Celia Brauer: Coming to a courtroom near you—wild salmon versus aquaculture
Since October 25, 2010, a rather curious theatre has been unfolding in a courtroom in downtown Vancouver. The Cohen commission of inquiry into the collapse of the sockeye salmon runs in 2009 is the latest in a long string of similar investigations that over the years have been called to determine why West Coast salmon numbers are on a downward spiral. Apparently, all the other royal commissions didn’t offer adequate answers because here we are at a cost of $25 million trying again.
I call this “rather curious theatre” because this is exactly what happens when rational people fill a sterile courtroom and speak for countless hours about the disappearance of a wild fish which inhabits the polar-opposite, organic world of sea and fresh water. The even more bizarre truth is that with little money or effort our society could—if it really wanted to—find answers for the steady decline in salmon numbers from clearly observable causes. On land, we could acknowledge and conscientiously repair the impacts of continued ecosystem loss and pollution; in the oceans, we could better monitor fishing methods and seriously revise aquaculture. But this appears too simplistic, unscientific, and “anecdotal” for First World societies in the 21st century which prefer to subcontract the dirty work of “managing” fisheries to their democratically elected governments. These third-party stewards use taxpayer dollars to produce mountains of studies whose conclusions are sometimes covered up when they are inconvenient for the social and political climate of the moment. So the pushing of paper and the paying of bureaucrats continues while our wild salmon stocks shrink.
The fuss over the hook-nosed Oncorhynchus—wild Pacific salmon, which are red, grey, or pink in colour—is not surprising since their protein-rich bodies are worth their weight in gold. Salmon were admirably stewarded by local First Nations people for millennia. Then settler entrepreneurs and the other interested parties—which sometimes included the governments who policed the others—decided salmon were a valuable commodity to be exploited. Then as now the intention was to make lots of money off the backs of this nutrient-rich fish which once filled the rivers and streams. These are today—like the abundant salmon runs—a shadow of their former selves.
Except for a few concerned citizens and the necessary lawyers and witnesses, not many people have attended or reported on the steady legal slog at the Cohen commission since last October. This is not surprising since endless discussion on why this fish is disappearing is not exactly riveting. And Salmon doesn’t have any immediate family who is personally concerned about his demise to look on in the courtroom. This of course is part of the problem. While Salmon is a common resource—he is also part of the “commons” which means everyone wants to benefit—few have a clear commitment to making sure he has a healthy ecosystem to thrive in. It doesn’t help that Salmon’s home is a large subsection of the planet and he is totally disinclined to remain within any country’s legal boundaries.
There have been occasional blips in the Cohen broadcast, with a few stories appearing in the newspapers over the course of the year. A few months back there was a flurry of articles on the aboriginal fishery. This is an easy target of course and some fingers pointed at the number of fish illegally caught by aboriginals on the Fraser River. But it is hard to imagine this as the sole cause of the disappearance of 90 percent of an annual fishery. Another report claimed freshwater habitat is not the primary problem which means sockeye’s life in the ocean is the main culprit. But what rarely seems to enter the discussion is the integrity of the South Arm of the Fraser River where the majority of the millions of fish that travel upstream have to enter by a single narrow channel. The continued pollution and development of the Fraser’s estuary should be a major concern but the area is surrounded by the largest number of electors in the British Columbia and their concerns have historically come first.
The best is yet to come. What is far more compelling—and this will be ramped up in the weeks ahead—is the debate on salmon aquaculture. Corporate aquaculture has used the declines of wild fish as a justification for expanding industrial fish production. Of course their incentives are primarily driven by certain profits. The discussions on the impacts of these open-net fish farms will certainly fill courtroom chairs at the Cohen commission as they will be a window on the true political and ethical health of our society. The classic struggle will unfold between the industrial barons and their wealthy friends and those who seek to return to some semblance of a wild and organic world originally envisioned by a non-human creator.
