BC's expensive salmon farms

By Briony Penn, March 2015

The federal government seems intent on propping up corporate fish farming despite the high costs.

On the afternoon of February 10, a whale watching boat docked at Port McNeill, packed to the limit with 48 Malcolm Islanders from the small village of Sointula. 

They weren’t whale watchers; well, not the usual type. These were shrimp fishermen, fishing lodge operators, First Nations people, residents, members of local organizations, and biologist Alex Morton, who were coming to an open house of Grieg Seafood, the company that is proposing an expansion of two salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago that would set a precedent of replacing shellfish tenures with finfish. The reason the islanders were delivered by a whale watching boat was because their ferry doesn’t run passengers on Tuesday afternoons; the meeting was scheduled at the time when it only carries dangerous cargo. 

Some might argue that the residents were the dangerous cargo. According to Gord Curry of Living Oceans Society, the islanders, determined to have their voices heard, found their own transportation to Port McNeill and delivered their message loud and clear: No more open net salmon farms; closed containment systems are the answer. Locals pointed to the Namgis First Nation down the road that has set up the first land-based closed containment systems in the region and has been delivering farmed salmon for nearly a year with no risk to wild salmon. The open house was intended to be a little tête-à-tête with industry reps, but it quickly changed into a town hall meeting where people voiced their concerns collectively.

The same calls of alarm that were raised at that meeting are echoing around the coast as the industry is poised to expand open-net salmon farming four-fold. With the recommendations of the $26 million  Cohen Commission (tasked to find answers to the disappearing Fraser sockeye in 2012) still mostly unimplemented, the increasing volatility of viruses and other pathogens, the declining efficacy of sea lice drugs, the slashing of federal regulations to allow indiscriminate use of new chemicals to fight the lice and the continued muzzling of government scientists, there are reasons to be concerned. On the lower mainland, Stolo First Nation activist Eddy Gardner is gathering steam encouraging groups to boycott Costco, Walmart and other stores with his online Farmed Salmon Boycott kit with easy instructions for anyone to get started to stage your own boycott. The Change.org petition to ban salmon feedlots is at 106,000 and rising.

Back in Port McNeill, Curry pointed out the obvious to officials, given that one of the strongest recommendations of the Cohen Commission was to put a moratorium on salmon farm expansion in the Discovery Islands—south of the Broughton—to assist the Fraser sockeye migration: “It isn’t a stretch of logic that what’s good for Fraser salmon is good for Knight Inlet salmon.” And that is what’s at stake with the Grieg applications: a safe migratory route for the Knight Inlet salmon, as well as the loss of productive shrimping grounds. Fishermen of Sointula who rely on that productivity stand to lose their livelihoods with no compensation. 

Meanwhile, over on the west side of Vancouver Island, Clayoquot Sound fish farm watchers, like Clayoquot Action’s Bonny Glambeck, continue to tussle with the planned expansion of two new Atlantic salmon feedlots in Millar Channel and Herbert Inlet. There are currently 21 fish farm sites in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and Cermaq, a big player in the Sound, wants to add another farm to Millar Channel, which already suffered major die-offs from infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus (IHNV) in 2012, and from an algal bloom in 2014. 

Herbert Inlet is at the gateway to the Moyeha River, one of the last intact watersheds on Vancouver Island, through which spawning fish enter and smolts leave. According to Glambeck, the issue is simple: “Salmon populations are crashing in these otherwise pristine watersheds—coincidentally where all the fish farms are. So why wouldn’t we be implementing everything we learned from the Cohen Commission before we start expanding this industry? The recommendation of Cohen was not to have farms on migration routes and Herbert Inlet, for one, is on a migration route.” One of Cohen’s recommendations was for DFO to review and change the siting criteria and analyze all current licenses to meet the new criteria. According to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), it is now poised to release its new licencing regulations and will be open for business. DFO will now be evaluating new marine finfish aquaculture applications (other than the Discovery Islands area and the north coast where the provincial 2008 moratorium is in place) “through the lens of environmental sustainability and engagement with First Nations and other stakeholders.”

The industry stakeholders’ lens is consistent with how salmon farms have been viewed since they first appeared on the coast in the ’70s, when they were “mom and pop” operations and the rationale of feeding the world with farmed salmon seemed viable. As Grieg writes in a letter this February to the Campbell River Mirror “wild stocks cannot keep up with growing global demand… and farming fish, like we farm other food, is the only way to meet this urgent need.” 

There is, however, much more than altruism behind the drive for expansion. The industry’s European farms have been hit by escalating problems due to disease, sea lice and storm-caused escapees. Last autumn, the Norwegian government sold out its shares in Cermaq (a dominant player in BC’s industry) to Mitsubishi, ostensibly to privatize the state asset. But that move might also have reflected a desire by Norway’s government to shed a troubled and troublesome industry—getting out before the storm, so to speak. On January 10 this year, a hurricane force wind hit the Norwegian coast and caused the escape of over 60,000 farmed Pacific coast steelhead. Norwegians were outraged, not only because the fish were found to be suffering from what industry calls PD (or pancreas disease that has plagued Norwegian and Irish farms), but they, like British Columbians, fear these introduced species are putting their native wild salmon stocks at further risk. There are less than a half million wild Atlantic salmon left in Norway. Meanwhile, farmed Atlantic salmon are threatening Pacific species. The irony, however, might be lost only on Canada’s federal minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea.

