Environment commissioner worries officials might be too cosy with salmon farmers

Environment commissioner Julie Gelfand. Photo by Karl Nerenberg

This week, the federal Environment Commissioner, Julie Gelfand, issued a coruscating report on salmon farms. The good news for the industry is that she did so the day after the Toronto massacre. That violent event robbed Gelfand of a good measure of the media attention she might have otherwise garnered. 

The commissioner’s report does not analyze the environmental performance of the salmon farming industry itself. Gelfand’s job is to hold the federal government to account for its managerial and regulatory roles. 

Her office looked at the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which deals with the overall impact of salmon farming on the marine and coastal environment, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which is tasked with assuring the health of all farmed animals, including salmon. 

They found both agencies wanting.

The DFO, the report concluded, “did not adequately manage the risks associated with salmon aquaculture consistent with its mandate to protect wild fish.”

The CFIA had measures to prevent the introduction and spread of infectious diseases with respect to aquaculture, the report recognized. However, because it “had not clarified roles and responsibilities for managing emerging diseases,” there is a heightened “risk that potential emerging diseases affecting wild salmon would not be adequately addressed.”

Grocery store Atlantic salmon is always farmed, regardless of its origin

The fish we’re talking about here is the Atlantic salmon.Like almost all fish we commonly call either salmon, trout or char, the Atlantic salmon are part of the large family of salmon and salmon-like fishes.

Members of the salmon family vary greatly in size, some averaging 6 to 17 kilos, others rarely reaching 500 grams. But all have in common the familiar torpedo-like shape and all share a preference for clear, cool and well-oxygenated waters.  

All salmon family members are highly sensitive to pollution and human-caused habitat change, such as the damming of rivers where they spawn. Most wild stocks have experienced steep declines in population over the past century. Many are virtually extinct. 

The big salmon family has three main sub-families. The Atlantic salmon’s sub-family has one other well-known member, the common European trout, the brown trout

Historically, the Atlantic salmon has been of huge commercial importance, fished intensively on both sides of the Atlantic. It has also been a revered cultural icon. In his paean to the contemplative life, The Compleat Angler, the 17th-century British writer Izaak Walton called the Atlantic salmon the King of Fishes.

There are a numerous members of the very large, west coast Pacific salmon sub-family. They range from the chinook, which can grow to the size of a small person, to the much smaller sockeye, through the coho in the middle. Two Pacific salmon species are commonly called trout, the rainbow (sometimes called steelhead) and the cutthroat.

The char sub-family includes the Arctic char (which is now quite extensively farmed in Canada), as well as a number of species that are called trout, including the once commercially important lake orgrey trout and the brook or speckled trout. 

At one time, there was a thriving lake trout fishery in the Great Lakes. Invasive, parasitic sea lampreys, which gained access to the lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway, put an end to that. 

Overfishing for sport and destruction of habitat assured that speckled trout were virtually wiped out over most of their extensive original range in eastern North America. Today, the speckled are common only in Newfoundland and Labrador.

As for the once revered and plentiful Atlantic salmonit is now an endangered species everywhere. There is almost no commercial fishery for the King of the Fishes in the wild. Atlantic salmon is, however, far and away the most popular member of the salmon family for aquaculture.

There are Atlantic salmon farms in many countries throughout the world. Salmon marketers sometimes confuse consumers by giving their product country-of-origin labels -- without making clear that, wherever they come from, they are all farmed

Shoppers buy Irish, Norwegian or Scottish salmon thinking they’re getting wild Atlantic salmon. No such luck. When you buy Atlantic salmon at your local supermarket, from anywhere in the world, you are buying farmed fish.

Commissioner says DFO and CFIA not doing their jobs adequately

Consumers value Atlantic salmon over most other members of the salmon family for their excellent taste. They are large-flaked, fatty fish; they have an appealing flavour and texture; and they are easy to prepare. 

And so, to feed market demand, there is extensive farming for Atlantic salmon not only in their natural habitat, in eastern North America and northern Europe, but also in the Pacific, notably in Chile and British Columbia, far from the species’ original range.

The Environment Commissioner’s report focuses to a large extent on salmon aquaculture operations in British Columbia. They are federally regulated, while the provinces oversee those in the Atlantic region. 

Gelfand finds that the federal government has failed to gather adequate information on the environmental impact of salmon farms, and especially the impact on the various species of wild Pacific salmon, which continue to be valuable and important economic resources. 

The DFO and CFIA have failed to take measures to determine the extent to which the diseases of farmed fish are spread to wild fish.

They do not properly monitor the spread of parasites from farmed to wild fish. 

And they do not know what impact the drugs and pesticides used in fish farms have on wild salmon.

The DFO has inadequate measures to see to it that the nets that hold farmed fish in ocean pens are sufficient to prevent escape. When farmed fish enter the ocean they compete and sometimes breed with wild fish, with negative biological consequences. 

And, the Commissioner reports, when federal officials do uncover violations and point them out to fish farm operators, they lack the tools to assure compliance. The system seems to be based on the hope that, once informed of their violations, aquaculture businesses will voluntarily take corrective action.

Beyond all the specifics, Gelfand told reporters on Tuesday that she worries about the DFO’s dual role. The department is responsible for wild fish and the health of the marine environment and, as well, for aquaculture. 

At one and the same time, the DFO has an economic development mandate and an environmental protection role. It is difficult to balance the two, especially given the rapid growth in the Canadian aquaculture sector. 

Gelfand implied -- if she did not say as much -- that she fears the DFO and its officials have become, par la force des choses, too cosy with an increasingly powerful and economically important fish farming industry. 

Farmed Atlantic salmon is a hugely important product, both for Canadian tables and as a lucrative export. That sort of economic clout tends to put pressure on public servants. Government officials are, as a rule, loath to do anything that might jeopardize jobs or increase the cost to consumers of a popular food item.  

This reporter asked Gelfand if she knew of any country that has a sustainable aquaculture sector. 

She answered that comparisons of that sort are outside her scope as Commissioner. Nor is she in the business of comparing individual fish farming operations within Canada. 

People who know the industry report that some aquaculture operators are more environmentally responsible than others. However, there is no comprehensive source of comparative information. It is another area where we lack reliable data. 

Reporters also asked the Environment Commissioner if, with current techniques, she believes it would even be possible to have a salmon farming industry that was, at once, economically viable and environmentally sustainable. 

To that question, Gelfand pointedly refused to answer yes. 

Photo: Karl Nerenberg

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