Celia Brauer: Open-net fish farms and modern mainstream economics, a match made in hell

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      “If we’re looking at GDP, that doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t measure the Earth; what they call ‘externalities’. Whether it’s oil, open-net fish farms, or mining, the true cost is not included; there is no account of the damage done to water, land, and air. They would have to rethink their way of doing business: to protect what sustains us instead of destroying it! This is possible. For example, closed-containment fish farms are one good solution.”—Stó:lō elder T’it’elem Spath/Eddie Gardner of the Skwah First Nation and president of the Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance

      As the nights of autumn grow chillier and we lie in our warm beds and draw the covers around us, it’s important to note that since August 2017 on the West Coast of Canada, First Nations groups have been actively protesting the destructive open-net salmon-farming industries that first invaded the pristine waters of their traditional territories more than 30 years ago.

      Members of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw, Namgis, and Mamalilikulla First Nations continue to occupy sites on or close to Swanson Island and Midsummer Island to demand the removal of net pens from the Wild Salmon Narrows. This area is also known as the Broughton Archipelago, an ecologically rich saltwater channel separating Vancouver Island from British Columbia’s Central Coast. Supporting this standoff are tens of thousands of other Canadians who have been writing, petitioning, marching, and bearing witness alongside the First Nations for decades. 

      The Wild Salmon Narrows are crucial for millions of salmon travelling to and from the Fraser River—the biggest salmon river in the world. On their first journey as juvenile smolts, salmon travel north to spend years circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean. Going south, the adult spawners voyage back toward their home streams. The First Nations do not agree with the concept of open-net fish farms and the industrial methods employed. Since their land was never ceded since colonization began in B.C. in the mid-19th century, these farms are an invasion of their territories and are actively harming wild salmon passing close by. Their claims are especially important now, since the federal and provincial governments have agreed to participate in reconciliation with First Nations.

      What is outstanding about this scenario—which mimics many others in Canada and around the world—is that after four centuries of global colonization, our Indigenous neighbours are still standing strong in difficult conditions against the unending onslaughts of colonization and industrialization. Since first contact, Canada’s First Nations have been made to endure disease and the destruction of their surrounding ecosystems alongside the subjugation and marginalization of their people and way of life. Traditional social-ecological and cultural systems that supported them for millennia are continually disrespected and pushed aside in favour of more invasive western methods.

      Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs vice president Bob Chamberlin (right) and Musgmagw Dzawada’enuwx Nation hereditary chief Willie Moon meet the media to discuss the salmon-farm occupations.
      Gary Haggquist

      Yet today First Nations are on the frontlines tirelessly fighting the most destructive and invasive industrial projects on the planet: fossil-fuel processing, pipelines, tankers and fuel ports, open-net fish farms, open-pit mines, extensive human development, and many more examples. What is equally remarkable is that even though these industrial endeavours mine the land and water purely for their commodity value, the natural world destroyed in the process is not considered to have any worth for its own sake in our predominant western social systems.  

      The salmon’s story: a wild miracle

      Open-net salmon farms are an excellent example of everything that is wrong with present-day mainstream economic thinking. To understand this scenario really well requires a basic knowledge of a few thousand years of human history. As recently as 1850, salmon energy cycled through North America’s West Coast like a gift from the gods, fuelled year after year by cosmic energy. It mirrored similar salmon systems in other temperate zones: North America’s East Coast, northern Europe, Russia, and parts of the Far East.

      In British Columbia, five species of salmon hatch in freshwater streams every spring, then journey via rivers to saltwater to spend years in the open ocean. Upon returning home, they are well known for the epic feats employed and the great distances travelled to swim upriver and spawn. They miraculously reenter the fertile environment of the same stream where they were born, like an invading army. However, this army brings vast treasures. The salmon’s nutrient-rich flesh, skin, and bones feed more than 130 species in water and on land in a cycle of life that has continued for millennia.

