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by Alexandra Morton

“Imagine feedlots that never shovel their manure, just drop it through nets, tons per day, and imagine governments licensing this to occur in some of the world’s most precious wild fisheries. That’s fish farms.” – Alexandra Morton Alexandra Morton photo

Farming salmon in net pens in the ocean is an old, outdated dirty technology that has negative impacts on wild fisheries worldwide (Ford and Myers 2008). It makes less food, starving one ocean to pollute another, paves the way for industrial mega-projects and produces a product that raises red flags for doctors.

Imagine feedlots that never shovel their manure, just drop it through nets, tons per day, and imagine governments licensing this to occur in some of the world’s most precious wild fisheries. That’s fish farms. Whether it is the Fraser sockeye in British Columbia or lobsters in eastern Canada, salmon farms are increasingly recognized as harmful to wild fisheries. As a biologist who was living quietly in a remote archipelago in British Columbia I witnessed the industry moving in, builfing a facility on the best prawn, salmon and rock cod fishing grounds and it has never paid the bill for how it changed this part of the world.

Farming salmon in Canada runs amuck of the Constitution of Canada. In 1984, Canada sought an opinion on the legalities of a private fishery in Canadian marine waters. Canada was told the Constitution of Canada would have to be altered to accommodate this industry, because no one is allowed to own a fish in Canada’s marine waters. In 1988, Canada sidestepped this sticky issue by giving regulation of salmon farms to the Provinces. There they became farms. Fisheries and Ocean Canada issued non-binding letters of advice weakly suggesting the industry has no impact. The provinces, which have no responsibility for wild fish, took those letters and placed salmon farms in the narrow passages where over 1/3 of BC wild salmon swim. This guaranteed conflict.

In 2009, I gave the industry back to the federal government in Morton vs. Canada. Justice Hinkson ruled it is the same ocean inside and outside the pens. Therefore, by default it is unclear who owns farmed salmon. Today, the 98% Norwegian-owned British Columbia salmon farming industry is lobbying the federal government for an aquaculture act. I suspect ownership of the fish in their pens is front and center on their to do list. If Canada takes this step, maritime law back to the Magna Carta will be eroded in allowing private interests to own the fish in the sea.

Salmon farms break the natural laws that have kept disease under control. In the natural world, predators remove sick fish as soon as they exhibit symptoms and begin shedding disease. But in fish farms viruses, bacteria and sea lice find a whole new world order tipped in their favor – huge schools of genetically similar, crowded, stationary and stressed fish, with no clean up crew and everybody dies in 18-24 months. Pathogens spread easily, mutations are established and dying fish shed infectious agents until they drop to the bottom and are removed. No matter what happens everybody dies in 18-24 months so pathogens adopt a new strategy hit the fish hard and fast. Science shows pathogens become more virulent in salmon farms (Pulkkinen 2010). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19864284

ISA virus, for example, was a benign virus found in most Atlantic salmon in Norway. When Atlantic salmon were pulled into captivity, the virus changed, it shortened its RNA sequence and these deleted strains became highly virulent to Atlantic salmon. A similar event occurred in British Columbia with the somewhat mysterious salmon leukemia, named by government scientists who reported it was killing fish in most salmon farms in the 1990s and could spread to sockeye. The virus must have come originally from the wild, but they called it a disease of confinement (Stephen et al 1996). It was not a problem until it was confined.

In 2011 a federal scientist testified, at the Cohen Commission investigating the collapse of the Fraser sockeye, that the immune systems of the millions of sockeye that are dying just before spawning are fighting a virus with linkages to cancer, leukemia, and tumors. The only disease this suggests is salmon leukemia. No government action has occurred on this to this day. http://alexandramorton.typepad.com/alexandra_morton/2011/10/my-report-to-cohen-there-is-a-serious-issue-with-disease.html

As a participant in the $26 million Cohen Commission, I had access to .5 million documents about the Fraser sockeye. One of the things I learned is that contrary to what the public believes, there is no one in Fisheries and Ocean Canada with the authority to protect wild salmon. The commercial, sport and native fishermen are generally at war with each other and they are very independent operators. The salmon farmers, on the other hand, pull together into provincial, national and international organizations that send powerful lobbyists to different levels of government with an agenda. As a result, whenever a government scientist tried to red-flag a problem where the salmon farms were affecting wild salmon, it was ignored. There was no back up; no one has the power to address the issues.

In 2011, Dr. Rick Routledge at Simon Fraser University got ISA virus positive test results in 2 out of 48 Rivers Inlet sockeye, a an important stock of salmon in inexplicable collapse. The farmed salmon disease records made available by the Cohen Commission showed that the classic lesions associated with the ISA virus were reported frequently by the government pathologist examining farmed salmon. Following up I also began getting test results positive for segments of the ISA virus in salmon from the Fraser River.

The Cohen Commission responded by reopening the inquiry and there we heard a senior government scientist testify that he too got ISA virus positive test results in Fraser sockeye in 2004, but that he ignored them. One hundred percent of the collapsing Cultus Lake sockeye tested positive for ISA virus in 2004 and no one was informed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) testified that if ISA virus is confirmed in British Columbia, borders would be closed to British Columbia farmed salmon.

I continued testing farmed salmon from supermarkets and continued getting positive results for segments of the European ISA virus. Each positive sample was confiscated from the lab by the CFIA and placed in ethanol, which prevents confirmation of the virus in Canada.

Statements by the CFIA suggested they retested these samples, and that the samples were negative for the virus, suggesting the lab was unreliable. The World Organization for Animal Health stripped the lab of its ISA virus reference status and in December 2013, the CFIA admitted the samples had never been retested. As a result, the results stand in my view British Columbia is at risk of a major ISA virus outbreak similar to eastern Canada and Chile once the virus mutates into a viable North Pacific variant.

This series of events highlights the greatest problem with salmon farming in Canada. There is no political will to inconvenience the industry in order to protect wild salmon. Canada’s reputation as a trade-partner may be collateral damage as ISA virus contaminated product may be crossing into the US, despite public statements by the USFDA that this is prohibited. http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/02/01/

A federal scientist testified at the Cohen Commission that 65 billion infectious viral particles could be shed every hour from a salmon farm. A very important additional question is, does salmon farming make food? Salmon farmers crush wild fish into pellets, adding additional fish oil, grains, animal by-products and colorants. Then they pour these crushed fish back into the water, run them through farmed salmon once, allow the waste to become the seafloor and take out less fish. This not only starves one ocean to pollute another with a net loss in food, it also bio-magnifies PCBs and dioxins via the fish oil. A fact that has brought doctors to warn women and children to avoid eating farmed salmon. http://alexandramorton.typepad.com/guide_to_safe_salmon

A better method would be to farm on land, leave the seas for wild fish and in that way offer society the benefit from both. Land-based aquaculture using fish that eat plants and algae and use the waste as a second product would be encouraged. In hindsight Fisheries and Oceans, Canada allowed the North Atlantic cod to be fished to commercial extinction against the warnings of its own scientist. As soon as the fishermen were tied to the dock, fish farms were thrown to the economically damaged communities and Hibernia oil went out on the Grand Banks. British Columbia currently is deadlocked in battles over putting power generation plants on rivers, shipping Alberta oil by tankers, and building mines that dump lethal tailings into salmon producing watersheds. If only people could be weaned off wild salmon and accept farmed salmon so powerful industries would benefit.

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Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist in Sointula, British Columbia, Canada. alexandramorton.ca