Also it has long seemed to me that strong advocates of closed containment farming will see if they can force aquaculture into this model and then claim that the carbon footprint for pumping all the water required is just too high and we will just have to give up. This will mean that salmon farming is carried out in places like Chile where the level of education of the workforce is lower and practices are more suspect.
WAY TO GO gaurdians of the enviroment!

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Sustainable fish farming?

Jan 26, 2011 at 12:34pm

For an inspiring example of sustainable fish farming check out Dan Barber's brilliant and sometimes hilarious TED talk: 'How I Fell in Love with a Fish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EUAMe2ixCI

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Feb 3, 2011 at 3:44pm

You mention that IMTA has been done in China for thousands of years. Yet in the next paragraph you say it is unsustainable. Is there any other large scale farming technique that has been done for this long.
How can a system that takes utlizes and controls 3 trophic levels (algae, filter feeders, and primary consumers, ie. salmon) be unsustainable? It is a system more balanced than any other protein production system on the planet. The issue of feed is also being addressed by Cook. They are using bycatch and other agricultural byproducts (nutrients are nutrients - the source, provided it's free of contaminants is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things).

On the east coast, there is currently research underway to investigate how sealice transfer is affected by IMTA, whereby bivalves placed as biological curtains or filters to impede the transfer of lice to and from farmed salmon. This could be a low (or negative) cost answer whereby bivalves such as oysters or mussels consume sea lice larvae and provide an added income to the farm. Why this type of research is not being promoted by environmental organizations on the west coast is beyond me.

There fear that Atlantic Salmon will become an invasive species in BC is also unfounded. Sports fisherman unsuccessfully tried to purposefully introduce Atlantics into Pacific waters for much of the first half of the 20th century - releasing MILLIONS of salmon. A pacific-atlantic hybrid has never been artifically produced, nor has it every been observed in situ. Many scientists argue that a released Pacific salmon is actually more dangerous because it can breed with wild salmon leading to genetic dilution. This is currently what is being done in Alaska. Hatchery raised salmon are released into the environment, recaught, and marketed as a sustainable fish, while at the same time diluting the genetic integrity of the wild stock, not to mention the bycatch produced, marine mammals injured, and ghost fishing that results from lost gear.

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Leonard Ellis, Bella Coola, B.C.

Mar 24, 2011 at 11:27pm

These Salmon Farms that raise Atlantic Salmon on this Coast have no place in the Pacific Ocean threatening our Wild Stocks.If people want to experiment with Farming Salmon common sense says they should be doing it on the land base where it will not jeopardize our Wild Salmon Stocks.We cannot afford whatsoever to put our Wild Salmon at risk there is far too much at stake in the food chain of Wild Fish, Wild Animals and human beings.

Wild Salmon is the lifeline of the Pacific Coast and most certainly one of the Main Food Sources for our Main Coastal Species. Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Kermode Bear, Wolves, Raptors, Killer Whales, Sea lions and Seals cannot survive without Wild Fish and are totally dependent on, and have naturally evolved on the Wild Stocks.

First Nations and the rest of us people who live here on the Coast have, since the beginning of time depended on these Natural resources for a food source and to make a living.

Any industry that threatens our Wild Fish and Wildlife species is unacceptable, should be swiftly removed and will certainly not be tolerated on this Coast.

You Salmon Farmers can argue till you are blue in the face that what you are doing is not hurting the Wild Stocks. Unbelievable the amount of money Salmon Farmers are spending on advertising to attempt to convince and win over the general public, many who may not know any better, what is right and what is naturally wrong.

Everybody knows it is just money and profit margins that is driving your bus on your Salmon Farm Venture. It is proven that Salmon Farms threaten the Wild Stocks on this Coast and that is unfortunatley wrong no matter how much money you make.

Given that Salmon Farmers are not voluntarily pulling their Salmon Farms off of this Coast proves their negligence and very poor consideration with regards to the health and Welfare of our Wild Stocks and Wildlife.

David Suzuki is doing a Great Job. If it wasn't for people like him fighting for what is right and natural and identifying these issues to people living in the city that do not get to see it first hand, where would we be ?? We simply stand to lose so much that is truly precious if these threatening issues are not red flagged.

Given some of the haywire comments, showing complete disregard for Fish and Wildlife, I have read lately from people that are pro Salmon Farming is unbelievable. It goes without saying that we certainly do have just reason to fear what would be happening to our Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources if it was not for people like David Suzuki.

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