Salmon Science

Salmon are not only an icon of the Pacific Northwest, but form the backbone of the entire coastal ecosystem. The salmon represent a massive transfer of nutrient wealth from the ocean to inland waters, feeding bears, eagles, and fertilizing the forests after they spawn and die. Declining wild salmon populations has a ripple effect through the entire ecosystem. As Jim Lichatowich and David Montgomery have demonstrated, wild salmon in both the Atlantic and Pacific have suffered massively as a result of habitat loss, poor hatchery practices, commercial and sport fishing pressure, and now the presence of farmed salmon in migration routes.

In raising money to support preservation of wild salmon, we are obviously somewhat biased against the current practices used by fish farms. However, based on the research we’ve read, the bulk of scientific evidence seems to corroborate our bias. Alexandra Morton has shared a host of peer-reviewed research papers, all indicating that sea lice from salmon farms are contributing to juvenile salmon mortality, especially among pink and chum salmon. New research continues to pile up: just yesterday a new study came out indicating that Fraser River sockeye may be at risk of sea lice infection as well.

sea lice on juvenile pink salmon Responses to the conclusion that open-net salmon farming is damaging wild salmon stocks include strong criticism. What strikes me, however, is that studies implicating salmon farms tend to be funded by independent organizations with (apparently) nothing to gain from the conclusions aside from accomplishing environmental protection. Criticism of these studies tends to come from aquaculturists employed by or affiliated with salmon farms. I am generally skeptical of research when the author may gain financially from the result.

Middle Bay Closed ContainmentAn apparent solution to the issue of parasitic infection of wild salmon from farmed salmon stocks is “closed containment”. Closed containment technology simply puts a solid barrier between farmed salmon and wild salmon, eliminating the problems of parasitic cross-infection and farm waste pollution. We asked Mary Ellen Walling of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, “why not make the switch to closed containment?” She referred us to a 2008 paper by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The paper provides a rather in-depth analysis of the issue, finding that “there are no commercial-scale, closed-containment systems operating in the marine environment that are exclusively used to raise salmon” and that “there is an inherent difficulty in evaluating these technologies in an integrated fashion because no standards have been established and there is limited information on past performance of these technologies.”

Moreover, “a review of over 40 closed-containment systems from around the world found that none was producing exclusively adult Atlantic salmon and that many previous attempts to do so had failed. Reasons for failure were numerous and were often interrelated. These reasons included but were not limited to mechanical breakdown, poor fish performance, management failure, declines in market price and inadequate financing.”

After reading the paper, I feel that the reasons that farms will not switch to closed containment can be summed up quite simply: nobody has done it, and we don’t want to be the first. While I understand that farmers often operate on the very edge of profitability and are understandably conservative when it comes to new strategies, the case for closed containment is compelling. To me, “declines in market price and inadequate financing” should not enter into a discussion about the effectiveness of a new technology. Moreover, the study specifies production of Atlantic salmon. While I have no reason to doubt that claim, British Columbia’s first commercial-scale, ocean-based closed containment salmon farm is operational growing Chinook salmon in Middle Bay.

Sargo Fin Farms Reservoir Moreover, Mariculture Systems, Inc., makers of the SARGO closed-containment system, claim that farm operators switching to closed containment will realize an immediate reduction in operating costs for a variety of reasons, including reduced mortality, reduced cost of feed, increasing productivity, reduced labor costs, reduced repair and maintenance material costs, and reduced capital costs.

While we are somewhat distant from these issues at the moment, but we do intend to take stock of the situation firsthand this summer. We have received a gracious invitation from Mary Ellen Walling to tour a salmon farm and meet with their aquaculturists, and hope to tour the Middle Bay facility as well as interview commercial fishermen who rely on wild salmon for their livelihood. As we learn more, we will be sure to share our firsthand accounts, photo, and video.

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