In an effort to expand the social licence for fish farming, DFO set up the Aquaculture Management Advisory Committee (AMAC). Craig Orr, long-time advocate with Watershed Watch, was invited to serve on the committee but quickly dropped out, claiming it was “a sham.” He stated, “We came to an early meeting but disagreed with their terms of reference. In particular, that there wasn’t a broad enough science input into AMAC. DFO said that their own scientists would be the only representation. The Cohen Commission specifically identified that DFO’s science mandate was too narrow and conflicted in terms of them wanting to expand the industry and that is exactly what they are doing now. We cannot sit at a committee that ignores the Cohen recommendations and dismisses our research with academics. In the meantime they are expanding farms and they don’t have their advisory committee together.” 

DFO refutes these allegations. It claims the federal government respects the 2008 moratorium in the north and that it takes a “science-based approach to the management of aquaculture in British Columbia, including consideration of both DFO and non-DFO research.” DFO also states it has “not dismissed any of the Cohen recommendations, particularly those related to the consideration of peer-reviewed research.” It evaluates the research through the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, which it claims includes “non-DFO science.” 

One can understand the frustration of people like Orr and Glambeck. Glambeck also turned down a seat on the advisory committee which hosts seven industry reps, two industry associations, two local government reps, seven First Nations and, ostensibly, three environmental non-governmental organizations’ (ENGOs) representatives. No ENGOs have accepted the invitation. Why? The advisory committee is tightly controlled, as are the questions that come before it for review.

One of the independent scientists whose questions and research have been rejected by the Science Advisory Secretariat is Morton, who has published extensively in highly-regarded peer-reviewed journals like Science and posts monthly updates on her work with viruses and sea lice. She has been continuously testing for one of the most dangerous viruses, Infectious Salmon Anemia, a strain of which hit Chilean fish farms with devastating results in 2007-2009. The Cohen Commission revealed evidence of strains of ISA in farms from Clayoquot Sound (reported by a DFO lab). As Morton attests, “We have learned from the Cohen Commission that several government labs have produced positive tests for the ISA virus in BC. We haven’t heard from those labs again. They are silent but we have the exhibits [from the Cohen Commission]. Last fall the Canada Food Inspection Agency made a big announcement that they couldn’t find ISA virus on the coast. I’ve asked them to detail their methods but they won’t provide them. I continue to do work with the eastern lab [that tested positive results for ISA in supermarket-bought fish] and I hope to publish the results. The thing about viruses is that they won’t remain silent. The ISA virus pattern is that it gets to a new place, kicks around harmlessly for 8 to 10 years and then—boom—there is a mutation that takes off. Chile couldn’t believe how quickly their ISA virus variant HPR7b spread.”

In order to bring attention to the severity of the problem, Morton launched a new lawsuit with Ecojustice last December based on a 2007 confidential memo in which the provincial vet in charge of farmed salmon told the minister that BC is at low risk from ISA because BC doesn’t import live salmon eggs. He wrote that memo at the time when his colleagues in DFO were filing reports on the importation of 28 million live Atlantic salmon eggs into BC. As Morton recounts, “I asked the College of Veterinarians to investigate twice and they refused, so I went to Ecojustice. The reason I have done it is because vets and biologists are under so much pressure from these companies. That is why you need colleges that will come down strongly if members do things like this—then vets can simply say: ‘I have to adhere to these standards.’ It isn’t punishment then, it is back-up. This is Canada—it’s a tough place to be a scientist right now.”

Morton’s early research focused on the sea lice issue. As she notes “The salmon fish farm industry is in a drug war with sea lice that they are losing around the world. There is a myth in BC that says sea lice are not a problem here, but it is not true. They are currently using drugs to suppress them. The sea lice are still there but at lower levels, because for the moment the drugs are working and that has saved wild stocks of salmon, specifically the mainland Area 12 pinks where I live. But a life on drugs never works. Companies are certainly looking for new drugs. There’s a guy going to jail for supplying illegal drugs to the fish farm industry on the east coast that killed a vast number of lobster. The prawn and shrimp fishermen are not happy because the drug SLICE does impact anything trying to make a shell [like lice].” Currently the government is giving the industry permits to use hydrogen peroxide baths for farmed salmon, but these are released directly into wild salmon habitat.

Grieg Seafood’s 2013 annual report outlines its efforts, both chemical and biological, to control lice. The report indicates a rising trend in the use of oral medicine and hydrogen peroxide. There is also an increased use of antibiotics for infections like mouth rot in BC. Reading these documents as a shareholder, one wouldn’t have confidence that chemical solutions are either long term or profitable. Such concerns haven’t stopped the federal government from gutting Section 36 of the federal Fisheries Act, which stopped companies from “putting deleterious chemicals into the ocean frequented by fish.”

