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    Farming salmon in open-net pens

    By Katherine Gordon

    (This story was first published in the September 2008 edition of Focus Magazine)


    “Open-net cage fish farming industries,” says the David Suzuki Foundation, “are using publicly owned coastal waters to support what are essentially intensive private feedlot operations that dump drug-laced sewage into the ocean.”

    Opponents of open-net salmon farming argue that the nets contribute directly to massive environmental degradation of wild fish habitat through fouling of the seabed with concentrated fish faeces and uneaten food, the spread of sea lice and disease to wild salmon, and frequent escapes of Atlantic salmon into Pacific waters. They criticize both senior levels of government for failing to take action to halt the practice or require fish farmers to clean up their act.

    The salmon farming industry points to extensive efforts to comply with what director Mary Ellen Walling of the BC Salmon Farmers Association describes as the “chafing burden of the most stringently regulated environment in the world.” Walling is also adamant that there is nothing wrong with the open-net system: “We are managing environmental issues well and effectively,” she says.

    Independent marine biologist and researcher Alexandra Morton, famous for her uncompromising stance on open-net fish-farming, snorts in derision. “These are the only farmers in the world that don’t have to shovel their own manure,” she says witheringly.

    Industry dismisses “closed-containment” farms—something also advocated over a year ago by the province’s Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture—as too expensive and unnecessary. But Morton and many others believe that it’s past time that BC salmon farmers are forced to make the change to closed-containment technology. They argue the ecological cost of not embracing the new technology is already too high.

    The public seems to agree. It would be a daring restaurant in Victoria that boasted the salmon on its menu was farmed rather than wild.

    But the province, despite it’s own committee’s report and other compelling evidence, argues there is no scientific proof that open net fish farms cause environmental damage and so is highly reluctant to compel the industry to adapt closed-containment technology. In the meantime, the exotic fish just keep escaping.


    The ones that got away

    Frederick Arm is a mile-wide by five-mile deep fiord that cuts into BC’s rugged coastline just south of Bute Inlet, about 30 miles northeast of Campbell River. As the strong summer tide of July 1 2008 flowed out of the Arm, swirling currents shifted a net-pen anchor at the Marine Harvest salmon farm. The anchor slipped into an underwater crevice and pulled down, below the water’s surface, the only barrier between 30,000 Atlantic salmon in the pen and the open waters of Frederick Arm.

    Within minutes the pen had emptied of its half a million dollars’ worth of uniformly four-kilogram inhabitants. Within hours surprised anglers fishing for wild Pacific salmon in Yuculta Rapids, a few miles to the northwest, began pulling in an unexpected catch: four-kilogram Atlantic salmon.

    Despite that and Marine Harvest’s attempts to recover as many escaped fish as they could, 99 percent of the fish got away.

    Fish farms are required by law to report escapes. Between 1987 and 2006, more than 1.4 million farmed salmon have been reported as escaped into BC waters. But a study done in 2000 suggests the industry may be underreporting these escapes. A survey of commercial fishermen over a 17-day period found they had caught 10,826 Atlantic salmon—40 percent more than had been reported to have escaped.

    Nobody is certain about what might be happening to all those escaped farmed salmon. Atlantics have been found in more than 80 rivers in coastal BC, the spawning grounds of wild Pacific salmon—something the industry once claimed could never happen—and some fisheries biologists are fearful the aggressive Atlantics will eventually adapt to this coast and outcompete the native species. As Alexandra Morton has put it, “There’s only one species of salmon in the Atlantic, whereas there’s five in the Pacific, so that tells you they don’t really play well with others.”


    Problems abound

    The issue of Atlantic salmon escaping from BC fish farms is only one of several serious problems plaguing the industry.

    Research by Morton has linked fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago off Port McNeill to sea lice infestations on juvenile wild pink salmon in the archipelago’s waters, which she and others say are decimating the area’s pink salmon runs. Studies from the United States indicate that the rate of infection of wild salmon with sea lice is four times higher than it was before the introduction of fish farms into west coast waters, and that the parasite may be responsible for killing as many as 95 percent of juvenile wild pink and chum salmon.

