03/02/2016 04:11 EST | Updated 03/03/2017 05:12 EST

Foreign-Owned Fish Farms Are Devastating B.C.'s Wild Salmon

Daisy Gilardini via Getty Images
Sockeye salmon also known as red salmon, migrating upstream to go spawn (Oncorthynchus nerka)Adams River, British Columbia, Canada

The salmon farming industry has long been banned in Alaska, where it's believed to be a threat to the state's healthy wild salmon populations.

But that's not the case in Canada, where Norwegian-owned aquaculture multinationals have done a terrific job of winning over the federal government.

These controversial corporate citizens are largely to blame for the gradual dying out of Canada's most famed fish. So says the Canadian scientist, TV personality, and leading environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki.

During the Harper administration, Suzuki bluntly referred to the federal government as "corporate cheerleaders" for the aquaculture industry in a conversation with this article's author. And nothing has really changed since the swearing-in of Canada's new Liberal government.

It's hard to argue that Dr. Suzuki is wrong, especially since Canada's federal government and its B.C. provincial counterpart actively promote salmon farming. They even go so far as to use Canadian taxpayers' dollars to subsidize the business operations of Norwegian-owned fish farms in B.C.

This unholy alliance may help explain why it's still legal for salmon farms to unintentionally become ambush sites for juvenile salmon migrating out to the open ocean.

By way of explanation many open-net pens are located directly within the narrow aquatic pathways used by these wild salmon. This exposes passing wild salmon to devastating lethal threats -- ones they've historically never encountered before.

First, these unnecessarily close encounters can infect wild salmon with exotic diseases that overwhelm their immune systems, leading to a slow death.

By the federal government's own estimates, a diseased salmon farm containing one million fish can shed as many as 650 billion viral particles an hour. And these deadly pathogens become biological booby traps for wild salmon.


Second, these defenceless fish can also be exposed to hoards of blood-sucking, flesh-eating sea lice (see the image above) as they pass by fish farms. Such hazards have been linked by scientists to the unnatural deaths of millions of wild salmon each year.

Even B.C.'s aquaculture industry has grudgingly conceded that sea lice from salmon farms can be harmful to wild populations.

But this multibillion-dollar industry continues to downplay this problem, as well as the ugly implications of contagious disease outbreaks at its 130 or so floating farms.

In fact, there's absolutely nothing to worry about, according to Canada's federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It, too, refuses to acknowledge that infestations of sea lice originating from open-net pens play any significant role in the demise of wild salmon.

In spite of this, some of Canada's most iconic salmon runs have been decimated in recent years while Canadian politicians look the other way. In fact, as few as 15 per cent of the predicted numbers of salmon returned to their spawning grounds in 2009. And some subsequent years have been nearly as dismal.

As recently as 2015, there was even a ban on commercial and recreational fishing on Vancouver's Fraser River due to alarming low salmon numbers.

Such realities attest to the fact that this river's once-prolific sockeye numbers have for the past two decades experienced a sustained decline.

Canada's federal government and the B.C. provincial government have largely ignored the inquiry's 75 recommendations for change.

Notably, the beginning of this precipitous downward trend coincided with an ominous development: It was the introduction in the early 90s of large-scale salmon farming to the migratory coastal routes used by wild Fraser River salmon. So says internationally-acclaimed salmon biologist Alexandra Morton.

The gradual disappearance of so many sockeye from the Fraser River eventually led to a three-year federal government judicial inquiry. Known as the Cohen Commission, this $25 million investigation involved several months of hearings in 2011, involving testimony from 179 salmon experts and stakeholders. It subsequently involved the assessment of three million pages of evidence.

A final 1,000-page report was published in late 2012 by Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, the head of the inquiry. It conceded that salmon farms may indeed be playing a role in the wild species' crisis. And it asked for a freeze on any new salmon farming operations along the migratory routes of wild salmon until 2020.

Commissioner Cohen's chilling reasoning for his request for a moratorium on increasing the salmon farming industry's footprint in an ecologically sensitive waterway was explained as follows:

"I therefore conclude that the potential harm posed by salmon farms to Fraser River sockeye salmon is serious or irreversible."

Cohen also joined Dr. Suzuki in questioning the loyalties of the federal government.

Cohen concluded, "As long as [the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada] has a mandate to promote salmon farming, there is a risk that it will act in a manner that favours the interests of the salmon farming industry over the health of wild fish stocks."

As of early 2016, Canada's federal government and the B.C. provincial government have largely ignored the inquiry's 75 recommendations for change.

Will our new government choose to act on Cohen's findings? Will Justin Trudeau's commitment to greater environmental stewardship lead to more protection for our wild salmon? Only time will tell.

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