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Monday, October 7, 2019

Starving Grizzlies: Death of an Ecosystem and an Economy




One need only look at what's happening today in Knight Inlet to see what open netpen salmon farming is doing to both the environment and the economy.


The Glendale River in Knight Inlet used to have a massive run of pink salmon. It supported gillnet and seine fisheries and still returned a million fish to the spawning grounds. Today, no-one can find fish in the river. The grizzlies are starving and the eagles are absent. The nutrient cycle has been broken and if anyone were to study it closely, they'd be finding decreased health and abundance in most species from the forest floor to the trees themselves. This is what the death of an ecosystem looks like. Along with it, the commercial fisheries are gone; the lodges and the wildlife viewing industry are suffering. Without fish, eagles and bears, none of them will prosper and our coastal economies perish.

The worst of it is that this was predicted over a decade ago. Independent researchers modelling the impact of farm-generated salmon lice on the Broughton Archipelago’s juvenile pink salmon in 2007 forecast the extinction of local runs within four generations. It took six generations.

It's now clear, beyond any reasoned argument, that open netpen farming is killing both wild salmon and herring. With the development of drug resistance in the sea lice, farms have been unable to control lice abundance in some regions for five consecutive years. The new mechanical delousers are a great innovation, but there aren't enough of them to be able to respond quickly enough to lice outbreaks to prevent negative impacts to wild salmonids, particularly during those critical weeks when juveniles emerge from rivers so small that even one or two lice can kill them.

There's nothing that protects the herring; they're being devoured by farmed salmon in the netpens as well as heavily infested with caligus lice. Caligus are related to salmon lice but they’re generalists and don’t mind having a meal on species other than the farmed salmon on which they breed. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) doesn’t require farms to manage caligus lice.

Then there's the evidence of viral infection. It has been established by independent research in a number of countries that piscine reovirus (PRV), in particular, causes disease in coho salmon that can be fatal. DFO is a partner in the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative that has established that PRV causes the red blood cells of Chinook salmon to explode, resulting in jaundice that can lead to death. This year, there are reports of thousands of fish dying in-river, with jaundiced colouring. This is just one of the viruses that has been identified in farmed salmon and has been present in most farmed stock for several years.

Regardless what arguments are made about the origins of these viruses, there is no question that salmon farming massively amplifies the viral load in a region and provides the ideal conditions for viruses to mutate and become more virulent.  This has happened in Norwegian salmon farms and is well-documented in the scientific literature.  It's just what viruses do to survive.

DFO's aquaculture science has confirmed that PRV is persistent in the ocean. They've done experiments, putting uninfected Atlantic salmon in the water and found they test positive for PRV within 100-200 days. I'd provide a link, except that, as is the case with so much of their science, it is unpublished.  However, taking their conclusions at face value, there is no reason to expect that wild fish in the water are not also exposed to the virus.

I’ve been asked several times by the media to respond to various salmon farming lobbyists who have decried the 2019 federal election platforms promising to deal with salmon farming by transitioning it to closed, contained systems. The pro-netpen groups have called the policies announced by the Liberal, Green and New Democratic parties reckless, irresponsible, job-killing and—wait for it—not based in science.

Faced with shocking declines in wild salmon populations, 19 consecutive years of field observations of lethal lice infestation levels on wild salmonids and emerging evidence of viral loading in the environment, we can hardly call a policy that seeks to isolate the farms from the wild stock "reckless and irresponsible".  DFO is legally obliged to act in a precautionary manner to protect wild salmon and fisheries. I would argue that we're long past "precaution" and into emergency response mode.

As to jobs: a land-based closed containment industry for B.C. has been extensively studied. A 50,000MT development would create 4000 two-year jobs during the construction phase and over 2700 permanent jobs. At 50,000MT, it would produce a little over half of BC's current netpen production. Building it out to 100,000MT would equal or exceed the employment from the current netpen industry and the jobs created would include more better-paid positions than the present industry.

But that's only one side of the equation. If wild salmon stocks can be rebuilt after the removal of netpens, transition to a closed containment industry will also bring back thousands of jobs in sport and commercial fishing, tourism and related industries that have been bleeding from coastal communities since the salmon farming industry arrived.

So, no; the policy platforms announced by the Liberal, Green and New Democratic parties are not 'reckless', 'irresponsible' or 'unscientific'. 

Living Oceans is very pleased to see federal leaders committing to transitioning the salmon farming industry to closed containment by 2025. The Conservative Party has now joined in, promising to support technology and practices that aim to keep wild and farmed salmon separated.  We look forward to working with the next government to ensure they follow through on their commitment by requiring salmon farms to be fully contained.