    There are also fears that farmed salmon will spread infectious diseases to wild salmon, as has happened on other coasts.

    As well, BC's coastal salmon farms produce, in total, as much raw sewage as a city of 500,000 humans, and there is evidence that the immense amount of fish faeces the farms produce can trigger phytoplankton blooms that can clog the gills of and suffocate both farmed and wild species of fish.

    Recent research from Scotland also demonstrates major damage to seabed flora and fauna in that country directly caused by open-net waste dumping.

    It is also plain that open-nets pose considerable risk to marine predators looking for a free lunch. Between 1989 and 2000, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), 6,243 seals and sea lions were killed by salmon farmers in BC waters. In the four months between January and April 2007 alone at least 110 sea lions drowned in nets.


    A special committee is born—and ignored

    If such problems have diminished the average British Columbian’s appetite for farmed salmon, the industry has nevertheless grown steadily since its inception in 1987. According to the BC Salmon Farmers Association, farmed salmon is the province’s largest agricultural export. In 2005, salmon farming, including both aquaculture production and processing , contributed $134 million to the provincial GDP and provided 1500 full-time equivalent jobs. Walling says the industry could double its production and still not satisfy the demand from the United States alone.

    But like the forest industry, while salmon farming brings economic benefits to the province, it also is widely seen as doing unacceptable harm to the environment. As concern for the wild salmon fishery rose during the early 2000s, the provincial Liberal government increasingly came under withering criticism for allowing open-net salmon farming to grow so quickly.

    What’s a premier to do? Create a committee. Charge it with filing a report.

    Premier Gordon Campbell appointed the Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture in 2005 “to examine, inquire into and make recommendations with respect to Sustainable Aquaculture in British Columbia,” with particular reference to the environmental and economic impacts of the aquaculture industry, and sustainable options.

    In May 2007, the special committee filed its final report. Besides calling for a moratorium on siting fish farms north of Vancouver Island, the committee called for the industry to move towards closed-containment within five years. Both of these recommendations were condemned by the BC Salmon Farmers Association, and the provincial government has not acted upon them.

    Media reports about the committee’s recommendations invariably included a description of the committee—as if it somehow explained its findings—as being “New Democrat-dominated.” A majority of the MLAs on the committee were from the NDP, perhaps a reflection of the fact that most coastal communities that have salmon farms operating nearby happen to be represented by NDP MLA’s. At the time the special committee was created, political pundits suggested that appointing a preponderance of NDP members to the committee was a brilliant move on Premier Campbell’s part since it would put the NDP in the middle of a difficult no-win situation.

    The media after-burn concentrated on the perception that politics had somehow predetermined the special committee’s recommendations and there was little indepth discussion of the potential benefits and problems of moving the industry to closed-containment. The committee’s recommendations had more or less disappeared from public memory by July, when those 30,000 Atlantic salmon made their dash for freedom.


    Why not closed containment?

    Closed-containment systems have the obvious advantage of providing a physical barrier, separating the farmed fish from the marine environment so as to prevent escapes and interaction with other marine life and reducing the risk of spreading disease and parasites. Water is typically pumped in and oxygenated, then either recirculated or released back into the ocean once solid wastes have been removed. Wastes can be recycled—fish compost is in high demand as fertilizer, for example.

    The land-based variety of closed containers are 100 percent isolated from the marine environment, which deals with all of the environmental criticisms levelled at open-nets, though may create others—high energy consumption in powering pumps, for example, with corresponding greenhouse gas emissions. Containers that float in the ocean, on the other hand, can use natural water flow to some extent, and use less power than land-based tanks. However, the spread of disease and parasites is less easy to control.

    So why is the province not moving on the special committee’s recommendation to convert to such technology? Why is it not taking a more precautionary approach to the fragility of the wild salmon fishery?

