Bracing against the tide

On the rugged coastline of British Columbia, tribes, fishermen and environmentalists fight a 'salmon apocalypse'

  • PROTECTING THEIR 'BREAD-BASKET': Heiltsuk natives from the community of Bella Bella traveled to Ocean Falls, British Columbia, to protest the construction of a new Atlantic salmon hatchery

    Ian McAllister
  • FLOATING FEEDLOT: Midsummer Island Farm on Vancouver Island, where 400,000 Atlantic salmon at a time are raised in pens of netting submerged below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The pens are connected by a metal walk and tethered with steel cables

    Copyright 2003, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission
  • Map of British Columbia coastline

    Diane Sylvain
  • SAVING THE NATIVES: Pamela Reid at the Ocean Falls protest

    Rebecca Clarren
  • Chum salmon being processed in Bella Bella, British Columbia. The Heiltsuk people continue to rely on wild salmon for cultural, food and commercial purposes

    Ian McAllister
  • FARM FALLOUT? Wild smolts become covered with sea lice as they migrate from rivers toward the ocean

    Alexandra Morton
  • THE REAL THING: Sockeye salmon migrate up one of the 2,500 spawning rivers on the British Columbia coast

    Ian McAllister

OCEAN FALLS, British Columbia — The flat disk of abalone shell that adorns Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Pamela Reid’s headdress glares angry green beneath an ambivalent gray sky. Squint, and the iridescent shell could be a small topographic map of the mountains that fall seamlessly into the icy waters of this coastal inlet. Abalone, once a Heiltsuk delicacy, was poached to such an extent that the Canadian government banned all harvesting of the shellfish over a decade ago. Reid, 28, says that many of her peers don’t remember what abalone tastes like.

“Within our culture, everything is interconnected. The abalone, the cedar trees, the salmon are all a part of what we call the circle of life,” says Reid, one of only two women ever elected to lead the Heiltsuk. “When you take any factor out of the circle, you take away the foundation of our way of life.”

Reid stands on the bow of a fishing boat headed across the fjords of this sparsely populated coastline. She and 100 other Heiltsuk have sailed two and a half hours from their village, Bella Bella, to protest what they call a threat to another critical piece of their culture and livelihood.

Here in Ocean Falls, a Norwegian company is building a hatchery that, when completed next spring, will produce 10 million Atlantic salmon smolts each year. While the company, Omega Salmon Group Ltd., a subsidiary of Pan Fish, is coy about its plans for those fish, there is really only one plausible answer: It is planting the seeds for a massive buildup of industrial fish farms.

Fish farms have dotted the coastline south of here, in British Columbia and in Washington state, for the past two decades. Most raise non-native Atlantic salmon in net-lined pens dropped directly into the ocean. These pens have been known to breed disease and spread pollution. But worse than that, according to critics, is the risk of farmed fish escaping into the ocean and migrating into rivers — threatening the native wild salmon.

For the 1,300 members of the Heiltsuk Nation, the danger is poignant because they are salmon people. Reid says the Heiltsuk consider salmon to be their brothers. The fish inspire countless dances, songs and ceremonies. More than that, salmon are literally their lifeblood: The average Heiltsuk family lives on $5,500 a year, and people rely on salmon for most meals. From midsummer through fall, smokehouses and open barbecue pits fill the air with the rich smell of next winter’s nourishment.

On the bow of the fishing boat, headed north to Ocean Falls, the wind tears through the layers of Reid’s traditional button blanket. She wraps it closer to her pregnant form and dances with her elders to a low and steady song. They want the provincial government and the industry to know that they plan to fight the hatchery construction.

The Heiltsuk are swimming against a powerful current, however. There are now about 80 salmon farms operating in British Columbia, most of them located off the coast of Vancouver Island, and the recent lifting of a moratorium on new farms clears the way for more. Industry boosters say they want to double the number of farms over the next five years. For many small towns and government officials, who are struggling to revive an anemic economy, fish farms represent good jobs and a much-needed steady export.

