Cheap salmon, hidden costs

  • Rebecca Clarren

  Salmon, once a delicacy, is now cheap and fresh and available year-round, appearing the embodiment of all that is good about progress.

But behind that cheap price tag are costs -- to our oceans, wild salmon and native cultures and economies.

Off the coast of British Columbia, Atlantic salmon are raised in net pens dropped directly into the Pacific Ocean. Fish excrement and antibiotic-laden fish food float through the nets to pollute the ocean floor. And the pens, made from nylon webbing, aren’t exactly Alcatraz. Nearly 450,000 Atlantic salmon escape into Pacific waters every year, reports the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Scientists worry that these introduced salmon may out-compete native fish for habitat and food, or interbreed with their wild cousins, diluting the genetic purity of Pacific stocks.

Already, interaction between wild and farmed fish has caused environmental damage. Like tenement apartments for fish, average fish farms house 560,000 salmon. In such tight quarters, diseases such as sea lice spread easily.

Two summers ago in the Broughton Archipelago, a string of islands near the north end of Vancouver Island, wild juvenile salmon migrating past net pens became infested with sea lice, thanks to the farmed fish. The consequences were dire: Of the 5 billion juvenile salmon that migrated from eight different river systems to the ocean, only 55,000 returned this past summer.

Environmental disaster on this scale is crippling the commercial fishing industry, as decreasing runs of wild fish lead to plummeting catches and fishing quotas. Sointula, a fishing village east of Vancouver Island where families have lived and fished for over a century, now bears the scars of economic decline. Red "For Sale" signs pepper front lawns, school enrollment has dropped by over half in the past decade, and the talk at the local bakery is of how to snag an Alaskan fishing permit.

The Heiltsuk, a tribe in the remote northern fjordlands of British Columbia, can’t afford to let this happen. For the band of 1,300 that calls itself "the salmon people," the fish are truly their lifeblood. The average family lives on $5,500 a year and relies on salmon for most meals. In midsummer, smokehouses and open barbecue pits fill the air with the rich smell of next winter’s nourishment.

Fish farms threaten all of this. A Norwegian company, Pan Fish, is building a hatchery that, when completed next spring, will produce 10 million Atlantic salmon smolts a year. In a region of massive industrial fish farms, this would be the largest.

Pan Fish says fish farms could help the Heiltsuk, much the way they have boosted coastal towns to the south. There, women and men work side by side in clean, efficient factories that bleed, de-bone, portion and package farmed salmon. People are grateful for the steady paycheck and so are local governments; in only two decades farmed salmon has become British Columbia’s largest agricultural export, contributing $603 million to the provincial economy.

This economic engine may be short-lived. If fish farmers continue to act with little regard for the environment, the ocean may become so polluted that aquaculture won’t be possible. And once the riches run out, companies will depart for cleaner waters -- much like mining and logging companies that pull up stakes after depleting the resources they’ve come to harvest.

Only five corporations own 90 percent of the fish farms in British Columbia, and these multinational companies are nearly all based in foreign countries, such as Norway. In the early 1990s, companies faced such strict regulation from the Norwegian government that they decided to colonize the Canadian coast.

The American West has seen this pattern. Corporations have swallowed many of our family farms and local fishing operations, and rural communities topple in their wake. But the Heiltsuk, who have lived along the coast for over 10,000 years, say they are not planning to leave.

"Long after (the fish farms) are gone, we will be the ones to clean up their mess," says elder Edwin Newman.

Yet it will be nearly impossible for the Heiltsuk -- who have little political clout -- to stop the aqauculture industry before it inflicts more damage. Change depends on us -- Americans who consume most of the farmed salmon grown off the coast of Canada. This won’t be easy, because the fish taste good and the price is relatively low.

But here’s what we can do: We can ask lawmakers to put pressure on the Canadian government to beef up protections for wild salmon. We can ask grocers to sell only salmon that’s wild. And we can stop eating farmed salmon. Perhaps these aren’t big things, but if we do them, Edwin Newman’s great-grandchildren will thank us.

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News ( She wrote this second of two essays on farmed salmon in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a freelance writer.

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