    Stan Hagen, Minister of Agriculture and Lands, says the science on environmental damage is unproven. He’s now awaiting a report (due out in a few months) from the Pacific Salmon Foundation analysing the available scientific data.

    In the meantime, the government isn’t about to force the technology on industry. While Director Mary Ellen Walling says that members of the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association are willing to look at such new technology, they still need convincing that it will be worth the expense. She used stronger terms in the Times Colonist in July, saying: “The additional costs of closed-containment would make salmon farming financially unworkable. [It] would render the industry absolutely uncompetitive.”

    Jay Ritchlin, director of marine and freshwater conservation at the David Suzuki Foundation, takes issue with the “no proven environmental damage” argument of the government and industry: “Any lingering debate over whether open-nets are damaging wildlife is simply disingenuous.” He also believes the government’s refusal to accept the existing scientific weight of evidence against open-nets is highly problematic, because it removes any impetus for industry to improve its record.


    How effective is closed-containment?

    In January 2008, DFO’s Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat released an analysis of closed-containment technology. While the report includes some important admissions around concerns for infectious diseases caused by sea lice and non-infectious diseases caused by plankton blooms and low dissolved oxygen, it also found that attempts to produce adult Atlantic salmon in the 40 closed-containment systems they studied world-wide all failed. Among the stated reasons for failure were mechanical breakdown, poor fish performance, management failure, declines in market price and inadequate financing.

    None of those are reason enough to dismiss the technology in its own right. Such failures occur in any industry, including open-net farming, and DFO’s Secretariat admitted that more information was necessary to determine the real causes of the failures.

    The Secretariat’s report also noted some environmental criticisms of closed containment systems, including that fish are held in closed pens at a density around double that of net pens. Like chickens in a battery, they are more prone to disease in the tanks than in open-nets. Moreover, fish apparently get stressed in rigid floating tanks by “resonance” caused by vigourous wave activity. The report also picked up on the carbon footprint of land-based pens and their high energy usage.

    But Ritchlin is critical of the DFO report: “It seems they only looked at what didn’t work and not what is working. Their focus is too narrow.” He says there are answers to every criticism raised in the report.

    He lobs the “unproven science” argument back at claims of high energy usage, for example, saying there simply isn’t enough data to make that claim with certainty. “You also have to weigh energy use against damage to wildlife,” he notes. “Any carbon footprint of closed tanks can be mitigated with alternative greener energy sources.” By comparison, he points out, many open-net farms are in remote locations and make heavy use of diesel generators and boats.

    The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, an association of eight environmental and First Nations groups, backs Ritchlin up: “When the full lifecycle of closed tank production is considered, it is in fact possible that closed tanks will offer improvements in energy performance over current salmon farming systems.” They also claim countries as diverse as Iceland, Morocco, the Netherlands and China use closed containment fish-farming successfully.

    Canadian-owned company AgriMarine Industries Inc. at Campbell River is one of the only local companies to test out closed containment. Between 2001 and 2005 AgriMarine trialled a land-based system of concrete tanks at Cedar, near Nanaimo, successfully raising environmentally friendly “eco-salmon” for the local market.

    The Ministry of Agriculture and Lands assisted with funding, and reported the project “might be considered an improvement over that of marine net-pens, largely due to the inability of fish to interact with wild species.” It also concluded there was no difference in stress levels between the fish at Cedar and those in open-net enclosures. Concerns about the potential for disease outbreaks were unfounded, said the ministry, which also concluded that it would be possible to retail the fish at profitable levels.

    But there are still some kinks to work out. AgriMarine decided in 2005 that the land-based containers it was using were too unwieldy to work with and that power costs running up to $12,000 a month were simply too high (an indication that criticisms of exorbitant energy use, at least vis-à-vis land-based tanks, may be justified). The steep cost of waterfront land needed to site the tanks was another factor reducing the economic viability of that system.

