KAMLOOPS — It happened during the eclipse that more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon escaped from a U.S. fish farm in the San Juan Islands. They are now found in the coastal waters of southern British Columbia, and no, they are not just another fish happily swimming alongside native species.
Fish farming is a sore topic in our province, especially on the coast; it has been for a long time. As with most controversial topics, opinions vary, and though science is available to back up findings, it is often pushed out of sight because of conflicting interests.
A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatics revealed something that should have us all worried. Fisheries and Oceans Canada cannot verify the status, whether healthy or threatened, of more than half of the province’s wild salmon populations.
This is worrying because it comes at a time when the wild salmon are facing serious threats: warm waters due to climate change, which allows for different predators and a shifting in the type of zooplankton they feed on, two types of deadly viruses that are found in farmed Atlantic salmon along the coast, as well as lots of sea lice. That’s on top of a whole lot of waste and antibiotic residue, which trickle into the coastal waters on a regular basis. In the interior, they are facing warm rivers and depleted watersheds. That ought to affect the native salmon. It does.
Alexandra Morton is a biologist and tireless activist who has been fighting hard for the last 40 years to document the state of fish farms along the BC coast, and relate to the public and press the effects these farms had on the wild salmon populations. These effects are many, and they are affecting more than just wild salmon, due to their interconnectedness to other marine and coastal wildlife, and the local Indigenous populations whose lives have been deeply intertwined with the iconic fish for thousands of years.
Before the loosened nets let out the hundreds of thousands of U.S.-farmed Atlantic salmon, Ms. Morton was already making public shocking footage of salmon farmed off the northern coast of BC, near Broughton Island. If you close your eyes for a second and picture the image of healthy salmon, what the video revealed was the farthest from that. The salmon were emaciated, many swimming around with hideous deformities, including tumours, open sores; they were covered in sea lice, all submersed not in beautiful pristine ocean waters, but murky and feces-laden, all resembling a swamp. Which not all could see, as some were blind.
That is food. Let that sink in for a few moments (no pun intended.) That is what grocery stores offer in their seafood department, and what people buy to cook for their families. Because eating fish is a better alternative to other types of meat, right?
Escapee farmed fish were found to spawn in the waters of BC rivers even back in 2000 (they have yet to label as ‘invasive’.) That’s one type of threat. As of recently, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Captain Paul Watson have joined Ms. Morton and the First Nations in the area, to help in their fight against the big aquaculture corporations, expose the truth and call for better governmental standards that will better protect the wild salmon and the unique ecosystem along the beautiful BC coast.
Not long ago, another insult became evident: some of the empty nets (or so deemed by the farm employees) held captive wild fish, such as wild salmon and herring. Lured inside the nets by the presence of organic matter, they stay trapped there until the nets are cleaned. Past that point, they are either dumped as useless catch or used as food for farmed salmon. Neither of these is good.
There are many wrong things about the way these farms operate. Yes, they offer employment to people in the coastal communities, and yes, they bring fish to the market, but the price is too high for what the fish is worth. Like in many other situations where natural resources are poorly managed, there is nothing but destruction in the future that these communities will face, once the respective corporations leave the area, but even now, while they are still there doing business.
The way I see it, if one is to profit from the resources that exist in a community, a corporation is morally (if not legally) obligated to do it in a way that proves respectful to people and the environment.
When it comes to wild salmon, we are walking on very thin ice at the moment. Many of the wild fisheries along the coast are once again at their lowest and have been closed for the second year in a row. Climate change is an ongoing threat and if the farms are allowed to operate the same way they have so far, it will not be long until we will see wild salmon on the endangered species list.
Again, some of it (a lot, to be honest) lies with the consumer. That’s us. We make choices with what we buy, and what we buy further shapes the offer. With no human interference, wild salmon would thrive to reach numbers that would ensure there is enough food for all that exist in the circle of life, long sustained by the humble yet powerful fish.
What can we do? For starters, boycott products that impact precious natural resources and the environment, and support those who are willing to go and fight for saving the wild salmon so much depends on. And speak up about it, whenever you can, all the way to when casting a vote for the next set of leaders.