Again we could save a lot of time and money by employing some good old-fashioned common sense—anyone can track the clear correlation between the major declines in salmon runs and the rise of the fish farms, which are frequently located in the pristine waters in the direct path of migrating wild fish fry. For decades the fry have been affected by major infections wafting out from the farmed salmon enclosed in nets whose diseases are open to the ocean. How can they not be? Never mind the toxic soup that pollutes the environment around these farms. And yet those levels of government with apparent jurisdiction (first B.C. and now the federal government) have done little to deal with this issue except spend more money assuring us they have it all under control. There have been major disease infestations all over the world over in waters near open-net fish farms in places such as Norway, Chile, and the U.K. And yet, similarly, these farms remain able to reap economic gains available from activities that pollute local waters and have a severe impact on the local wild ecosystems because they do not have to pay any of the social and ecological costs of doing so.
In Canada the fish police—the Department of Fisheries and Oceans—has too often had a curious history of mismanagement and an incestuous relationship with those who make their money from the capture and sale of wild and now farmed fish, from individual entrepreneurs to corporate fish farms. We can only wonder what drives the people at the DFO and provincial government so that they give a continual green light to the dubious practices of open-net fish farming. Obvious infestations of wild fish are ignored, covered up, and—of late—their own government’s studies of this evidence are muzzled. In recent weeks Kristi Miller, a government scientist who found a clear infection in farmed fish, published a major study and then was subsequently forbidden from speaking to the press. Theatre of the absurd indeed! Taxpayers fund scientific research to improve fish stocks and governments are afraid to discuss these findings. Truly “A School for Scandal”!
Canada has had its share of government indignities—one of the latest being the federal sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien government in the ’90s, where millions were robbed from the taxpayers to pay people who claimed false rewards for government contracts. Civil servants and common citizens were implicated and punished. But the Cohen commission is different. Salmon cannot climb onto the witness stand and speak for himself, describing in truth what happens when he passes by an open-net fish farm, gets an infection, and dies. Salmon cannot speak of his home stream which disappears one year when he returns to spawn. He cannot tell how man’s pollution fills up his gills and makes him sick and weakened or how warming waters wear him down in his epic river-to-ocean voyages. There is not one clear human villain in this crime and no “jury of peers” watching the proceedings and pronouncing anyone guilty or not. And there are no “rights of salmon” entrenched in our constitution—which incidentally is why so many humans have gotten away with stealing obscene numbers of Salmon family members for so many years.
Salmon can only hope that enough of his supporters can speak their truth on the witness stand and that these testimonies will be well heard and understood by Justice Cohen. This man is effectively responsible for either starting a process that will penalize those who choose to take too much of our common natural capital and give nothing back or he could continue to allow the sordid practice of government whitewashing so that wild Pacific salmon are driven to extinction. And so this theatre will take shape in the weeks to come. Will humans allow their own kind to be implicated in the plight of a creature which cannot defend itself in a human court of law and, frankly, has more important things to do like trying to save his skin in threatening waters? Will the government diminish the massive power of the fish farm corporations to do whatever they please since they have no interest in this land or these waters other than maximizing benefits for their own shareholders? Will the true culprit—the industrial growth economy—be shown for the Earth-destroying villain that it is? Our governments would be wise to slay at least one of these dragons sooner rather than later because salmon is an indicator species. If they and their ecosystem are not healthy, neither are the humans who depend on it.
Since the days of the first settlers, our wild world has been wrangled into submission—clear-cut and consumed. But however much we debate our opinions in courtrooms, the Earth will never be fully conquered by humans. And time will tell if Canadian society—whose elected government appointed this costly Cohen commission—has the guts to really look at the root causes of salmon decline and come to terms with its own unhealthy relationship with the Earth. The past performance of the Harper government does not promise a major shift here but one never knows. Are they just interested in industrializing the last wild food we eat—as they have countless other food sources because it seems to make them money and money buys votes? Or are they able to look at real reasons and allow the healthy return of a wild fish so wondrous it has found a place in the heart (and bellies) of many Canadians?
