Closing the net on salmon feedlots

by Alexandra Morton, January 2011

An update from the frontlines in the battle to protect wild salmon.

A paper on sea lice released in December suggests that salmon farms or feedlots don’t have to be removed from wild salmon migration routes. This is very favourable to the Norwegian feedlot owners and indeed these are the only scientists who have been given salmon feedlot sea lice infection data. Gary Marty, first author on the paper, uses the affiliation of the University of Davis California, which suggests impartiality. However, he is a veterinarian for the provincial government and works closely with salmon farmers. 

While the paper admits the majority of lice on young BC salmon are from salmon feedlots, it suggests this does not kill them and may even be good for them as a source of food. The authors state they won the trust of the Norwegian feedlot companies and present conclusions that run counter to science published across the North Hemisphere. They don’t report on why their results are such distant outliers to the scientific weight of evidence that wild salmon populations go into steep decline wherever there are salmon feedlots. They suggest something else must be killing young wild salmon near salmon feedlots—but they don’t say what that could be.

The Norwegian salmon feedlot industry is under siege by nature herself. In Chile, the industry is moving further south trying to escape the virus they brought from Norway (ISA), but their virus is following them. There is now pressure on them to stop selling ISA virus-infected meat to the public. 

In Norway, Pancreas Disease (PD) infection is running very high in farm salmon. When they treat for sea lice it stresses the fish and PD starts killing the feedlot fish. The people fighting for wild salmon and sea trout are angry about the lice and the Minister of Environment in Norway is calling for the industry to move into closed tanks. The situation is so bad the largest shareholder (John Fredriksen) of the largest fish farm company, Marine Harvest, sold off so many shares that Marine Harvest stopped all sales of shares for 180 days.

In eastern Canada, the RCMP searched a fish farm company office in their investigation on where an illegal delousing drug came from that killed a large number of lobsters. Drug-resistant sea lice are a very large problem and government is approving more drugs.

Here in BC, the industry is being handed back to the federal government after an illegal transfer to the province 20 years ago. This is as a result of a legal challenge that I made to BC, Canada and Marine Harvest. As provincial “farms,” no one had to look outside the pens at the waste and effect on wild fish. Unfortunately, the feds have decided they will issue salmon feedlot licenses without environmental reviews. They will tailor each license to permit for different disease reporting, different lice levels, and allow them to kill the wild fish that get in the pens, as well as marine mammals. This is not in the spirit of the legal decision.

Last fall, 100 people joined me paddling down the lower Fraser River for a week in 10 loaned voyager canoes and when we landed in Vancouver there were so many people the police gave us one lane of the Burrard Street Bridge. We went to the opening of the Cohen Inquiry to support Justice Cohen in what will be a very difficult task and to tell him that we feel it is essential that the salmon feedlots release their disease records for analysis. 

A few weeks ago, Justice Cohen ordered full disease reporting from 120 feedlots for 10 years. This is unprecedented in the history of salmon farming in BC and I applaud him for this. The Cohen Inquiry is investigating the 18-year decline of some Fraser sockeye and the majority of public comments on their website (http://Cohencommission.ca) have been in regards to salmon feedlots.

I just spent two days among the non-government scientists who study Fraser sockeye to see if we could pinpoint why we had, back-to-back, the greatest collapse and the greatest return in 100 years. There was nothing that jumped out as an obvious cause, but ocean conditions were poor in 2007 and excellent in 2008 when these two runs were going to sea as smolts. The non-Fraser sockeye runs that entered the ocean in those years did not boom and bust, so it would seem the Fraser sockeye are facing a unique challenge and that ocean conditions assist or aggravate whatever the problem is.

Of concern is that scientists are not talking about the evidence that DFO has found a novel virus that appears to be compromising specifically the Fraser sockeye that travel north out of the Fraser through fish feedlot effluent. The technique examines the RNA of the sockeye and this has never been done before in fish. However, the methods are sound and suggest a retro virus is infecting the majority of Fraser sockeye that travel along the east coast of Vancouver Island. It is not being found in the sockeye that come in from the open ocean via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In a briefing leaked by the Globe and Mail, it would appear DFO believes this is one of the three most likely causes of the 2009 collapse—and yet no one is mentioning it.

Salmon feedlots are a bad idea that is failing worldwide. We know we cannot allow wild animals to share disease with feedlot animals because once pathogens get inside feedlots there is nothing but drugs to stop them. Drugs are an escalating warfare against pathogens that we humans lose every time. Research that I am involved in is finding that natural bacteria around salmon feedlots are becoming resistant to antibiotics for almost 100 km out from the pens. This suggests salmon feedlots are not only breeding and releasing disease, they are training wild bacteria to resist the drugs we use to cure ourselves. Not smart.

The answer remains simple and inescapable. If you are going to create an unnatural environment for animals, take them completely out of the natural environment. Feedlot owners are not going to do this on their own because it is cheap and easy to just let the fish manure fall to the sea floor. It is up to us if we want this to stop. If enough people say “no more,” government will have to listen.

We are very, very close to resolving this situation. This is not like logging or many other environmental challenges. Salmon feedlots are a Norwegian industry, fouling our waters to benefit people on the other side of the world. And most salmon feedlots are operating on expired tenures which even the provincial government won’t renew. Recently, a group of First Nations won the right to launch a class-action lawsuit over damage to wild salmon stocks from sea-lice allegedly caused by salmon farms on the Broughton Archipelago off the BC coast (despite opposition from both the provincial and federal governments).

It is time to deal with this issue once and for all. Get it out of the ocean. Stop farming a fish that needs wild fish from the South Pacific to eat, and make some intelligent moves with our fisheries and aquaculture. People should be growing algae and using that as a food source for fish that are not carnivores.

Alexandra Morton is a professional biologist who was living in a remote archipelago studying whales when the fish farmers came to her town. She blogs at http://alexandramorton.typepad.com. Also see www.SalmonAreSacred.org.