Farmageddon and the Spin-doctors

They [the fish-farm industry] said Atlantics wouldn’t escape. They escaped. Then they said they might escape but wouldn’t survive. We found them in the sea. Then they said they wouldn’t go into river systems. We found them in the rivers. Then they said they might go in the river but they’d never reproduce. Now we see they reproduce. Given that sorry history of assurances I conclude that they don’t know what they are talking about.

– Lynn Hunter of the environmentalist David Suzuki Foundation

There is a new consumer demand in western Canada. Restaurants in British Columbia (BC), Canada are starting to respond to it; these restaurants now offer only wild salmon for their patrons. Public demand is driven by the perceived dangers of salmon farming in BC. Reports of disease transference to the wild fish stocks,1 escapes of farmed salmon into the wild,2 and scientific evidence that farmed Atlantic salmon have entered Pacific rivers and spawned have unsettled British Columbians.3

The fish-farming industry was generous in its funding of some Liberal party candidates. It was a good investment; the Liberal Party after becoming government ended the seven-year moratorium on fish-farm expansion in September 2002. It was reported that in addition to the C$600 million that the fish-farm industry contributes to the BC economy that a further C$1 billion will result with over a 1,000 new jobs.4 The economics sounds very glib but what about the costs? The health of native Pacific salmon stocks is threatened and hence the commercial salmon-fishing industry, recreational fishing, tourism, and the First Nations way of life are at risk.

The concerns over fish farming are far-reaching. There is outrage over seal and sea lion kills near fish farms,5 unsustainable fishing for feed stock, fecal and drug contamination of the environment, the current glut of salmon that has depressed the market for wild salmon placing the livelihoods of many fishers at risk, clashes with First Nations, and cross-border opprobrium from neighboring Alaska, which doesn’t allow fish farming and fears the consequences to its own salmon stocks.6 Indeed fish farms pose a threat to human life according to the David Suzuki Foundation.6

The fish-farm industry counters that it is doing what it can to address issues such as escaping salmon that “represents an economic loss for the farmer.”7 The industry maintains that escaped salmon pose little risk and that the “ultimate goal of BC salmon farmers is to eliminate escapes.” Alaska has charged that the deliberate loss of slow growing fish is a strategy economically beneficial to the fish farms; numbers of escaped salmon reaching the wild are in the millions.6 With a glutted market and low prices this argument has a verisimilitude to it.

Opposition is strong and diverse. Groups united in opposition to the dangers of fish farms include First Nations, conservation, fishing, tourism and recreation parties. Environmentalists do offer a solution: “secure closed containment systems that filter wastes and prevent escapes and disease transfer.”3 The fish-farm industry, however, is unwilling to commit to measures that might undermine profitability.

The BC government has promised that new most stringent measures for fish farms are on tap. Somehow the relation between the Liberal Party and the fish-farm industry has been too cozy. BC Minister of Fisheries John van Dongen soon found himself in hot water and had to resign when a RCMP probe began into his tendentious dealings with the a fish-farm concern. His replacement Stan Hagen was also challenged for receiving money from the fish-farming industry.8 This is not exactly a record that inspires public trust.

The federal government Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) maintains that fish farms are environmentally sustainable. The DFO is criticized, however, for abnegating its role as defender of the fisheries. Former DFO biologist Otto Langer says regulations overseeing fish farms are “inadequate” and that an increase in fish farms will worsen the plight of wild salmon situation further.4

First Nations are starkly opposed to fish farming and the effects on the traditional native way of life. Arnie Narcisse of the BC Aboriginal Fisheries Commission declared that the “DFO is complicit in the destruction of wild salmon stocks and is therefore infringing on aboriginal rights.” Greenpeace Canada’s Catherine Stewart characterized the danger to wild stocks from farm salmon as a “Farmageddon” aided and abetted by the DFO. Executive Director of the Sierra Legal Defense Fund, Karen Wristen, railed against the DFO’s industry bias: “In adopting an unequivocal advocacy role for the aquaculture industry, the Department may well be found to have been negligent, perhaps even reckless, in the discharge of its duty to protect wild fish.”9

Nonetheless, while high profile environmental organizations received short shrift from the fish-farm support network, consumers have been able to effect change where it will most be felt: the fish-farm industry’s bottom line. The industry is taking a battering. Evidently, the fish-farm industry thought it was time to bring in the corporate spin heavyweights.