For indigenous peoples, commercial fishermen and environmentalists in the Northwest, however, the fish farms are an overwhelming threat to communities and the ecosystem.

“We don’t want our central coast — our breadbasket — to become a garbage dump for the fish-farm industry,” says Edwin Newman, a Heiltsuk elder. “We’ve been here for 10,000 years, and we aren’t going anywhere. Long after they’re gone, we will be the ones to clean up their mess.”

All that’s visible of the Young Pass fish farm is a series of rectangular steel frames, punctuated with yellow buoys, bobbing calmly on the water of Johnstone Strait, a narrow waterway squeezed between the northeastern shore of Vancouver Island and the coast of British Columbia. But beneath the placid surface, the water writhes with life. Nylon nets drop from the steel frames nearly 80 feet to where they are anchored to the ocean bottom by concrete blocks weighing up to 10 tons each. The collection of eight pens — a literal tenement house for fish — is home to 560,000 salmon.

It’s feeding time here, and brown pellets the size of sesame seeds shoot from a metal pipe that sweeps over the surface of the water like a sailboat boom coming about. A few salmon jump through the air, skimming the mesh covering that keeps out the circling gulls. But despite their innate impulse to leap and dive, nothing about these fish is wild. Born in a hatchery and reared for six months in glorified lap pools, they will spend up to 18 months in these pens, feeding and growing into fat, 7- to 18-pound adults.

The Young Pass farm grows chinook, but 80 percent of farmed fish are Atlantic salmon. Industry prefers Atlantic salmon, because they can be handled aggressively without bruising and because the business is dominated by Norwegians, who are accustomed to working with the fish.

Farm workers liken these salmon to cattle — a fitting comparison, since the company that raises these fish is also in the feedlot business. The farm’s owner, Marine Harvest Canada, is a subsidiary of the Netherlands-based Nutreco, the world’s largest fish farm company, and one of five multinational corporations that own farms in British Columbia. Nutreco, a $3 billion company, mass-produces pork and poultry at factory farms around the world.

Compared to producing chicken, pork or beef, raising farm fish is light on the land, says Vivian Krause, Nutreco’s aquaculture specialist, as she strolls the grated walkways between the Young Pass pens. It takes over 3 pounds of feed to grow a pound of pork, she says, vs. 1.2 pounds of feed for a pound of farmed fish. Otherwise, she says, raising fish isn’t terribly different from raising cattle, although, she adds, “when a farmed fish escapes, you can’t exactly whistle him back home.”

As with any corporate farming operation, getting the meat to consumers around the world is no small feat. When the fish are full-grown, boats equipped with giant cranes scoop them from the water and transport them to processing plants on Vancouver Island. En route to towns such as Campbell River and Port McNeill, the fish are stunned with carbon dioxide or a high-pressure “air hammer.”

At the Brown’s Bay Packing Co. in Campbell River, freshly unloaded fish float in frothy pink water, dying slowly as their blood drains away from their gills in a temperature-controlled tub. Inside the plant, nearly 3,000 salmon a day are de-headed, de-tailed, de-boned and gutted by men and women in aprons and hair nets lined up on both sides of a winding conveyer belt. An automated saw with an electronic eye then cuts each fish into 4- to 6-ounce portions. The process is sanitary, exact and efficient.

Shipped overnight in ice to Seattle, roughly 135,000 of these perfectly standard portions are flown each day to California, the Midwest and even the East Coast, where they’re headlined on restaurant special boards and grocery store meat counters as “Fresh Atlantic Salmon.”

It’s a booming business: British Columbia’s largest agricultural export, farmed fish contribute $603 million annually to the provincial economy, creating 4,700 full-time jobs. With a coastline and environment ideal for salmon farming, British Columbia could see those figures double in the next five years, says a financial advisor for Omega Salmon Group Ltd. — and double again in the five years after that.

