Voyage of Discovery: On December 17th, 2020, Bernadette Jordan, the Canadian Minister for Fisheries tweeted that – ‘starting today, we intend to phase out the fish farms in the Discovery Islands. We made this difficult decision after many consultations including with First Nations. These farms are not the right fit for their communities or the area.’
I am writing this commentary from a distance of over four thousand miles away and it may be that in British Columbia the term ‘right fit’ might mean something different, but it does seem that ‘not the right fit’ may be a rather tenuous reason for making such a big decision. The Minister told Ted Field from Global News BC that the Discovery Islands is a unique situation, and that the area has been on a different track since the Cohen Commission report a decade ago.
When the Honourable Bruce Cohen published his report in October 2012, I had only been looking at the interactions between farmed and wild salmon for a couple of years and then just on a part-time basis. In October 2012, I was still number crunching the catch data from Scottish rivers so although at the time I was aware of the Cohen Commission, I didn’t really take much note as my focus was on Scottish rivers. However, it is never too late to take a look.
I was first drawn to a short paragraph in the Commission report about the events that precipitated the inquiry. It is only 156 words long compared to the 1,200 pages of the three-volume report. It highlights that in November 2009, when the inquiry began, the Fraser River Sockeye fishery had just experienced its worst return since the 1940s and it was the third consecutive year in which the commercial fishery had remained closed. This closure had followed nearly two decades of steady declines in Sockeye abundance. It is these events that prompted the inquiry.
It is unclear why for three consecutive years Sockeye runs were the lowest for many years but, maybe the fish were trying to send a message to the inquiry, in 2010, they returned in their millions with an estimated 34.5 million returning across the wider catchment in the largest run since 1913.
The Pacific Salmon Foundation produce graphs of the runs of all the Pacific salmon species from across Canada. The graph is not complete, but PSF say that there has been a 10% increase in fish compared to the prior decade. The Cohen Commission’s report suggesting that Fraser River Sockeye had been in decline over the previous two decades, yet these declines should be considered against the runs from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The Sockeye runs in the Fraser River also need to be considered against the other key rivers in Canada. PSF say that the Naas has seen a 47% decrease; the Skeena, a 31% decrease and the Central Coast a 70% decrease, yet the small Vancouver Island runs have increased by 35%.
There does appear to have been a widespread decline of Sockeye across Canada which would suggest a wider problem but those whose voices prompted the Cohen Commissions appear to have only focused on the presence of salmon farms. Yet, the other river catchments are a long way from any salmon farm.
The Cohen Inquiry produced 75 recommendations. Of these 14 are directed at the salmon farming industry (one of which is administrative). That equates to just over 18% of the focus.
The Commission heard from 179 witnesses of who just three came from the salmon farming industry. That is nearly 2%. The three included one vet, one environmental compliance officer and one regulatory affairs officer. By comparison eight witnesses came from the DFO and the BC Ministry: five from academia, two consultants and three objectors including Alexandra Morton. It doesn’t seem to me that given its importance to the local area and its alleged implication in the decline of Sockeye. that the industry got a fair hearing, but then, when does it ever?
After the inquiry report was published, the industry said that the recommendations are all about protecting wild salmon and that there was a confidence that the farms are not a risk to wild salmon. The industry also said that it supports further research to confirm this.
I very much appreciate that in whichever nation the industry operates, it needs to work with the authorities as well as to be seen to be working with them. It was good that the industry at the time felt there was a confidence that they were not perceived to be a risk to wild salmon, and I know it is easy to speak with hindsight as well as from many miles away but having just read the Cohen Commission’s recommendations, I think that at the time those relating to salmon farming should have been challenged. I would have been especially concerned about recommendation no 18 which effectively hung a Sword of Damocles over the industry in the Discovery Islands. This meant that the viability of these sites was permanently under threat.
Recommendation no 18 states that if the Minister determines that salmon farms pose more than a minimal risk to migrating wild salmon, then the Minister can close them down.