Hill and Knowlton

The BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) has begun a public relations offensive by acquiring the services of notorious weavers of agitprop, Hill and Knowlton (H&K). H&K is a huge transnational well-connected in high political and intelligence circles that has been characterized as “functioning as a virtual fourth branch of government.”10 H&K is the spinmeister for, among others, corporate polluters, heinous dictatorships, and scandalized elites. It seeks to maneuver and ameliorate the public perceptions through, according to the H&K Canada website, “traditional methodologies as well as cutting-edge technologies.”11 Translated from corporate euphemism this means mendacity and appeal to the venality of officials. H&K has attempted to manipulate the public perception of miscreants and a slew of debacles, among them the massacre at Tiananmen Square, Exxon Valdes, the establishment of the Tobacco Institute to bolster cigarette smoking,10 the Lays of Enron infamy,12 Iran Contra, the near disaster at Three Mile Island, the Moonies, and improving the public face of regimes in flagrant breach of human rights.13

H&K are flexible; they can also work simultaneously for and against tyrannical governments. Most infamously H&K were the spin-doctors who concocted the lie about the premature babies removed from their incubators in Kuwait. The phony escapade featured the crocodile tears of a well-coached Nayirah, a self-described volunteer at the Kuwaiti hospital. After the US Congress was swayed to wage war on Iraq, it was revealed that Nayirah had never worked in the hospital and was in fact the daughter to the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US. H&K pocketed a lucrative $10.8 million from that episode.13

Jeffrey St. Clair was blunt in his assessment: “Hill and Knowlton is to corporate damage control what Arthur Andersen is to the financial books of an ailing company, a sleight of hand artist. Hill and Knowlton has transformed the leaders of Latin American death squads into agents of altruism, tobacco pushers into health nuts, toxic waste generators into saviors of the wilderness.”12 H&K’s services don’t come cheap. From the H&K Canada website is the claim that they give their clients “the insight to turn unexpected risk into competitive advantage.”11 The BCSFA is obviously hoping that H&K can make them out to be an environmentally-sound benefactor of the wild Pacific salmon.

Since taking on H&K the BCSFA has responded “with disappointment” to the decision of restaurants to remove salmon from their menus. The industry contends that it is a victim of an “escalating campaign of mis-information.” The BCSFA did not identify the misinformation in their response. They did not respond to the proposed solution of contained fish pens. Instead the BCSFA iterated the 4,000 jobs created by the industry and the benefits to the BC economy. The story has been spun now: ecological concerns are marginalized and replaced by concern for people’s health. The BCSFA worried fallaciously that consumers were turning away from salmon altogether to consume meat, which they claimed “is not good for [consumer] health.” No evidence was presented to support this assertion.14

People Power

The events in BC demonstrate that public opinion is real and effective. This has importance for the peace movement. Worldwide anti-war rallies had given pause to many hawks. As the war rages people power has the potential to end the war as happened in Vietnam. In BC opposition to war in Iraq is real but most importantly people have shown that their power is felt by the establishment. BC has seen consumer rejection of fish-farmed salmon give renewed hope to the wild preference.15

David Suzuki responded to the industry resort to spin-doctors by lamenting: “Over and over again the industries immediately hire PR flacks rather than saying, ‘Gee, if these criticisms are real, we’d better do something’.”4 H&K are not ordinary PR flaks. This time the wild salmon alliances are up against a whole new kind of opponent.

  1. Gordon Young, “Wild Pink Salmon Crash Blamed on BC Fish Farm Lice,” Ichthyology: In the News, 25 November 2002. []
  2. Jim Fulton, “Opinions: Against Farm Salmon,” Vancouver Sun, 15 March 2000. []
  3. Stephen Hume, “A disturbing case of invasive biology: Might an exotic species from the East Coast tip the scales against wild salmon in B.C. waters?Vancouver Sun, 15 March 2000. [] []
  4. CBC Online Staff, “B.C. criticized for lifting fish farm ban,” CBC News, 13 September 2002. [] [] []
  5. The Associated Press, “Predator kills at B.C. fish farms decline,” Seattle Times, 6 March 2002. []
  6. Ed Hunt, “BC Readies for Fish Farm Expansion: Alaska Fumes as BC prepares major expansion of Fish Farming,” Tide Pool, 2002. [] [] []
  7. Escapes from Salmon Farms,” B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, 2002. []
  8. Brent Jang, “B.C. too close to fish-farming industry, critics say,” Globe and Mail, Wednesday, 5 February 2003. []
  9. Alliance Condemns DFO’s Fishfarm Policy,” Georgia Strait Alliance, 27 June 1999. []
  10. Big League Spin: The Reputation of Hill and Knowlton,” Camas Magazine.com, 2001. [] []
  11. Hill and Knowlton Canada website. [] []
  12. Jeffrey St. Clair, “Hill and Knowlton Taught Her How to Cry: Tears of a Clown,” CounterPunch, 30 January 2002. [] []
  13. Johan Carlisle, “Public Relationships: Hill & Knowlton, Robert Gray, and the CIA,” Covert Action Quarterly, Spring 1993. [] []
  14. News, “BC Salmon Farmers Association Responds to Restaurant Decisions to Stop Serving Farm Salmon,” 16 March 2003. []
  15. CBC Online Staff, “Farmed salmon losing fish fight,” CBC News, 14 March 2003. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.