This is terrific news, says Bill Shephard, the chairman of the regional government of the Mount Waddington district, which is based in Port McNeill and encompasses the northern end of Vancouver Island. This region specializes in dismal economies: Logging and commercial fishing have declined steadily, and a mine closure several years ago eliminated 600 jobs. Food banks in coastal communities from Campbell River to Port Hardy report record need.

Fish farms offer a way for a former logging town like Port McNeill to reinvent itself, says Shephard. “These are good jobs in a rural community,” he says. Fish-farm jobs start at $14 an hour Canadian — “a far spit from clerking for $7 an hour at the corner market.”

But just across the water from Port McNeill, in the village of Sointula, commercial fishermen are singing a gloomier tune. Founded at the turn of the century as a Finnish utopian community, Sointula is not exactly Eden anymore. For decades, fishing for everything from salmon to herring to shrimp provided steady work, if not riches. But fishermen have watched their livelihood spiral into oblivion, as decreasing runs of wild salmon lead to plummeting catches and to fishing quotas. Fish farms just add to the problem, driving down the price of wild fish. Chum salmon, for example, that was worth a dollar a pound (Canadian) to fishermen 10 years ago, now only catches 25 cents a pound. (The same is true to the south: Washington tribal members report that sockeye that once sold for $2.50 a pound in American dollars now fetches just $1 a pound.)

Today in Sointula, red “For Sale” signs pepper front lawns. School enrollment has dropped by over half in the past decade; there are only 12 children in the single fifth-grade class. “Fish farms are breaking the backs of the commercial fishermen,” says Calvin Siider, a fourth-generation fisherman. “I’d be better off to burn my boat than to sell it.”

On a drizzly midwinter morning, Siider sips a cup of coffee and looks out the window of a local bakery onto a bay that gleams like dirty nickels and dimes. Siider’s brother, also a fisherman, committed suicide last year, due in part to the dismal economy.

“Our federal bureaucracy seems to be working against us and not for us,” he says. “In lots of respects, the government is our enemy.”

That’s unfair, says Shephard, with the regional government in Port McNeill. “We’re trying to do our part for the greatest good, but some people don’t have any perspective,” he says. “I’m sure there were people in Saskatchewan and the Dakotas 150 years ago who were opposed to farming because it meant the end of buffalo hunting. But times change.”

A growing crowd of critics isn’t content to watch the times change without a fight. Their concerns go beyond the economic: They say fish farms aren’t worth the cost to the environment, especially to the wild salmon.

“These farms are the equivalent of the mad-cow feedlots in Britain that wiped out every herd of cattle,” says Montana writer David James Duncan, author of the novel The River Why, and a longtime advocate for wild salmon. “Every place in the world these multinational meat growers have gone, they have caused a major environmental collapse.”

The problems start with the tons of food pellets that farmed fish are fed, which are made from shellfish and small fish and laced with antibiotics. This translates into what Duncan delicately refers to as “a shit problem.”

The average salmon farm creates as much raw sewage as a town of 65,000 people, says Ian McAllister, a Bella Bella-based environmental activist who lives in Bella Bella and works for the Raincoast Conservation Society. The antibiotic-laden sewage overloads the water with nutrients, creating an oxygen-starved “dead zone” that can extend up to 500 feet around the pens, killing shellfish and even the beneficial bacteria living on the beneficial bacteria living on the sea floor.

“Imagine if the poultry industry was allowed to dump a million tons of chicken manure onto a national park. People would be outraged,” says McAllister. “But the fish farm industry is allowed to do just that.”

Disease and parasites are easily spread in the close quarters of farm pens. Despite regular treatment with pesticides, fish farms are breeding grounds for sea lice, tiny parasites that eat away at, and can eventually kill, young salmon.

Two summers ago, in the Broughton Archipelago, a cluster of islands near the north end of Vancouver Island, fishermen discovered tiny salmon fry covered with as many as 25 sea lice. Some scientists now suspect that the wild salmon picked up the lice from the 26 fish farms situated along their annual migration routes. McAllister says the consequences have been dire: Of the over 3 million juvenile salmon that migrated to the ocean from eight different river systems in the area, only 147,000 returned this past summer. It’s the worst return ever seen on the British Columbia coast, since the Department of Fisheries and Oceans started keeping record in 1953. At this rate, McAllister says, sea lice spread by fish farms could “be responsible for the extinction of complete races of salmon.”

