A Stain Upon the Sea

Profit Over Wild Salmon

Review of A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming, by Hume et al. (Harbour Publishing, 2004)

Canada’s west coast is naturally blessed. Picturesque alpine lakes and glaciers give rise to spectacular waterfalls that plunge to clear, rushing rivers and streams that forge into the deep-invading arms of the fjords that extend from the life-churning ocean. Evergreen forests of pine, spruce, majestic cedars, and towering Douglas firs sweep upwards from the emerald water’s edge with the snow-capped Coastal Mountain range as a breath-taking backdrop.

The creature that symbolizes the merger of oceanic and fresh waters is the anadromous Pacific salmon. The salmon have a long history in the Pacific; the fossil record for the salmon stretches back 1.6 million years to the Pleistocene Age, with an origin perhaps 100 million years ago. The Pacific salmon has since evolved into five species — pink, chum, sockeye, coho, and chinook — that inhabit a particular niche within the aqueous ecosystem. On the west coast of North America, the salmon range from northern California to Alaska.

The salmon’s lives begin as eggs deposited in a gravel bed, fertilized by milt from the male salmon. Upon hatching, they are tiny creatures called alevins, with huge eyes attached to orange sacs that sustain them nutritionally. Later they emerge from the gravel as small fry and search for feed. If the young fish survive, they will migrate as fingerlings to the saline embrace of the ocean. In the open ocean the salmon feed voraciously and carnivorously. Eventually the adult salmon will answer the not-so-well-understood, instinctual call-of-nature and return to their birth waters to spawn again.

A Stain Upon the Sea

Although salmon spawn throughout the year, it is particularly in autumn when school groups, families, naturalists, and visitors flood to the leaf-strewn banks of flowing waters to observe the epic life-and-death struggle of the returning salmon. I often admired the fall spectacle and have donned wetsuit, mask, fins, and snorkel to drift with the unyielding flow while shoals of salmon powerfully darted up current around my mass.

The salmon’s life cycle has great importance for the web-of-life. This renewal of salmon provides an ecological feast for myriad creatures from cutthroat trout to bald eagles and seagulls to large predators such as the black and grizzly bears and to the microorganisms that decompose the decaying carcasses. But the Pacific salmon is increasingly under greater threat; and, as a consequence, the ecosystem that it is a part of.

Shoddy logging practices near streams, mine tailings entering the waters, and the human thirst for more-and-more energy leading to the damming of salmon-bearing waters have wiped out the salmon and imperiled them elsewhere. A more recent menace has invaded the Pacific coast: salmon farms.

Stephen Hume, Alexandra Morton, Betty C. Keller, Rosella M. Leslie, Otto Langer, and Don Staniford have synthesized the various threads of danger posed by salmon farming to the wild Pacific salmon in an informative book, A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming. Salmon farming involves the previously unheard-of mass cultivation of a carnivore species. To compound matters, on the Pacific coast, the farmed species is the introduced Atlantic salmon, a domesticated variant dubbed by some as Salmo domesticus.

A Stain Upon the Sea revolves around the cataclysmic collapse of the 2001-2002 pink salmon run in the Broughton archipelago off northeast Vancouver Island — a collapse attributed to a lethal sea lice infestation originating from the salmon farms. Hume details a similar collapse near salmon-farming operations in Ireland.

Hume also examines the perspective of First Nations people, whose culture and existence are bound with the salmon. Salmon farming endangers this indigenous way-of-life. Kyuquot Nation member Leo Jack rails against the greed behind the drive to expand salmon-farming operations.

British Columbia salmon-farming operations have ramifications outside the province. In Alaska where salmon farming is prohibited, fisherman David Harsila exclaims, “Alaska is the next target. When I look at the salmon farming industry I sort of boil it down to the structure of the multinational conglomerates and how they can influence government.”

Keller and Leslie chronicle the haphazard growth of salmon farms that are predominantly controlled by a few foreign multinational corporations.

Langer delineates how his former place of employment, the federal Department of Fisheries (DFO), functions contrary to its mandate, which includes the protection of the fisheries and the marine and freshwater environment. The DFO is described as politicized; many key personnel are considered unknowledgeable about fisheries, and some work in an incestuous relationship with the salmon-farming industry that the DFO must monitor.

The situation is so egregious that Langer muses, “Salmon farms seemed to have been given immunity from [the regulations of] the Fisheries Act.”

Langer finds particularly disturbing DFO’s recalcitrance to seriously investigate the alleged outbreak of sea lice in the Broughton archipelago.

Biologist Morton gives a firsthand account of the sea lice infestation traceable to salmon farms that precipitated a horrific 99 percent wipeout of the pink salmon run. She begins with the government chicanery that led to locating salmon farms in extremely sensitive areas of Broughton archipelago. She describes disease outbreaks from the salmon farms, and untenable practices such as employing “acoustic harassment devices” that frightened off the whales. The DFO was both uninterested and disinterested. After these experiences Morton writes, “I lost trust in the system; I felt it was working to hide the truth.”

Any lingering doubts were dismissed by DFO’s negligence in enforcing regulations in the aftermath of the pink crash. If only it were supreme political and industrial ineptitude, but clearly disinformation was at the core of the government-corporate maneuvering. The government even sought to cleanse a community of witnesses to the illicit and destructive salmon-farming practices. As Morton states, “This is a rigged game and no truths will come to light.”

Morton speculates that the eradication of wild salmon might insidiously serve as a pretext to open up British Columbia to further exploitation by resource-extracting industries. Morton was moved to activism. Morton solidarized with others to form an action group and take on the corporate-government nexus that was imperiling the wild salmon and a community way of life.

Choose your Poisson

Staniford’s information-packed chapter details the toxic chemical brew in widespread use in the salmon-farming industry, focusing primarily on toxic delousing agents. Clearly, the salmon-farming industry had to deal with the terrible optics of the sea lice infestation. Occurrences of sea lice outbreaks and crashes of the wild salmon population confined to the neighborhood of salmon farms could not repeatedly be fobbed off as freak manifestations. The industry attempts to control sea lice with chemicals such as dichlorvos: a “carcinogenic, mutagenic and hormone-disrupting — a so-called gender bender” organophosphate.

The anti-parasitics are unselectively effective in the short-term. The salmon are adversely affected, as are benthic creatures and shellfish. Resistance developing among sea lice forces a change in chemicals. But the anti-parasitics were developed for use on terrestrial animals and many are explicitly labeled as dangerous to fish and not to be used in water, where the toxicity may be magnified.

Staniford laments the insouciance to poor aquaculture practices: “I’m sick of the arrogant assumption by salmon farmers that their right to profit comes before the environment.”

However, the raising of farmed salmon doesn’t have to be conducted in such a destructive fashion. The book concludes with a seven-point action plan to resolve the hazards of salmon farming.

Currently, the corporate-government collusion prioritizes the profiteering of salmon-farming operations with minimal regard for the environment, wild creatures, and the health of workers and consumers while staunchly refusing cost-incurring alternatives. In western society, citizens caught stealing from corporations are severely punished, but when corporations steal the right of citizens to a clean environment and healthful food they are too often unpunished and seldom penalized harshly. As A Stain Upon the Sea illustrates, this is a scenario that must be changed — the continued existence of wild Pacific salmon may depend on it.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.