Fish farms can help stop overfishing, but only when they’re managed sustainably.
The temperate waters of British Columbia are a perfect environment for salmon, as its diverse ecosystem depends on this keystone species for survival. There are five species that currently dominate the salmon fisheries in British Columbia: coho, sockeye, pink, chum, and chinook.
Salmon are anadromous, which means they spend their life in the ocean and travel up freshwater rivers to spawn (release their eggs and sperm) and die. In fact, salmon have an incredible sense of smell that allows them to return to the very river they were born! The return of new generations of salmon to the rivers every year has been a vital component of British Columbia’s fisheries, economy, and wildlife existence.
Salmon farms in British Columbia gained popularity in the 1980s and soon resulted in overproduction
Overproduction led to a decline in sale prices and an increased risk in environmental stability. Despite overproduction in salmon farms, fishermen were reporting a drastic reduction in wild salmon catch by almost 100% in some cases. From 1994 to 2002, a moratorium (ban) was placed on creating more salmon farms, but wild salmon stock continued to decline.
Salmon farms in British Columbia are notoriously filled with parasites and viruses
Photo by Paul Nicklen
Densely-stocked salmon are at higher risk for diseases and parasites because they can be transmitted faster in close quarters. While sea lice parasites are virtually nonexistent in wild populations, they are very common in farmed salmon. They latch onto the fish and feed on their blood, with the potential of being fatal, especially for small juveniles.
Piscine Reovirus (PRV) is a blood virus that infects the salmons’ red blood cells, weakening them. It is argued that PRV isn’t fatal by itself, but it has been shown to make salmon more susceptible to diseases.
In British Columbia, salmon are kept in sea pens along coastlines and are filled to the maximum. One pen can have up to 1.7 million fish! The salmon farm industry has admitted that up to 80% of their stock is infected with this virus, and consumers are therefore eating salmon that test positive for PRV.
The placement of salmon farms in British Columbia are in direct path of wild salmon migrations
Wild salmon swim past these infected pens and can easily catch sea lice, PRV, and/or other viruses and diseases. Infected wild salmon become weaker and have difficulty swimming upstream. Many die before reaching spawning grounds or shortly after, before they have the chance to pass on their genes. This prevention of spawning intercepts the creation of new generations, creating a horrifying chain reaction that results in empty nets (and wallets) for local fishermen.
A gag-order protected failing salmon farms in British Columbia
When a study was published in 2011 to confirm these findings, the author was issued a gag order in order to preserve the falling integrity of British Columbia salmon farms. Since salmon farm disease records are confidential, they are not required to publicly announce what diseases their stocks contain.
If wild salmon manage to escape infection, they are further threatened by the massive amounts of pollution released by salmon farms. Feces, antibiotics, pesticides, and excess food enter the water and create an ecological disaster that risks the entire BC ecosystem. It has also become a fight for human rights, as these farms operate along indigenous territory and compromise Natives’ way of life.
The tipping point for sustainable fish farms
After 162,000 Atlantic salmon escaped a commercial sea pen in August 2017, it became the tipping point for change. In March 2018, the state of Washington banned Pacific salmon sea pens with a 5-year phase-out plan. Since Oregon and California don’t have any salmon farms, this ban could potentially mean the end of Atlantic salmon fisheries on the West Coast.
Although salmon farms have gotten a lot of negative spotlight, it’s important to remember there are many other fish farms that are sustainable. Aquaculture does offer many benefits if properly managed. For this reason, it is clear why being cognizant of where our seafood comes from and supporting sustainable fisheries is essential to protecting the quality of the oceans and coastlines for future generations.
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