      First Nations activists and supporters occupied a B.C. fish farm near northern Vancouver Island.
      Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

      Before contact in the mid-19th century and until today, Indigenous people on the coast lived near freshwater and seawater teeming with wild salmon, a food that offers crucial nutrients for the human body and brain. They valued these fish highly and were aware of their benefits for all species. First Nations cared for ecosystems, limited catch size, shared the excess, and changed the landscape to carefully increase their take. They kept their own human population in check and created elaborate ceremonies to educate all generations about relationships between people and salmon. The iconic salmon was a gift to be respected and honoured and they incorporated it into legends and art. When bears, wolves, and birds dragged the carcasses into the forests, salmon fertilized the soil. Today’s scientists agree that wild Pacific salmon is a “keystone species”, a vital indicator of the ecological health and wealth of the natural world. They are the “canary in the coal mine”. When salmon struggle to survive, all other species soon follow.

      The European story

      Meantime, half a planet away, similar salmon systems existed on the European continent during Paleolithic times. Archeologists have verified that original tribal people employed cultural methods comparable to First Nations. But during the Neolithic Age about ten thousand years ago, people in Eurasia devised additional methods of food production by employing annual agriculture and domesticated animals. This way of being gradually overtook most Indigenous hunter-gatherer societies across both continents. Farmed food became the staple and wild food the dietary supplement. As populations grew, governing systems changed to include more hierarchy. But for thousands of years, community and tradition remained strong.

      With the growth of technology in Western Europe over the past 500 years and the challenge of resource depletion and overpopulation, further stratification of the rich and poor ensued. A theoretical model of market economics arose in parallel with private ownership of land and other resources. This evolution elevated the individual to the centre of their thinking on economic issues while offering opportunities for small groups of rich people to profit from formerly common pool resources such as timber, fish, land, and water.

      Farming methods changed; first they favoured enclosures and family farms over the group model. Later, agribusiness took over. Community and tradition were unceremoniously swept into the background, while individual wealth and power increased. Social systems such as democracy and law provided some rights for the poorer parts of society while at the same time it enabled the wealthy to better enforce their expanding private-property rights.

      But no social evolution was strong enough to beat back the ongoing commodification of natural resources, which brought great monetary gains very rapidly for a small sector of people while the majority benefitted only modestly. Market economics gained a power of its own and went steaming down a track of no return like the fossil-fuelled engines that now powered the industrialized world. Land and resources were only considered valuable insofar as they served the material needs of humans. But only a few entrepreneurs and corporate executives really prospered. Despite the flaws, these societal structures were then transferred all around the world through colonization, starting in the 17th century. 

      From wild sustenance to pure commodity

      By the time settlement reached the West Coast of North America in the mid-1800s, industrialization was in full swing in Europe and eastern North America. The clash of Indigenous and European cultures and the contrast in the way the settlers treated prolific wild resources was astounding. First, newcomers quickly clearcut vast forests full of ancient trees. Then they took masses of wild fish from abundant runs and sold them, wasting what was not immediately usable. The Fraser River sturgeon, prehistoric monsters that grew to a massive size in their century-long life, were almost wiped out in less than a decade.

      After diminishing much of the bounty, the settlers started employing what they knew best: intensive farming methods. About the middle of the 20th century, salmon hatcheries attempted to duplicate nature’s way of reproducing. When this method didn’t offer the desired gains, governments allowed industry to set up open-net fish farms. The re-creation of salmon had now fully become a business. Cages were constructed in fertile tracts of water, to the horror of local Indigenous people who had never accepted the invading worldview even though they were coerced to join it through lack of choice.

      Mainstream economics provides no help in addressing the environmental impacts from open-net salmon farming, even though their effect on wild fish and other species that pass through the neighbouring territory is extensive. While the concept of "externalities"—the costs and benefits of natural capital—does exist within advanced academic microeconomics, few in the "real world—politicians, business people, civil servants, financial journalists, and others who dominate such discourse—have a firm grasp of it. Furthermore, it is common for mainstream economics to treat externalities as a marginal phenomenon, not something worth thinking about too often or too deeply.

      This means that industrialized activity can, and often does, quickly become a free-for-all. In one glaring and unacceptable example, farmed fish’s effluent continually passes unprocessed into surrounding waters. Added to this are other pollutants from the cages, such as medications and manufactured fish feed that includes chemicals as well as viruses that infect the captive fish. Farmers on land are at least required to deal with animal and chemical waste while discharges into the environment are also regulated. This is because human societies had centuries to determine fair ecological and moral ways to act so that farming activity would benefit all species.

