Some­thing Fishy Along the Wash­ing­ton-bri­tish Columbia Coast

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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.

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