Extinction could become epidemic, critics warn, if farmed fish continue to escape into the oceans and rivers where wild salmon feed and spawn. Over 80 percent of farmed fish are non-native Atlantic salmon, while chinook and coho comprise the remainder. There is little research on how farmed and wild fish interact, but many scientists worry that Atlantic salmon, a more aggressive species than their Pacific cousins, will outcompete native fish for habitat and food. Farmed Chinook may interbreed with wild fish, diluting the genetic purity of wild salmon runs.

Native salmon have evolved with specific rivers. They know how to make use of every pocket of available habitat. After migrating out to the ocean as babies, they make their way by scent back to the river where they were born, returning home to spawn another generation. If Atlantic salmon out-compete the natives for food and habitat, but fail to return to the rivers, sustainable salmon runs — and the ecosystem that depends on them — will become a distant memory, say critics such as Duncan.

“We have all these examples globally of what happens when exotic species are introduced,” says Duncan. “All of Montana’s native grasses have been totally wiped out by two invasive species of weeds; snapping turtles have consumed all the habitat of the world’s wild turtles. I see in Atlantic salmon, a Pacific salmon apocalypse.”

The Canadian government is charged with protecting wild salmon, but critics say its track record is inconsistent at best. When salmon farms first set up shop in the mid-1970s, government and industry said that if a few farm salmon managed to break free, they would pose no threat to wild fish. “Atlantic salmon have no home stream to return to in order to spawn,” read a brochure distributed in 1987 by the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries. “Instead, they would return (if they survived that long) to their home fish farm. Without a freshwater spawning ground, they would be unable to reproduce.”

Out of the 10 million Atlantic salmon raised in British Columbia annually, the government reports an average of 40,000 runaways. In the history of the industry, only two fish farms have been fined for allowing fish to escape.

That’s not exactly good news. On the seas, anec-dotal evidence paints a very different picture than the official numbers do. In the summer of 2000, a storm tore a hole in the net pens of a fish farm off the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and fishermen immediately began pulling the dark speckled fish out of the water. Independent whale researcher Alexandra Morton spent the next month interviewing fishermen, and in one month her informal tally reached 10,233 escapees. Yet for the entire year of 2000, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans lists only 7,833 escapes along the length of the British Columbia coast.

Part of the reason for this fuzzy math is that although fish farmers are required to report escaped fish, there are no government employees to police the waters, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans acknowledges that it doesn’t know how well companies follow the rules. Currently, there is no way to trace an escapee to its farm of origin.

Concerned that escaped farm fish could jeopardize its $258 million a year wild salmon fishery, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game investigated further. According to the agency’s study, released in March 2002, over 450,000 Atlantic salmon slip away from salmon farms in British Columbia and Washington annually. Many of these fish are released intentionally; farms set free small or slow-growing fish because it’s cheaper than raising them to full size. There are anecdotal reports of Atlantic salmon ascending every major river drainage on Vancouver Island. In 2000 alone, 81 Atlantic salmon were found in Alaska’s marine waters, and one was caught ascending the state’s Doame River.

Despite government assurances to the contrary, these fish are reproducing, according to John Volpe, a biology professor at the University of Alberta. Volpe has spent the past four years snorkeling Vancouver Island’s whitewater rivers, stalking Atlantic salmon. His results are chilling: After surveying only 1 percent of potential rearing habitat, he has found wild spawned juvenile Atlantic salmon in three river systems.

Officials with the provincial government continue to deny that there is a problem. Volpe says they’re not looking in the right places. “The (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) characters think you can collect data from a desk in Ottawa,” he says. “If you want to do fish biology, you’ve got to get in the water and get wet.”

