Something Fishy Along the Washington-british Columbia Coast
The discovery of sickly and malformed farm salmon in legal fish farms along the British Columbia coast was bad enough. Learning exactly how easily those diseased fish might end up merging with healthy wild salmon made the implications even more horrifying.
Late last month Laichwiltach Nation hereditary Chief George Quocksister Jr. and Hereditary Chief Ernest Alfred, Lawit’sis and Mamalilikala Nations released a video of some farmed Atlantic salmon, allegedly shot in legal salmon farms operated by Marine Harvest on Swanson Island, British Columbia. That location is about 17 kilometers from Alert Bay.
The video showed farm salmon much thinner than normal, with sores, blisters, gill swelling and signs of sea lice damage. Some of the fish were blind. The footage also showed the fish swimming through holding pens filled with the feces of the net-trapped fish.
The feces spread a variety of diseases. Alexandra Morton, a marine biologist and critic of British Columbia fish farming, pointed out the disgusting reality of holding the feces and the diseased fish together. “They are marinating in it,” she said, “and that is an incredible way to spread disease.” The diseases also can rapidly spread within the colony, evolve there, and become a strong culture of their own. So much so that if the diseased fish were to make it out they might easily infect other fish without natural immunities to a number of the diseases, and quickly destroy native wild populations.
The video was taken in legally-authorized farming areas known as net pens. The nets constrain the movement of the fish, a necessity for the farming operations. For the farms, that constraint in movement is safe and the waters the fish live in are safe and as clean as required. For the First Nations who shot the footage, the nets create a harmful environment damaging the salmon.
That potentially harmful environment is a tragic way to treat a fish the First Nations representatives see as a kindred spirit that is part of their world, one they say they treat with far more care. The environment also can be creating fish which, if they escape, could create even more havoc for the wild fish. Bringing the groups together could sicken the healthy wild fish stock, and interbreeding of the fish could also harm what the First Nations – and many marine biologists – see as naturally stronger, healthier wild varieties of the salmon.
The First Nation response to the discoveries of the diseased fish was quick and immediate. Claiming their Constitutionally-protected Aboriginal rights to wild salmon, they quickly moved in to occupy the lands nearby and stage a protest in the region. These included legally-filed protests at multiple sites, including along Burdwood Island and closer to the actual farms themselves. They also demanded that Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic Leblanc immediate bring a stop to all the fish farms in the region.
As the vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Chief Bob Chamberlin, said in a public comment about the situation, “Dominic Leblanc should shut these fish farms down, period. They cannot assure myself, as a leader, that they are not having more than an inconsequential harm to my section 35 rights to a protected fishery.”
Representing the other side of the debate, Jeremy Dunn, the executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, is hoping for some more discussions and less demands. He said the reality is that, “The overall health of farm-raised salmon is very high. Over 90 per cent of salmon that enter the sea make it through to harvest.” He called the images included in the First
Nations videos “cherry-picked” and distorting the truth.
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans backed up Dunn’s comments, saying the local fish farm industry is carefully tracked and held in compliance with all federal regulations. In a statement he released connected with the protest, Vance Chow, a spokesperson for the organization, said that, “From 2011 to 2014, finfish aquaculture farm compliance management plans was 97.8 percent. DFO audits showed high agreement with industry data.”
Based on all accounts, these pens were at least secure and had not breached – yet. That was not the case in first a small – then a much larger – accidentally release of farmed salmon into the wild off the coast of Washington state.
The site in that case is located near Cypress Island along the northern Washington Coast. It is owned by Cooke Aquaculture.
That site was a massive 30-year old farm containing some 300,000 salmon. All have agreed on only one factor related to it, which was that it was overdue for upgrades to more modern farming standards for such fish. It was even markedly different in construction from what the same company uses in some of its eastern Canadian farming locations.
Back in July, individuals responsible for managing that company’s salmon farming site had discovered some of their farmed fish out moving freely among the waters. At that time, they worked to strengthen the pens to prevent any further breaches. That held for a while.
On August 19, all that changed. The net pens suffered significant damage after breaking off from their anchors on Saturday afternoon.
The causes for the breakage are still not agreed on by all parties. Some claimed it was related to strong tidal forces linked to the upcoming solar eclipse. Some said the large mass of fish in the pens, measured out at greater than 1.3 million kilograms and containing over 300,000 Atlantic salmon, was also a factor.
That Cooke Aquaculture’s net pens themselves and the volume of fish they were farming may have been at fault seems in part corroborated by a comment made by Greg Dusek, senior scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tides and currents program. In a public statement made in connection with the breach, Dusek said that, “The predicted tides and currents were fairly high and fast on the 21st [of August] due to the new moon and [other factors], but definitely not unusual.” NOAA went on to point out that while surface currents near the breach area were running at three meters per second on August 19 – and that that was a “very fast current” – such currents were no stronger than similar ones measured in multiple days in June and July.
If the nets had been constructed and maintained properly, it seems fair to assume they should have withstood the strong currents immediately preceding the breach. As John Volpe, a University of Victoria ecologist who has studied the situation said about Cooke Aquaculture’s installation, “If all it takes is a new moon to rip it apart… perhaps having net pens of this type in the water is not a good idea.”
In the end, the company concluded that as many as 5,000 of their firm's fish may have escaped the nets. Others who have studied the situation say the real numbers could be much higher.
With those kinds of losses, the potential for what many describe as a ‘highly-invasive’ species of farmed fish stock could cause irreparable damage to the wild salmon traveling in the same waters.
The combination of potential accidental farmed fish releases – and of the diseased and damaged kinds present in the ones in British Columbia – that marine biologists, anti-fish farming advocates, and First Nations representatives are all saying something serious must be done about net farming quickly.
Though the data may be accurate about the net pens being mostly secure in most locations, the concerns of those occupying the area are that, even if the numbers of diseased fish are small and the particular situation rare, the numbers involved may be more than enough to wipe out the wild salmon. That, according to Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Hereditary Chief Willie Moon, who was part of the B.C. regional protests and also acts as chief councilor for the community, could lead to devastating consequences that go well beyond the salmon themselves.
In a call to action, he said that, in a message released associated with the protests, “We need to come together, all of us, not just First Nations, but everybody — the grizzly bear tour groups, the tour groups that do the whale watching — we all need to come together because one day soon, we are going to be out of work. When you look at the salmon, they feed the grizzly bear, the whales feed off them, when they are gone, what happens?”
It is a question that can never be allowed to become reality, anywhere net farming is going on.