Watch for it: the Cohen commission discussion on aquaculture. Coming to a courtroom in downtown Vancouver August 22 to September 8.
Celia Brauer is the founder of a local watershed group, the False Creek Watershed Society. She became interested in salmon when she discovered that the False Creek watershed, which now houses about 30,000 people, was not long ago home to millions of salmon.
Aug 16, 2011 at 8:59am
Only government regulation will force a technological shift from open net to closed containment.
Unfortunately here in BC, we can't believe a fact our Environmental Assessment Office produces after it rubber stamped the destruction of Fish Lake.
Aug 16, 2011 at 10:05am
What an impressive piece Celia!
Now it must be said that wild salmon are so important that everyone must stop eating them!
Stop killing these beautiful creatures and roasting their flesh!
We should all just sit in the bush at the rivers edge and nibble on the berries of the same name while we watch these majestic beasts carry out their final moments.
Aug 16, 2011 at 10:37am
Do salmon have a right to ocean water? With the right to not be polutted as recently freshwater fish have..This should be the focus of a way to protect all ocean fish...Freshwater fish received that right only in the past 20 years or so..How do I know? I was on a commitee for increased interior stocking of trout and Dr David Narver was the Director of fisheries for BC..I made a statement that fish have a right to water dont they? He stated at that period in time they did not...I was flabergasted..As was the rest of the commitee..I stated that if he was protecting fish and they didnt have a right to water that he missed his calling...I walked out of the commitee meeting in disgust...A few years later there was a major difference in how the public could polute freshwater..The forestry stopped the damaging of creeks and all waterways by all users .The MOE also began enforcing enviromental issues...My point to this rant is this..We must persue a legal challenge to salmon having the right to clean water as freshwater fish have in order to stop this unforgivable and continuing destruction of our salmon by open net pen fish aquaculture...
Aug 16, 2011 at 11:03am
Fish Farms in Open Net Pens within the Natural Ecosystem (Harbors etc) can only negatively impact the Environment & Fisheries in general.
Of course the Neo-Con far Right Wing for Profit Corporate Welfare Neo-Cons of which the BC Lie-berals are a part off would rather support FOREIGN Mega Corporations Business Plan than the benefit of BC / Canadian Citizens as do their Federal Neo-Con Masters in Ottawa.
Aug 16, 2011 at 11:22am
With all the people out there killing wild salmon how can so much focus be put on the chance that aquaculture "might" be having an impact?
Studies from many different scientists have failed to provide anything other than weak correlation in some cases, and completely opposite findings in others.
With the countless real, measurable and obvious impacts to wild stocks I am sure that the Cohen Commision will add aquaculture as a footnote to the possible reasons for declines in some areas.
Let's just see how many fish continue to come back in the years to come and then weigh the arguments of the anti-aquaculture crowd against the reality of stock fluctuations.
I for one am not willing to villify an industry providing an alternative to eating wild fish while ignoring the fact that so many other things actually do harm them.
Aug 16, 2011 at 12:41pm
Ok for some basic education for the "thinkers" in this group...
Man can not manage nature better than nature itself which has billions of years of evolution on it's side vs a few hundred years of basic science by humans.
The Best Videos on why Natural Fish is the best choice for Humans.
Scientific Studies that conclusively show the devastating effects of farmed fish as opposed to the self serving opinions of Fish Farming Industry supporters...
 Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) mariculture has been associated with epidemics of infectious diseases that threaten not only local production, but also wild fish coming into close proximity to marine pens and fish escaping from them.
source...Citation: Palacios G, Lovoll M, Tengs T, Hornig M, Hutchison S, et al. (2010) Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation of Farmed Salmon Is Associated with Infection with a Novel Reovirus. PLoS ONE 5(7): e11487. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011487
Editor: Brett Lindenbach, Yale University, United States of America
 These first-ever tests of farmed salmon from U.S. grocery stores show that farmed salmon are likely the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the U.S. food supply. On average farmed salmon have 16 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in wild salmon, 4 times the levels in beef, and 3.4 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in other seafood. The levels found in these tests track previous studies of farmed salmon contamination by scientists from Canada, Ireland, and the U.K.
