Last summer, Norway’s richest man, John Frederiksen, went fishing on Norway’s legendary Alta, one of the world’s richest salmon rivers. Frederiksen made his first fortune running oil tankers to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. He is now the silver-haired principal shareholder of Marine Harvest, which controls 20 to 30 per cent of the worldwide salmon farming industry. An avid angler, he told the reporter who was along on the trip that he was “concerned about the future of wild salmon,” and that fish farms shouldn’t be allowed near wild salmon runs because of the pollution and disease they spread in the open ocean.
What’s bad for Norway may be just fine for B.C., however, where Marine Harvest and two other Norwegian firms control 92 per cent of the $320-million salmon farming industry. Many of the farms are situated smack in the middle of key wild salmon runs, including the Fraser River run, which, this fall, recorded a 60 per cent decline in returning fish. Over the coming decade, the firms are projected to double production in B.C. Profits are destined for Oslo.
The problems, however, are all too local. Last year, the journal Science sparked international headlines when it projected the complete extinction of pink salmon by 2011 in B.C.’s Broughton Archipelago, one of the richest pockets of biodiversity on the B.C. coast. This fall, the number of pink salmon spawning in five key indicator streams in the Broughton, where the big three operate 30 farms, dropped as much as 90 per cent compared to 2006, down to 147,000 fish. That sudden, stunning collapse is reopening the charged debate over salmon farms. Last month, the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed Pacific salmon on its Red List of Threatened Species, naming B.C.’s runs the “most endangered.”
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the federal agency charged with protecting Canada’s ocean resources, says it is premature to blame the farms for declines in salmon runs seen recently, because those numbers fluctuate naturally. But that’s not a view shared by a growing chorus of scientists and environmental groups. Even Alaska, the “drill, baby, drill” state, continues its total ban on salmon farms, which it considers a threat to Pacific salmon. Juneau has long pleaded with B.C., with whom it shares its wild salmon stocks, to reverse course on farming. Indeed, scientists say B.C. is trading a national treasure for Norway’s benefit.
Canada was warned. In 1990, as Marine Harvest and other Norwegian companies began fleeing tightening regulation at home, Norwegian MP John Lilletun told a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee that the fish farmers were heading our way. “We are very strict about the quality and the environmental questions,” he said. “Therefore, some of the fish farmers said, ‘We want bigger fish farms; we can do as we like here.’ ”
They arrived in B.C.’s economically fragile coastal communities in great numbers in the NDP era. In those recessionary days, there were over 100 operators. But product flooded the global market, and smaller operators were bankrupted or swallowed whole by larger firms. Now Canadians can no longer compete. Two years ago, Toronto-based food giant George Weston Ltd., which controls Loblaws, sold its B.C. salmon interests after posting losses of $178 million. A year ago, Target Marine, the last major Canadian firm still operating in B.C. sold to Grieg, a Norwegian conglomerate.
The industry, meanwhile, keeps growing. Critics question whether the financial payoff is worth the ecological risk. Rental fees for an average-sized, two-hectare farm brings the B.C. government around $18,000 a year; licensing generates an annual $200 per farm. There are currently between 1,500 and 2,900 jobs in salmon farming, including spin-off industries—“a lot of them in communities where they don’t have a lot else to choose from,” points out Clare Backman, director of environmental relations at Marine Harvest. But as aquaculture becomes increasingly automated, the number of jobs is expected to flat-line. The industry quadrupled in size between 1990 and 2001, for example, but jobs grew by less than 10 per cent. Farms have also made salmon affordable. “Look, there’s not enough wild salmon to feed global demand. That’s the plain and simple truth,” says Backman. As for charges the company is decimating wild salmon stocks, spokesman Jan Roberts says overfishing, climate change and habitat destruction do more to threaten Pacific salmon.
Once upon a time, there was better oversight, says Otto Langer, a former DFO biologist. But after budget cuts and downsizing in the late ’90s, the DFO began depending on industry for self-surveillance and compliance—a “reckless approach” that he says “relegated the protection of the chicken coop to the wolf.” He says the department has abdicated its legal responsibility to protect wild fish. The “DFO was hopeless: they just weren’t going to do their job anymore, so I quit. I realized a pension wasn’t everything.”
Part of the problem is a jurisdictional overlap, he says. Local scientists agree. In 1988, the feds signed an M.O.U. allowing B.C. to oversee fish farming. When scientists write to the DFO to voice concerns about escapes or disease transfer in the ocean, they’re told, “It’s the provincial government running these farms: talk to them,” says Alexandra Morton, a marine biologist based in the Broughton Archipelago, who in the mid-’90s began reporting such problems to the DFO. But the province has no responsibility for the environment beyond the pen, she says. The ocean and its wild fisheries are the jurisdiction of the feds.
Fish farming is killing the wild salmon, says Morton, and it isn’t even saving B.C.’s remote coastal communities, as it’s believed to be. The Jane Goodall of the B.C. coast, Morton arrived in the Broughton Archipelago in 1986 after decamping from L.A.. She and her husband, the late wildlife filmmaker Robin Morton, were looking for a spot where she could study orcas. “We followed a killer whale into Broughton,” she says. “And there it was: Echo Bay. It had whales, a school and a post office that got mail by seaplane three times a week. We tied up the boat, and it’s been home ever since.” Echo Bay is the biggest salmon farming community on the B.C. coast but its population has dwindled to 10, down from 100 a decade ago. Last year, it lost its school. The fish farmers—who cycle through several farms and communities—don’t work here, says Morton. “They don’t live here. They don’t buy gas here,” says Morton. “Salmon farming hasn’t saved Echo Bay—my community is dying.”