Disinformation and Salmon Farming

HALIFAX* — Disinformation is defined as a deliberate effort to mislead. It manipulates the conditions of a social perceptive consciousness and thwarts cohesiveness among people. It is symptomatic of ownership concentrated in a few hands and pervasive across societies.

It pervades the salmon-farming industry, which is dominated by large transnational corporations whose tentacles have spread from Europe to the Americas and Oceania. The corporate media does give voice to salmon-farming opponents though. This is because salmon farming affects many institutional players. It negatively impacts the commercial fishing and tourism industries. Government, First Nations, consumers, and the general public are also stakeholders in the fate of salmon.

So I was only mildly surprised when the clerk in the seafood department of the local supermarket in Halifax, Nova Scotia recently explained that only farmed Atlantic salmon was sold. “There aren’t any wild salmon anymore,” explained the clerk matter-of-factly.

That’s not quite true but wild Atlantic salmon stocks are indeed in serious decline. The World Wildlife Federation reports that Atlantic salmon have been wiped out in some European countries and are on the brink in many other countries — including Canada. There are many factors in the disappearance of the Atlantic salmon but mentioned first among the “major threats” was commercial salmon farming. The Atlantic Salmon Federation report “Status of North American Wild Atlantic Salmon” concurred on the negative assessment of the wild Atlantic salmon population. It also cited “poorly-regulated salmon aquaculture practices” as contributing to the poor state of the wild fish.

The Pacific wild salmon populations fare better than their eastern kin but salmon farming threatens them as well.

Salmon-farming operations, as presently conducted in open-water net enclosures, are extremely problematic. The salmon are farmed in stressful crowded conditions and fed toxin-laden fish, food coloring, antibiotics, and pesticides. The resulting fecal contamination threatens the ecosystem. The enclosures attract and repel species such as seals, sea lions, sea birds, and orcas with untoward results. Escaped salmon further stress the ecosystem.

Faced with such damaging realities the salmon-farming industry turned to corporate spin-doctors, such as the notorious firm of Hill and Knowlton, to pretty the picture. How the aquaculturists have spun the myriad challenges plaguing the industry is lamentable. These techniques include:

• factual inaccuracies
• assertions
• marginalization
tu quoque
ad hominem

The dissemination of factually-inaccurate claims is common. The salmon-farmers maintained that escapes wouldn’t happen, but escapes are a regular occurrence. Nonetheless, the industry averred that the salmon would be unable to fend for themselves in the wild, and even if they did, they would not enter the rivers and spawn. But the non-native farmed salmon do survive and do successfully spawn; they compete with the wild salmon for habitat and raise the specter of genetic contamination.

Assertions are statements not based on logical premises or fact. Assertions are replete; for instance, some salmon-farming advocates insist there is “no going back” as if the salmon farms have become facts-in-the-sea — a patently false declaration.

Information damaging to the industry is marginalized. The prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science published an article in January of this year that cautioned against over consumption of farmed salmon because of high toxicity. The aquaculturists argued instead that salmon are a good source of salubrious omega-3 fatty acids. They avoided acknowledging that wild salmon are richer in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in unhealthful fatty acids and toxins.

Salmon farmers point to the jobs and economic benefits created by the industry. However, in British Columbia commercial salmon fishing has been found to create seven times the jobs and wages, to be four fold more valuable in stimulating GDP, and three times more beneficial for exports.

Tu quoque is an attempt at justification by noting that the matter-at-hand exists elsewhere. An example enounced in The Economist is that environmental pressures are concomitant with terra-based farming. The rationale implied is that the negative impacts of aquaculture should be forgiven since on-land farming is also stressful.

Ad hominem is the tactic of ignoring the message and attacking the messenger. The industry launched an assault against environmentalists, describing them as rich and foreign. One might be tempted to note tu quoque the presence of large Norwegian salmon-farming corporations in British Columbia.

Scientists have been inexplicably accused of trying to turn people away from salmon farming.

One salmon-farm advocate even attacked the public as irrational and uninformed.

Disinformation is not only dangerous because of its pervasiveness but because of its persuasiveness. The discerning consumer should seek information and question claims and omissions. Skeptical inquiry safeguards against disinformation and facilitates the pursuit of truth.

* This article is based on a longer paper prepared for the first Halifax International Symposium on Media and Disinformation, 1-4 July 2004.

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