 From both a nutritional and environmental impact perspective, farmed fish are far inferior to their wild counterparts:
Despite being much fattier, farmed fish provide less usable beneficial omega 3 fats than wild fish.
Due to the feedlot conditions of aquafarming, farm-raised fish are doused with antibiotics and exposed to more concentrated pesticides than their wild kin. Farmed salmon, in addition, are given a salmon-colored dye in their feed, without which, their flesh would be an unappetizing grey color.
Aquafarming also raises a number of environmental concerns, the most important of which may be its negative impact on wild salmon. It has now been established that sea lice from farms kill up to 95% of juvenile wild salmon that migrate past them.(Krkosek M, Lewis MA. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.)
 Farmed Salmon More Toxic Than Wild Salmon, Study Finds source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/01/040109072244.htm
So don't be a Science & Fact denier Farmed Salmon is crap for many many Scientific reasons your opinions on the safety of Farmed Fish is just that an (uninformed & uneducated) Opinion!
Aug 16, 2011 at 12:56pm
Some people sound like they either believe Industry or apologize for Industry ala Tobacco & Asbestos, it's safe, there's no conclusive proof it causes Cancer.
Yeah Yeah we heard that Song & Dance before.
Farmed Fish can not possibly be Safer than Wild fish, further all the DRUGS to keep the Farmed Salmon from dying before harvest increases resistance of various bugs.
Now we have reports of SUPER RESISTANT BUGS emerging from Farmed Salmon.
Are farm raised fish safe to eat?
The latest information from the David Suzuki Foundation, farmed salmon may be dangerous for consumers: "Salmon farmers attempting to limit disease and kill parasites that threaten fish in their pens, use extremely powerful anti-biotics combined with other drugs.
This toxic combination is dumped in open net-pens. Mostly un-regulated, this misuse of super-antibiotics-these very same drugs are used to treat human infections-is being associated with the development of drug-resistant "super-bugs".
A grave risk is being created to the wild marine eco-system, as well as to the workers at these fish farms. Plus, untold damage and unnecessary risks are being directed at consumers of farm raised salmon who very well could be affected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Enjoy that Farmed Salmon on your BBQ :)
R u serious
Aug 16, 2011 at 1:13pm
@Just thinking BS...r u a industry shill or just a fact & science denier like the global mega Corporate Welfare Companies...
aquaculture...aka..Fish Farming "might" have an impact? Seriously by being in the natural environment by definition it has an impact...Science shows a very negative impact...
Studies failed to show...? Really you just dismissed decades of peer reviewed & published Scientific studies in 2 seconds, bravo.
Over fishing obviously is a problem in fisheries in general but to suggest that Fish Farming is the answer or has little or no impact is outright DENIAL and simply NOT Fact based.
Lets see how many fish continue to come back? This is like saying lets see how many Cancer patients die before we devise a plan and/or start Research & Treatment. It is beyond RIDICULOUS.
Not willing to vilify industry, I guess that says it all because Industry would never lie, cover up and of course they put people before mega Corporate Profits, like Big Oil, Tobacco & Asbestos. Ha what a joke.
So are you part of the Fish Farming Industry, just a shill and or ignorant?
Aug 17, 2011 at 12:44pm
Pretty much exactly what I expected.
Have you taken a close look at the Fraser lately?
And you think salmon farms are bad?
I'd rather eat a salmon that I raised in a pen in the ocean than dine on one that sucked that muck through it's gills.
That's right, I'm a fish farmer, and proud to be one.
Aug 17, 2011 at 1:17pm
I'm Just Thinking your a Corporate SHILL :) hahaha
Go ahead eat the Farmed Toxic Drug Resistant Bacteria Super Bug Farmed Salmon with Lice :).
By the way there are Salmon caught in the Ocean not just Rivers and while the Fraser is polluted so are the waters, Feed & Drugs that farmed Salmon are force fed.