The problem of poor government regulation isn’t unique to British Columbia, says Anne Mosness, in the Bellingham, Wash., office of the national Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In the United States, Oregon and California have banned fish farms in response to a powerful commercial fishing lobby — and because their rocky coastlines tend to discourage aquaculture. Alaska has outlawed fish farms, as well. But in Washington, few groups or government agencies are keeping an eye on the industry.

Part of the problem is government bureaucracy, says Mosness. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Marine Fisheries Service are each charged with different aspects of monitoring and permitting aquaculture. None of these agencies have even one full-time person working on aquaculture, and there is no state or federal budget to enforce regulations.

Compounding the issue, says Mosness, is the fact that “people are in regulatory agencies to promote fish farms; it’s clearly a revolving door.” She points to Washington State Sen. Dan Swecker, R, a former fish farmer who currently works as secretary treasurer of the Washington Fish Growers Association. In the nine years Swecker has been in office, he has sponsored legislation to streamline the permit process for fish farms, revised a state law to extend aquaculture leases, and helped to secure funding for a new aquaculture certification center. Swecker freely acknowledges he got into politics to “help solve the regulatory problems faced by aquaculture.”

The situation is even more complicated in British Columbia, where the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries plays the paradoxical role of both promoter and regulator. The department’s former minister, John van Dongen, was forced to resign in January amid allegations that he passed confidential information to a fish farm company. A huge booster of fish farms, Van Dongen was responsible for lifting a seven-year moratorium on new fish-farm applications, which the previous administration had imposed in response to concerns about escaped salmon.

Van Dongen’s replacement, Stan Hagen, says he plans to move forward with processing the nine permits now pending for new operations. No stranger to environmental controversy, Hagen recently proposed opening up half the province to logging and mining companies. He is also facing conflict-of-interest charges: The single largest contributor to his last political campaign was an aquaculture company.

Hagen says the British Columbia government has a handle on fish farms and their associated impacts. There are 52 federal and provincial acts governing a broad range of aquaculture issues, from farm practices to environmental impacts to employment standards. The provincial government also recently spent over $1 million and more than two years to complete an 1,800-page report that found that fish farms pose little threat to either wild salmon or the environment.

Still, in light of rising concerns about sea lice spreading to wild fish, Hagen has closed 11 of the 28 farms in the Broughton Archipelago, and he plans to study the remaining 17. Hagen also wants to create a panel of stakeholders to help build public consensus about the future direction of the aquaculture industry.

“The most important fish on the West Coast is wild salmon,” says Hagen, who once worked as a deckhand on commercial fishing boats. “We must ensure nothing we do harms them.” Wild salmon are also a priority for the aquaculture industry, says Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association. Fish-farm companies spend millions of dollars on environmental research, Pacific salmon hatcheries and community events and charities. One company, Marine Harvest Canada, recently completed a voluntary $200,000 environmental assessment of all its facilities, and divers check the nets weekly for tears through which fish might escape. All members of the Farmers Association adhere to a “code of practice” that is currently being revised to “reflect industry’s commitment to continual improvement,” says Walling.

While what happens in British Columbia could have far-reaching implications for its neighbors to the south, most U.S. regulators seem unconcerned. “We certainly don’t have any heartburn about fish farms,” says Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with protecting wild salmon. “While I suppose there is a potential problem, because you’re dealing with an exotic species and there are inevitable escapes, so far there hasn’t been a problem, and I don’t anticipate one.”

In part, that’s because the nine fish farms in Washington are peanuts compared to British Columbia, and Gorman doesn’t expect the industry to expand along his state’s highly populated waterfronts when the British Columbia coastline is still relatively empty.

Asked if he is concerned that Canadian fish farms could spread Atlantic salmon to U.S. rivers, another regulator is nonchalant. “This all boils down to your view of risks,” says Andy Appleby, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who has sole charge of monitoring the aquaculture industry. “Atlantic salmon are going to escape, we can count on that, but by our estimates and those of the British Columbia government and (the National Marine Fisheries Service), the consequences of those escapes are very low.”