      Since open-net fish farms are recent industrial additions to the farming world, rules exist, but their creation and enforcement is enacted by third parties, such as industry and government, which have vested interests. Besides, historically, western ideology imagined that water transported all our sins to another realm. Evidently, this attitude has not changed, even though all kinds of new chemicals and diseases exist today. However, as American ecologist and philosopher Garret Hardin expressively wrote in his 1996 book, Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos: “We would like to just throw away the wastes but as ecologists are ever ready to remind us, there is no away to throw it to.”

      Many good reasons exist why open-net fish farms are an unwelcome invader in ecologically productive waters. Viruses floating unchecked are particularly deadly, since millions of wild salmon pass close by. These diseases cannot help but impact the small and vulnerable wild smolts heading to open ocean. Since Atlantic salmon—an alien species in Pacific waters—occupy the net cages, they are forced to live amongst their own toxins. They, too, become infected and sickened. Sea lice are prevalent and the fish farmers admit that approximately 80 percent of caged salmon have contracted Piscine reovirus, a disease that weakens and emaciates them. All this while the surrounding waters, land, and air is made available at no cost to the fish-farm producers and no requirements exist for them to pay for the mess created.

      The problems do not end here. When a fish farm collapses and 300,000 Atlantic farmed salmon escape into the wild, which happened in Washington state this past summer, no one knows the impact of potential interbreeding with wild fish. The list goes on. Open-net farms attract other animals, like seals, whales, birds, and fish. They get caught in the nets and are injured or die. Seals are often shot as predatory intruders. Wild herring is discovered alongside the Atlantic salmon used to restock pens, and this is illegal. Salmon farmers use forage fish from Third World countries for feed, which affects the local economies of those faraway places.

      Addressing critical untruths

      Salmon aquaculture is supported by our present governments and businesses because it supposedly contributes significantly to B.C.’s economy. In the eyes of the organizers and profit seekers, open-net fish farms make money and provide jobs. Politicians support these notions because they make people feel good about our modern way of life, which, they believe, exhibits positive progress. Fish farms exist to feed the world, since wild stocks are disappearing. Ironically, before these industrial systems were put in place, the natural world fed the local people just fine. However, today’s reality is a hungry, much more populated planet with people willing to pay for cheap farmed food, no matter how mistreated or polluted it is. Farmed salmon offers what looks like good value in stores and restaurants. However, this wonder food can harbour disease not fit for pregnant women. One wonders then: why is it fit for all human consumption?  

      These are important facts to consider when politicians respond. On October 11, 2017, B.C. Premier John Horgan met with the First Nations that are protesting. Afterwards, his official statement said: "Any strategy for aquaculture must put a priority on the protection of wild salmon, collaborate with First Nations and acknowledge their interests, involve the federal government and recognize that the farms now generate nearly $800 million in annual value, while supporting several thousand jobs in rural and coastal areas." Recognition of the concerns of Indigenous people exists, but economic returns loom large.

      However, these figures give a false sense of financial security. Since open-net fish farms are primarily owned by corporations, they put money primarily into the pockets of the shareholders while also providing a salary for workers. But the numbers don’t add up properly because their operations are effectively subsidized. Not only are they not required to clean up their waste and pay for the negative impact to common waters and other wild species but when culls are made to take away diseased fish, local taxpayers pay. Therefore, the “$800 million in annual value” only exists as short-term income for humans, and the true and complete costs of such an invasive industry are not factored in at all. As well—and most importantly—when Premier Horgan speaks of “supporting several thousand jobs in rural and coastal areas”, the tremendous impact of a resource-sector collapse—such as what the lack of a wild fishery has done to some small towns—is omitted in any calculations of benefits or drawbacks.

      This vital truth should be spoken repeatedly: if the true costs of environmental pollution and all other accompanying negative impacts from open-net salmon farms are included into the equation, they would certainly be out of business. Furthermore, in our modern political system, fish farms operate legally—but only according to the rules of the governing group that overtook the First Nations and forced their western European systems onto the people and the land. This way of being was never accepted by British Columbia’s Indigenous people, and today it is being fought in Canadian courts.

