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Going Green: Tenuous co-existence

Inquiry into B.C. sockeye collapse tackles big questions about farms

British Columbia salmon farms are situated near wild sockeye migration paths.  - Photo courtesy of B.C. Salmon Farmers Association
By Lisa Duchene
November 05, 2011

British Columbians love their wild salmon. Eighty-five percent of B.C. residents support making wild Pacific salmon the province’s official symbol.

That they have rallied around wild Fraser River sockeye salmon and rolled up their collective sleeves to find out what’s causing the decline of sockeye stocks should come as little surprise.

When an official answer comes next year, it could mean changes at the province’s many salmon farms, which annually produce about 70,000 metric tons of farmed salmon, about 75 percent of Canada’s and 3.5 percent of global farmed salmon production.

The failure of 9 million sockeye to return to the Fraser River in 2009 captured national attention and forced the fishery to close for the third consecutive year, dramatically punctuating two decades of decline. That November, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed the Honorable Bruce Cohen, Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, to lead the federal inquiry into the sockeye’s decline. The run in 2010 was robust, before falling again this year.

The Cohen Commission, as the judicial inquiry about to enter its third year is known, is not supposed to find any individual, community or organization at fault. Instead, it’s charged with investigating the decline’s major suspected causes, which may include aquaculture, environmental changes, marine environmental conditions, predators, diseases and water temperatures.

>Its final report, due next summer, will detail the state of the sockeye stock and recommend ways to improve the fishery’s sustainability, including potential changes to Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) policies and practices that manage the fishery and regulate farming.

The commission’s work has meant a new arena in which to air controversy over salmon farming: Ten initial public hearings, millions of pages of scientific data, documents and transcribed testimony, more than 140 days of evidentiary hearings over two years, 12 technical reports — including one on salmon farming impacts known as “project 5” — and two years of headlines.

The proceedings have given sustainability-minded seafood buyers plenty to chew on, raising questions of whether aquaculture is implicated in a potential newly discovered disease in wild fish and whether DFO can properly protect wild salmon stocks as it promotes the B.C. farmed salmon industry as sustainable.

The biggest question is whether net-pen fish farming can co-exist with thriving wild salmon stocks on the British Columbia coast.

In evidentiary hearings, experts were questioned by attorneys granted official “standing” in the proceedings and representing stakeholders — the Canadian government, the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association and the Conservation Coalition, which represents several environmental NGOs, including the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform.

For two full days in early September, attorneys questioned a panel that included Clare Backman, director of environmental compliance and community relations for Marine Harvest; Mia Parker, former manager of regulatory affairs for Grieg Seafood, B.C.; Alexandra Morton, executive director of the Raincoast Research Society; and Catherine Stewart, salmon farming campaign manager for the Living Oceans Society.

The panel was asked whether it was possible for salmon to be grown in net pens in the same waters as healthy wild salmon stocks.

“No, I don’t think so. Not multiple farms, no. The impacts and the weight of evidence suggests that the impacts are already too great and the risks are extremely high,” testified Stewart. “There are over 9,000 individual salmon stocks on the coast of British Columbia. Virtually the entire coast is a migratory route for wild salmon and wild salmon are really the foundation of the coastal Pacific ecosystem.”

Morton, a biologist and wild salmon advocate, concurred: “No, there’s no place that open net pens can coexist with wild fish. The problem is that salmon farms amplify pathogens, they break the natural laws, and so they disrupt the ecosystem that they’re in.”

Several scientists had testified that it was possible for salmon to be grown in net pens in the same waters as healthy wild stocks.

“I think that the [project 5] results have shown us that currently the information that was shared, that aquaculture is co-existing with the wild fish without demonstrated significant risk of disease,” answered Marine Harvest’s Backman. “I think that the answer to your question is ‘yes.’”
There are four parts to the “project 5” technical report on salmon farming impacts, 5A, 5B, 5C, and 5D. None found a direct cause-and-effect disease link between salmon farms and declining sockeye.

Project 5D, however, cautioned that it was not possible to exonerate salmon farms. “Indeed, wild salmon populations have tended to decline wherever this form of aquaculture is practiced, although the reason for this is not always apparent,” according to the executive summary. “In one of the best-studied cases, wild Pacific salmon in the Broughton Archipelago, B.C., appear to have been negatively impacted by sea lice from fish farms.”

Project 5D analyzed production data since 1982 and found the greater the farm production the lower the survival of the sockeye, but noted the results are only data correlations and not conclusive.

“Infectious salmon anemia (ISA) has not been confirmed in B.C. fish farms,” according to 5D, “but several of the veterinary records refer to symptoms that are highly suggestive. A close watch should be kept for indications of this disease, and biosecurity rigidly enforced, since ISA could be devastating to B.C. wild salmon populations. Recently there have been reports of a possible retrovirus (the so-called “Miller virus”); its role in Fraser sockeye declines is currently uncertain.”

The so-called “Miller virus” was a source of riveting testimony by Dr. Kristina Miller, head of the molecular genetics section of the Salmon and Freshwater Ecosystems Division of DFO’s Pacific Region Science Branch. Miller’s lab appears to be on the threshold of a scientific discovery of a potential new virus that may at least partly explain the sockeye mystery.

The hearings are scheduled to wrap up this month with final, oral submissions. A final report is due June 30, 2012.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.

 November 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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