    But far from abandoning solid barrier technology, the company is pouring millions of dollars more into a new system of flow-through floating fibreglass tanks secured to pilings, which they plan to install at Middle Bay, near Campbell River. Energy consumption is expected to be far lower for the new system. Sustainable Development Technology Canada is putting $2.36 million of federal funding into the $8 million project, as is the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in San Francisco. The Coast Sustainability Trust is providing $200,000.

    Like Jay Ritchlin, AgriMarine director of operations Rob Walker begs to differ with most of the environmental criticisms levelled at closed containment. “I think solid wall containment like this makes so much sense,” he says. “Our system deals 100 percent with escapes and with predator interaction. That’s really big.”

    On transference of sea lice and pathogens, Walker admits that’s difficult to stop in a flow-through system. “Having said that, we also understand that sea lice are typically found in upper sea levels. So properly sited, the pens could pull up water from depth to avoid the areas where sea lice thrive,” says Walker. “Mechanical filters could also be used to remove sea lice. Pathogens in the water could be removed through an ultraviolet system.” Walker notes regretfully that’s all very expensive technology. “So right now we’re just focussing on the barrier technology to make that work, then we’ll look at the filters and other add-ons.”

    Walker thinks the fish are going to be better off than those in open-nets. “We have freshwater coming in that’s supplemented with oxygen and a system that is constantly cleaning out faeces, so the water quality is very high. You don’t have that kind of control with an open-net.” AgriMarine plans to compost the recycled waste, which could be used for everything from algae feed stock to salt marsh enhancement.


    The economic argument

    An assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria, John Volpe is quite certain about the real reason the industry is resisting the science of closed-containment: cheap salmon. To keep prices competitive, costs are simply being offloaded to the environment.

    A proponent of closed cages to mitigate sea lice transference and escapes, Volpe wants the public to pay more for BC farmed salmon and thereby help farmers make the switch. Mary Ellen Walling thinks that’s unrealistic: “We simply can’t charge a premium here and keep competing.”

    But fish farmers elsewhere in the world are doing just that. While Minister Hagen has said he was not aware of any closed-containment systems anywhere which have worked, they are in fact being widely used commercially to grow other species such as tilapia and catfish. The DFO’s report noted that closed-containment systems have been successfully used in the commercial production of salmon when grown along with other higher value species that help defray the cost of the system. In the Netherlands, the government has gone as far as requiring commercial operators to use them, and a number of European Union governments have adopted policies providing subsidies and tax breaks to operators developing and implementing the technology.

    Norwegian companies have been using closed-containment to grow Atlantic salmon for two decades. Idar Schei, director of Norwegian mega-company Aqua Optima, told the Georgia Strait in 2006: “Investment costs are higher but with the risk of sea lice, fish escapes, storms and algae blooms, the operating costs should not be much higher for closed tanks.”

    With continuing declining wild stocks and rapidly rising prices for salmon as demand outstrips supply, the future for fish farmers seems promising—even with the extra costs of closed containment technology. The industry seems well-positioned to move towards the adoption of improved (if pricey) technology that will help protect BC’s fragile and valued marine environment—and which may save it money in the long run on expensive environmental assessments and cleanup requirements.

    There does need to be more certainty over the cost-benefit ratio of the environmental performance of this technology,” admits Suzuki Foundation’s Jay Ritchlin. “But we do know some things for sure. We know that the solid waste collection component works and that’s helping stop the transfer of disease and the smothering of the ocean floor. We know they stop escapes.” Those, says Ritchlin, are simply the minimum requirements for a safe industry. “Once you’ve got that, you just keep getting better.”

    People are looking for a be-all-and-end-all solution to all the problems,” says AgriMarine’s Rob Walker. “My response to that is, let’s just get these tanks in the water. This is a huge first step.”


    Katherine Gordon is an award-winning author and freelance writer. Her best-selling fourth book, The Garden That You Are (Sono Nis Press, 2007) explores the culture of gardeners, the importance of growing food, and what connects each of us to our place on the Earth.

    Edited by admin

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