      First Nations have watched for decades as their precious homelands were overtaken; the extreme invasion of open-net fish farms just adds insult to injury. Yes, some Indigenous people work in the industry. But they have already been forced to participate in Canada’s dominant cash economy. Due to the influx of people and the depletion of resources in B.C. over the past 150 years, there is no other way to meet their needs than to gain money with which they can buy goods and services, like everyone else.

      The tragic reality is that the ills of these kinds of aquaculture methods are mirrored in so many other resource-extraction industries. And even with all the science and public discourse today, many politicians continue to speak untruths. Industrial operations such as open-net salmon farms can never truly be “good for the economy”. The dominant system “benefits” while all others systems—regardless of their high and true value—flounder. Mainstream economics is broken, along with quite a few other modern social systems. This is strongly evident in the stark environmental crises brought on by runaway climate change. The destruction wrought by these dangerous human constructs is not something to be ignored or explained away by slogans. The truth must be spoken again and again. We overlook such blatant reality at our peril.

      A false economy has brought us false foods, false prosperity, real pollution, real ecosystem loss, and the real demise of a crucial wild food source for a host of species, including humans. Those who protest our mainstream economy’s approaches are maligned and marginalized. And natural wealth continues to disappear. Key structural elements of an ecological system that once provided British Columbia with enduring prosperity have been offered up for sale as mere commodities into the global marketplace. They have become polluted and destroyed with very little recourse for those harmed—which includes future generations of human beings and other species. And the modern-day smoke and mirrors method of governing continues. Are we doing something wrong? Yes, certainly. Should we consider fixing it? Yes, even if such a revelation does not initially feel comfortable. As ecological economist Herman Daly said in his 1977 book, Steady State Economics: “There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.”

      Bringing back a moral society

      Through colonization, the doctrines and practices of a crude market economic system were able to monetize intact ecosystems worldwide and natural resources were widely plundered. European powers executed this without any moral or ecological conscience and expropriated whatever they pleased, however much they pleased, creating the necessary legal doctrines as needed. This method continues today; in fact, it has gotten worse. Three hundred years ago, humankind was working on a planet with far fewer people and more intact ecosystems. Yet the original classical economics somehow recognized the key role of nature in human prosperity and the real finiteness of natural capital. Mainstream economics emerged after the Industrial Revolution had run its course and it has continued to dominate.

      Today’s economic paradigm tends to treat nature as something we can substitute with human ingenuity. Thoughts like these are dangerous make-believe with dire consequences. Canada, as the second-largest country on Earth with relatively few people, has much of the world’s remaining forests, water, and wild flora and fauna. But these are shrinking at a great rate. Now, scientists warn us, we are well into the planet's sixth great extinction.

      At some point in history, business interests calculating only short-term financial benefits convinced politicians and the public that everything was okay with our extensive strategies for “economic development”. Many of these schemes should never have happened. But whatever occurred in the past should not necessarily be continued today. If these ideas and their outcomes were not properly debated since colonial times, they need to be fully debated now. Humans are supposedly wise—as their species name, Homo sapiens, suggests. But as the natural world tips further out of balance, powerful people who lead us down the wrong paths are acting with astonishing recklessness—even with respect to their own interests, since humans and natural systems are intricately connected.  

      Enough is enough. It’s time to face what has gone wrong and alter our dangerous common course. Change will be challenging, but it is exactly what the doctor ordered. As First Nations have always known—and that includes all our Indigenous ancestors—our present-day social systems can never aspire to be totally in charge of a living world without causing harm to us all. We are governed by a force far bigger than just our species; humans are only a small part of the phenomenal cycle of life. Humility, respect, gratitude, and connection need to prevail. We have the intelligence and tools to create a better, more sustainable world.

      Five hundred years ago, most human societies employed traditional ways of dealing with community and the natural world. We can access those methods and put them to good use; then step back and allow the salmon to work their magic once again.

      This article is dedicated to the memory of Twyla Roscovich, a committed filmmaker and activist who devoted her life to honouring the wild species and landscapes of the B.C. coast. She was an inspiration to all who love and value these lands and waters. Her film Salmon Confidential brought the problems of open-net salmon farms to light.