Clearly, the Minister has followed the recommendation made by the Cohen Commission to review the operation of the salmon farms around the Discovery Islands by September 2020 yet has chosen to ignore the second part of the recommendation that the decision should be based on the risk to migrating Sockeye. Instead, the decision to close the farms has, by her own admission, been made following discussions with representatives of the local First Nations who do not want salmon farms in the area. I am unable to see where the Cohen Commission advised that closure of the farms should be considered based solely on the what the First Nations want. The Commission was more interested in the science, which was fundamental to the inquiry.
The DFO have spent C$40m on nine scientific studies which showed that salmon farming pose minimal impacts on migrating Sockeye salmon and yet, the Minister chose to ignore this advice, as recommended by the Cohen Commission. Instead, she listened to the demands of the First Nations who want the farms to close.
Looking back, I am sure that much more could have been done by the salmon farming industry to avert the current decision but what was done and was not done is no longer the issue. Instead, it is what can be done now to reverse this decision.
Simply, I would argue that the Minister’s decision should be challenged.
This is because deciding that the salmon farms are not a right fit is not the same as deciding if they pose a risk to migrating wild salmon. Social licence may be important, but it should be part of the decision process, not the only consideration.
The Minister should also be challenged because in recommendation no 19, the Cohen Commission laid out that the Minister should give detailed reasons for the decision. I am not sure that saying salmon farms are not a right fit is a detailed or valid reason for making this decision and certainly there does not appear to have been any detailed reasons given to explain the decision.
It is not surprising that a detailed explanation has not been forthcoming. The decision appears to have been based indirectly on the opinion of Alexandra Morton, who for many years, has been convinced that salmon farms are to blame for the declines of wild salmon in the Fraser River. Yet, rather surprisingly, for someone who claims to be a biologist, she appears to be ignorant of the declines of salmon in other BC rivers. The Pacific Salmon Foundation highlight that runs of Sockeye in the Naas have seen a 47% decrease: the Skeena, a 31% decrease and the Central Coast a 70% decrease. These areas do not have salmon farms but are also in decline.
Last year, the Toronto Star highlighted the plight of the Sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. The run had been forecast at 4.7 million but had been amended to just 628,000 fish. Of course, the First Nations were, and still are, rightly to be concerned.
However, the Toronto Star also highlighted that the Sockeye forecast for the Skeena River, BC’s second largest river had also been downgraded from 1.7 million fish to 652,000.
The question that should be put to the Minister, Rachel Blaney – the local MP, the First Nations and the activists is if salmon farms are the cause of the decline of Sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, then what is causing a similar decline in the Skeena because the Skeena is located many hundreds of miles from any salmon farm?
Last year, Sue Grant, head of the state salmon programme at DFO told the Toronto Star that climate change and habitat loss are the major factors in the decline of salmon populations. In addition, she said, that the unusual weather events such as ‘The Blob’, an area of unusually warm water that occurred in the Pacific between 2013 and 2017 together with an extreme El Nino event in 2015 that raised the ocean temperature put stress on sources of the salmon’s food. Ms Grant said that when there are changes in ocean temperature, the zooplankton, the basis of the food chain moves and consequently the fish do not feed as well.
Salmon farming is an easy target to blame. It is the thing that locals can see. However, they need to open their eyes and recognise that it is not just Sockeye salmon whose numbers are falling. Atlantic salmon are also in decline across all their range as are many other species of natural life.
In the years to come, the Discovery Islands are likely to have lost not only their farmed salmon but also their wild fish too. They will certainly come to rue their decision to persuade the Minister to close down the salmon farms.
I am still minded of the Minister’s comment that the salmon farms in Discovery Islands are not the right fit. I still don’t know what this means but I suspect that even after forty years, there is still a suspicion about farming Atlantic salmon in the Pacific region despite no evidence of negative interactions.
Could a solution be found in changing the species farmed to Steelhead trout, a fish that grows well in net pens and is not a salmon. In Norway, these fish are marketed as Fjord Trout whilst in Scotland, they are known as Loch Trout. Could this be a whole new opportunity to develop a new industry and a new market for Fraser River Trout?