In response to diseased fish invading Norwegian sportfishing waters and apparently intractable sea lice drug problems, the Norwegian parliament is tightening up their regulations related to water. Unfortunately, that sends Norwegian companies to the wild frontier of BC where licenses and rents are virtually free, regulatory oversight is minimal, government compensation is provided in case of die-offs from disease, and the Canadian government is accommodating industry expansion.

 

According to Glambeck, the federal government seems to be more than happy to subsidize this beleaguered industry. “We are treating the fish farm industry like Alberta is treating the companies in the tar sands, by giving the resources away, or polluting our oceans for nothing.” 

In Norway, salmon farm licenses cost $1.69 million dollars each. With 1400 of them, substantial revenues are generated. Compare that to DFO’s proposed flat fee of $100 per license which will come into effect in 2015 for 115 federally-listed aquaculture licences. 

BC takes $2.50 per tonne of produced farmed fish. With 787,000 tonnes produced annually, that means about $2 million is coming in—not much considering it costs $6.3 million to run the BC Aquaculture Regulatory Program, $54 million to run the Sustainable Aquaculture Program, and $6.5 million is spent on regulatory research. The Province, under the new federal/provincial harmonized Aquaculture Application, now just handles the renting of Crown seabed under a farm, a role which the Stolo’s Eddy Gardner refers to as the “slum landlord of the coast.” He has a point: Industry rents farms at a little over $700 per hectare per year. With a total of 4575 hectares, that brings BC another $3.3 million in annual rent. 

The BC Salmon Farmer’s Association argues that their industry “provides 6000 direct and indirect jobs while contributing over $800 million annually to the provincial economy.” It is hard to know where those numbers come from. In their recent Fisheries and Aquaculture Sector report, BC Statistics counts only 1700 people as employees of either finfish or shellfish farms (at least 20 percent are in shellfish). The report notes both forms of aquaculture contribute a total of $61.9 million to the GDP (from $496 million in direct sales of farmed fish and shellfish). 

According to the government report, the multiplier for the aquaculture sector is 7.83 jobs per $1 million of direct sales of salmon sold, which at $496 million means there are, at most, an additional 3883 jobs. But the numbers seem high. The award-winning environmental reporter D.C. Reid, in his Fish Farm News and Science, claims he could only find 795 actual employees of all fish farms in BC. 

Regardless of which set of data one uses, aquaculture doesn’t come close to the economic benefits of even sport fishing. This sector contributes $325.7 million to GDP, $936 million in gross revenue with 8400 direct jobs, according to BC Stats. The government uses an 11.36 multiplier effect in the sports fishing sector, for 10,633 additional jobs. This is an industry that is detrimentally impacted by fish farming. If you add the data for the commercial capture fishery, which still generates $102 million to the GDP and 1200 direct jobs, plus the subsistence fishery for First Nations, aquaculture—which threatens all three—is blown out of the water in terms of jobs generation. 

One figure the BC Salmon Farmer’s Association doesn’t like to talk about is the number of taxpayer dollars its members get from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for their diseased fish. Last year, after weathering an injunction against releasing compensation figures, D.C. Reid reported payments of $2.64 million to Cermaq Mainstream for 959,498 diseased salmon at its IHN-infected Clayoquot Sound farms and $201,000 for infected equipment and supplies. Grieg Seafood’s open-net operation in Sechelt received $1.61 million for 312,032 IHN-diseased fish and $152,000 for infected equipment and supplies. Adding BC figures to those in Atlantic Canada, Reid said, “Here’s the bottom line: In little more than a year, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency paid fish farms almost $50 million taxpayer dollars for diseased slaughtered fish across Canada.”

There are other administrative and legal costs associated with fish farms. When you do the back-of-the-envelope addition of basic costs to Treasury—running departments, holding inquiries, and compensation for diseased fish, the costs easily outstrip the benefits.

Compare this to sport fishing and the economic justification for endangering wild salmon is even more baffling. Why is the federal government catering to three foreign companies who employ few people, bring relatively few dollars into the economy, and cause high administrative and legal costs—let alone the incalculable ecological damage of devastated wild stocks that create far more jobs and economic benefit? 

If Canadians are not benefitting, who is? The shareholders of Marine Harvest, who are mostly European and American banks. 

So is there any good news on the horizon? When Marine Harvest failed to honour their agreement with ENGOs to do a full-fledged land-based closed-containment pilot project, the Namgis First Nation set up their own and the first harvest took place last April. (See Focus, July, 2014). Other First Nations are exploring Namgis’ lead. 

Meanwhile, Watershed Watch is giving advice to other First Nations who are working with their lawyers to get area-based management plans that scientifically evaluate impacts of extending aquaculture in their territory. As Orr says: “The juggling of balls goes on.” 

Back in Sointula, Morton is “heartened to see more and more scientists ending up speaking out. It wasn’t our original role, but if you are the person who is on the ground with your hands on these fish and see the effects that the viruses and sea lice have on them, if you don’t stand up then who will?”

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows and has been a columnist in Victoria publications since 1993. She has just completed a biography of Ian McTaggart Cowan.