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BIODIVERSITY: The Real Price of Farmed Salmon

Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 10 2008 (IPS) - Salmon aquaculture is devastating the world’s oceans and an international coalition of scientists, Canadian First Nations and tourism operators have called for a global moratorium.

“We’ve seen a regional collapse of all sea life in the 20 years since the salmon farms moved in,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwicksutaineuk Ah-kwa-mish Canadian First Nation in the province of British Columbia on Canada’s west coast.

“I can only shake my head in bewilderment that this is allowed to continue,” Chamberlin told IPS from Gilford Island in the Broughton Archipelago, where 20 salmon farms are in operation.

Scientific studies have linked sharp declines in wild salmon populations in British Columbia to disease and parasites originating in open-ocean salmon farms. Millions of non-native salmon have escaped ocean net-pens in Chile and have become an invasive species, transforming the ecology of local river systems.

These and other unsustainable practices violate the United Nations code on Responsible Fisheries, the coalition from Norway, Canada, Chile, Scotland, and Ireland claim. An international declaration has been submitted to the U.N. calling for a global moratorium.

There is little debate that salmon aquaculture is both unsustainable and environmentally destructive. Three or more kilogrammes of wild fish is needed to produce one kilo of farmed salmon. The ocean bottoms under and around the open-ocean net pens are usually devoid of any life, buried under the excrement of up to a million salmon overhead.

“Salmon farm ‘shadows’ can extend three or four kilometres depending on the current,” said Wolfram Heise, director of the marine conservation programme at the Fundación Pumalin (Pumalin Project), a private conservation initiative in Chile.

These shadows are dead zones where there is nothing but mud and faeces along the bottom of the ocean. “Oxygen levels in the water are so depleted it sometimes forces the farms to move to new locations,” Heise told IPS from Puerto Varas, located 1,000 kilometres south of Santiago.

In Chile it costs only 100 dollars a year to “rent” another salmon farm concession that gives the mainly Norwegian owners indefinite provenance over the region, including the ocean bottom. In less than 15 years, Chile has become the second largest salmon producer in the world with close to 700 farms, he said.

Nearly all the Atlantic salmon grown here are sold to feed Japanese, North American and European appetites for salmon. But the true costs of these floating factory farms are ignored by industry and the government of Chile and unknown by the public, Heise said.

Like land-based factory farms where far too many animals are being raised in confined quarters, heavy doses of antibiotic drugs and hormones are fed to the fish. Despite this, a potent virus swept through Chile’s salmon farms last year and has cut production in half. Unable to stem the outbreak, the farms simply moved to new locations hundreds of kilometres away, abandoning their local employees and the contaminated waters and seabed.

“There is no investigation here to see if the virus is having an impact on marine species,” Heise said.

There are no native salmon in Chile, but Heise said some coastal fish have been found with symptoms similar to the virus called infectious salmon anemia. “It would be astonishing if the virus did not infect other species sooner or later,” he told IPS.

Millions of salmon have also escaped in Chile and are eating other fish species. They have begun invading rivers and lakes as far away as neighbouring Argentina where there is no salmon farming. Again, there is little investigation into the impacts of the escaped salmon and the industry denies there is a problem, he said.

Salmon have become Chile’s second largest export earner. The government sees it as a “money-making machine” and economic growth has priority over everything else, Heise said, adding: “No one is measuring the collective impacts, the huge damage being done.”

On Canada’s west coast scientists have connected the decline in wild salmon stocks to the region’s 100-plus salmon farms. After publishing their research in the prestigious journal Science, marine biologists warned that one wild salmon species will be extinct by 2011 because of infestations of parasites that originate in salmon farms. More than 80 percent of the annual pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago, 300 kms north of the city of Vancouver, has been killed by these parasites since 2001.

“They’re [salmon farms] like a cancer, destroying the ecosystem they’re in,” said Alexandra Morton, a Canadian research biologist who has done much of the research on the impacts of the industry.

North America’s northwest coast is home to several species of wild salmon that remain one of the natural wonders of the world and are a key part of the coastal ecosystem. After spending two or more years feeding in the open ocean, they return to their natal streams and rivers to spawn and die. Many species, including eagles, bears and wolves, feed on the dying or dead salmon. They also bring large quantities of salmon carcasses into forests, which decay, enriching the soil and feed many plants, including the region’s giant red cedars and sitka spruce trees.

Salmon nutrients have been found inside the leaves at the top of 2,000-year-old trees.

“Wilderness tourism in British Columbia is worth 1.6 billion dollars a year, and wild salmon underpin all of this,” Morton said in an interview.

Aquaculture salmon is worth less than 500 million dollars in Canada and is dominated by Norwegian companies. The industry is killing the crucial component of British Columbia (B.C.) wilderness and what could be one of the biggest sources of protein if properly managed, she said. “The west coast could produce huge amounts of fish as it once did.”

Over a year ago, a BC government report recommended a move towards closed-containment systems for salmon aquaculture, but the industry has vigourously opposed this. Norwegian companies dominate the multi-billion dollar industry, and Norway has large operations there. However Norway’s few remaining river systems with wild salmon are strictly protected and aquaculture operations are located far away, unlike in Canada.

“They came into my territory and denied, delayed, distracted us from the truth for 20 years with no regard for their impact on the environment and my people,” said Bob Chamberlin.

Chamberlin and other native leaders have tried to get Norwegian companies such as Marine Harvest, the world’s lead seafood company, to move to a closed containment system for a number of years, without success.

Marine Harvest produced 340,000 tonnes of salmon in 2007 and has acknowledged many of these problems. In April of this year the company agreed to work with a leading environmental group, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to find ways to reduce their environmental and ecological impact.

“There are a lot of issues with farmed salmon,” acknowledged Jose Villalon, a long-time manager for Marine Harvest who joined the WWF in 2007 as its director of aquaculture programme.

Villalon told IPS that the WWF is overseeing a series of “Aquaculture Dialogues” with various stakeholders in hopes of developing standards for more sustainable aquaculture production, but declined to comment further.

“Is it too much to ask that companies like Marine Harvest safeguard our environment?” Chamberlin asked.

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