Appleby says John Volpe’s findings that Atlantic salmon can reproduce in the wild are sound: “No one questions his results.” He adds, however, that Volpe’s conclusion that Atlantics pose a significant threat to Pacific salmon stocks is “a quantum leap.” Despite attempts in 30 different countries, he claims Atlantic salmon haven’t colonized — that is, they haven’t spawned and returned to the same river.

Even so, in the past year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has beefed up the state’s regulations. Starting in 2004, all Atlantic salmon will be marked or branded like cattle, so that if any escape, managers will be able to tell them from wild fish. Every farm must have a plan for preventing escapes, for reporting them to authorities when they do occur, and for capturing escapees when possible.

While Appleby is confident in the science, which, he says, has been “reviewed to death,” he adds, “time will certainly tell.”

Not everyone is content to wait and see. In an effort to combat a government that critics claim is deaf to their concerns, fishing, tribal and environmental groups in both Canada and in the U.S. are trying a new tactic: They’re targeting the group driving industry expansion — American con-sumers. Eighty-five percent of British Columbia farm fish end up on dinner plates in the states.

Last fall, the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, a British Columbia-based coalition that is working with 130 organizations throughout the United States, launched the “Farmed and Dangerous” campaign. The coalition has distributed tens of thousands of postcards and brochures on the potential health effects of eating farmed fish (see story at right). The campaign wants farmed salmon to be labeled as such in grocery stores, fish farms moved onto land or contained in heavy duty tarps so that feces — and fish — can’t leak out, and more science about how wild and farmed salmon interact.

“We cannot afford to see this as a Canadian issue,” says Dave Lutz, a former commercial fisherman who now guides ecotours along the coasts of Washington and British Columbia. He organized a group of U.S. fishermen, Native Americans and environmentalists to travel to Ocean Falls and protest with the Heiltsuk. On the boat ride to the protest, he and McAllister huddle against the wind and joke about how finally Canadians and Americans are “overcoming the language barrier” in order to work together on this issue.

“If these farmed fish move across the border, they could take over our natural ecosystem,” says Harlan James, a member of Washington’s Lummi Indian Nation, who traveled to Ocean Falls for the protest. “We’re trying to heal a wound before it festers into something infectious.”

As the boats laden with protesters dock in Ocean Falls, they are greeted by 80 members of the Nuxalk Nation, the Heiltsuk’s historic enemy. Standing in a circle on shore, adorned in red button blankets and cedar-carved masks, tribal leaders from both bands speak of working as brothers to fight the hatchery. As the afternoon wears on and rain drizzles from the sky, the First Nations and their supporters march onto the construction site to sing and dance in protest.

Omega Salmon Group Ltd. evacuates employees the day of the protest, but resumes construction the next day and expects to finish this summer.

Protesters acknowledge that, as long as there is an American market hungry for farmed fish, Canada will continue to throw its doors open to aquaculture. Until consumers in America and Canada are willing to vote with their pocket books, activists are dubious that government or industry will be inspired to reform.

Still, with or without American support, Canadians will continue to fight for change. In February, the Heiltsuk sued the provincial government and Omega Salmon Group Ltd., claiming that the new hatchery violates the tribe’s aboriginal rights. The case may be heard by the Supreme Court of British Columbia as soon as May.

“Our cultural survival is at risk; our whole resource base is at risk,” says Pamela Reid after the protest, her voice flat with fatigue. “There’s a Heiltsuk phrase: kaxlaya gwilas. It means we have an obligation to uphold the laws of our ancestors. We have no choice about whether or not to fight fish farms. This is a way of life we are responsible for.”

Rebecca Clarren, a former HCN associate editor, lives in Portland, Oregon.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

- Are you gonna eat that?

You can contact ...

      Mary Ellen Walling, B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, 250/286-1636, [email protected];
      Jennifer Lash, Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, 250/741-4006,;
      Stan Hagen, B.C. Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, 250/356-9076, [email protected];
       Andy Appleby, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 360/902-2663, [email protected]
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