Up in flames: According to the Toronto Star, when Alexandra Morton heard the news of the impending closure of the Discovery Island salmon farms, she wept with joy and then she switched off her electronics and went outside to start a fire. She said that she stood there watching the sparks go up into the sky, adding that they looked like little fish. However, I would suggest that they are more akin to the livelihoods of many coastal communities going up in flames as they lose not only the farmed salmon as well as their declining stocks of wild fish.
Ms Morton told the newspaper that the Cohen inquiry had focused on the Discovery Island because evidence suggested that the Sockeye were going missing between Vancouver and the north end of Vancouver Island. She said that the Discovery Islands is where one third of all BC wild salmon and most of the Fraser River Sockeye migrate through the waste flowing from seven million farmed Atlantic salmon with evidence of amplified parasites, viruses and bacteria pouring out into the route of the largest wild salmon runs in the world.
Unfortunately, Ms Morton is mistaken as I understand that most migrating salmon take the quickest possible route to sea and thus pass through the Johnstone Straight, which, because it’s a major shipping route, is free of any salmon farms.
She is also incorrect in suggesting that viruses and bacteria are infecting wild salmon. There is very little evidence to back up her claims. This was confirmed by Fisheries & Oceans back in September, which resulted in an outcry from Ms Morton and her supporters who argued that their conclusion was flawed. Instead, they have quoted a new work published by the Royal Society in October. The paper by PhD candidate Dylan Shea said that there was an increased probability of detecting pathogen environmental DNA closer to active salmon farms than those that were inactive. The problem with citing this work is that it is clearly not unbiased. Two of the authors, Andrew Batemen and Martin Krkosek are directors of Alexandra Morton’s Salmon Coast Field Station. I am also reminded that some of the original work by Martin Krkosek in 2005 claimed that sea lice from salmon farms were responsible for killed large numbers of migrating Pink salmon yet for much of the study, the farm quoted was empty of fish. Martin Krkosek eventually admitted that his work was correlative and that he had not actually shown that the salmon farms had caused the loss of wild salmon.
Correlative studies have been widely used to blame salmon farms for the loss of wild fish, not just in Canada but in Europe too. Just because wild fish have declined doesn’t not mean salmon farms are to blame but this is largely irrelevant to anti-salmon farm campaigners.
Returning to Alexandra Morton, she credits the First Nations for carrying the (her) message about wild salmon to the Government. I would not be surprised if the Dylan Shea paper was highlighted during the meetings between First Nations and the Minister as reason why salmon farms should be removed.
Ms Morton said what has happened is like opening an artery and suddenly the blood is going to flow again. This is what the fish are, they are bloodstream. Ms Morton is planning to be out on the water next spring so she can watch the fish go to sea undestroyed.
She continued that now the arteries are open, the conservation projects stand a chance, although she doesn’t say what these conservation projects area. Meanwhile, Chief Darren Blaney of the Homalco said that whilst the salmon farming industry is struggling with the decision, commercial fishermen have been struggling with less fish to catch. He said that when the salmon are there, then its our feasting time. I suspect that Chief Blaney is going to be disappointed because its difficult to see what can be done to conserve stocks other than to stop killing any fish at all.
The big question for Alexandra Morton and the First Nations is when the fish still fail to return, who then, are they going to blame?
The Message: Over the last forty years, the salmon farming industry has been subjected to a range of misinformation. Angler’s and fishermen blame salmon farms for the decline of wild fish. Activists don’t like that companies are involved. Environmentalists blame salmon farms for the degradation of ecosystems and the NIMBYs simply don’t want salmon farming in their backyard.
I remember a time when some large international corporations invested in salmon farming because they saw it as a green option to counter the negative impacts of some of their other activities. How times have changed.
The message coming out from Canada is loud and clear. If salmon farming, and no doubt other aquaculture activities too are to thrive and prosper, then the time for keeping a low profile to avoid rocking the boat has come to an end. The salmon farming industry should stand up and be loud and proud and counter and correct every single hint of misinformation levelled against it. It doesn’t matter whether this comes from the lone keyboard warrior or the biggest NGO. The industry shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the science, whether it comes from government bodies or academia. if we don’t want a repeat of the latest events from the Discovery Islands, we should all stand up and speak out.