Wild salmon are the foundation of the Great Bear Rainforest ecosystem.
Wild salmon are the foundation of the Great Bear Rainforest ecosystem. Killer whales, sea lions and other marine mammals feed on them at sea. Each fall, black, Spirit and grizzly bears, wolves, eagles, gulls and a host of other wildlife gather in estuaries and along rivers to feast on salmon returning to spawn in their natal streams. The end of the salmon life cycle brings renewal to the rainforest, delivering an annual pulse of ocean-derived nutrients to riparian forests. Wild salmon have been central to First Nations cultures on the B.C. coast for thousands of years, and coastal communities continue to rely on salmon for sustenance and sustainable livelihoods. Wild salmon are also the cornerstone of B.C.’s tourism industry, whether they are featured in local cuisine or as the main food source for whales, bears and other wildlife that attract so many visitors to our province.
Wild salmon in B.C. may face a number of threats throughout their lifecycle, from widespread destruction of upstream habitat caused by logging, roadbuilding and other land use changes, reduced food supply caused by exploitation of forage fish species, warming waters due to climate change, pathogens and aquatic pollution to destructive fishing practices and overfishing. Sockeye stocks have been in overall decline since at least the 1950s, while chinook and coho stocks in particular have been in severe decline since 1990. The Federal government has gutted legislation protecting freshwater habitat for wild salmon in favour of industrial development and continues to support and promote open net pen salmon farming on the B.C. coast, along with the provincial government. Among these threats, fish farming is perhaps the easiest to tackle through legislative changes to farm siting and practices.
Open Net Pen Salmon Farming
The siting of fish farms along vital migration routes jeopardizes the health of wild salmon stocks in a number of ways: infections from sea lice and viruses that thrive in crowded open net pen fish farms are spreading to wild salmon; escaped farmed Atlantic salmon compete with wild salmon in the ocean and consume wild salmon fry in streams; and fish farms pollute marine habitat with feces, antibiotics and uneaten food. In turn, the vitality of the myriad marine and terrestrial species that depend on wild salmon are at risk. Today there are more than 130 fish farming tenures on the B.C. coast, including farms in the central coast and the Broughton Archipelago. Roughly 80 tenures are active at any given time, and they are 90% owned by three Norwegian companies: Cermaq, Marine Harvest and Grieg. Annual production has grown to more than 70,000 tonnes, and the majority of the product is Atlantic salmon, a species not native to the west coast.
Industry Expansion Has Come At A Cost
In 1991, biologists discovered Atlantic salmon trying to spawn in a Vancouver Island stream, raising fears that these invasive fish might colonize Pacific coast streams and impact endemic populations. In 1995, in response to widespread concerns about the environmental impact of salmon aquaculture, the provincial government placed a moratorium on new fish farm tenures. In 1997, a two year long Salmon Aquaculture Review made 49 recommendations for improving industry practices, covering everything from farm location, fish health science and waste monitoring, as well as a suggestion to initiate "pilot projects for closed marine systems." In 2001, biologist and wild salmon activist Alexandra Morton, based in the Broughton Archipelago, discovered out-migrating pink salmon infected with unusually high levels of sea lice. Yet the following year, the provincial government lifted a moratorium on new farms only to see a huge crash in pink salmon stocks returning to mainland streams in the vicinity of the Broughton Archipelago. The federal auditor has called DFO to task for its conflicting promotion of fish farming and its legislated mandate to protect wild salmon. In 2007, the B.C. government's Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture produced another long list of recommendations, including a "rapid, phased transition to ocean-based closed containment" that should have been in place within five years. The transition never happened.
The Cohen Commission
In the fall of 2012, Justice Bruce Cohen completed an exhaustive $25 million federal judicial inquiry into collapsing Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks. It included many detailed recommendations, among them a call for more rigorous science investigating pathogens and fish health at salmon aquaculture operations. Cohen specifically mentioned salmon farms situated along the sockeye migration route in the Discovery Islands and their potential to introduce exotic diseases and aggravate endemic diseases, and said that "mitigation measures should not be delayed in the absence of scientific certainty.” So far, very few of Justice Cohen's 75 recommendations have been implemented. Open net pen fish farms pose ongoing problems in the form of fish escapes, disease transfer and fish waste pollution in the adjacent marine environment. Though public pressure has led to better regulations and reporting on sea lice, the same can't be said for disease outbreaks at fish farms. A report released in May 2014 by the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre criticized government for failing to disclose the location of disease outbreaks and only releasing "extremely generalized information when it's too late to be useful".
Your Voice is Needed!
Help us keep wild salmon in B.C. healthy for generations to come. Let government officials know that B.C. residents expect transparency and appropriate regulations to safeguard this foundation species.