Creative Salmon

The controversy over wild vs. farmed salmon is familiar to anyone who has spent time in western Canada. For decades, environmental groups have waged a campaign against farmed fish. Due to these efforts the general public has become highly suspicious of farmed fish. It is generally believed that fish farms are responsible for the release of antibiotics into the ecosystem, the spread of disease to wild stocks, the genetic contamination of local (pacific) salmon, the killing of marine mammals, the destruction of the sea floor, and a variety of other environmental harms.  It has reached the point where anyone serving salmon at a dinner party is expected to answer (and justify) whether the fish on the table is wild or farmed.

Creative Salmon is a local Tofino-based company that advertises itself as a “sustainable” alternative to wild salmon.  Unlike most Canadian fish farms, they raise a species of Pacific salmon. They strive to reduce the ecological impacts of farming in a variety of ways including fewer antibiotics and low densities of animals in their pens.
Today we rose bright and early for our meeting with Tim Rundle, one of the chief operators at Creative Salmon. We spent a few hours discussing with Tim what his company means by “sustainability”, how they strive to achieve it, and how they regard environmental groups who oppose their operation. After the meeting we chartered a water taxi to visit one of their farm sites in Clayoquot sound.

None of us have previously visited a fish farm. I don’t think that any of us were familiar with the complexity of the issues, and how they are viewed by someone who has been working for years to battle the public perception of salmon farming. What we expected, I think, was to meet an industry representative bent on putting a positive gloss on company  practices while downplaying negative effects. Instead,  we encountered an extremely candid, very informed individual who was interested in engaging with any question we threw in his direction.

Tim prepared a very good presentation outlining the steps that his company takes to minimize the ecological impacts of fish farming. A key argument in favour of farming Pacific (Chinook) Salmon is that they are “naturally” resistant to local diseases, in particular to sea lice, compared to Atlantic species. He also claimed that these fish are fed a natural diet sourced from a local company. A key objective of this company has been the acquisition of organic certification. Their impression is that by doing so, they will be able to avoid some of the negative public perceptions associated with fish farming. My sense is that a substantial amount of effort has been invested into obtaining this designation. Currently, Canada lacks regulations outlining what is required for a fish to qualify as organically raised (unlike, say, the beef industry). And Creative Salmon has worked hard, both to establish this legislation and to meet this standard. I can’t help but wonder whether these efforts will pay off.

This company faces significant economic obstacles in their attempt to become organically certified. The fish they raise grow much more slowly than Atlantic Species. The feed that they use is more specialized than most. All sorts of technologies have been developed to prevent sea lions from entering pens and releasing fish into the wild. In order to make these operations pay off, they need to reach a market willing to pay a premium for this product.
Meanwhile, the environmental campaign against farmed salmon continues. The official policy of local environmental groups is that the only sustainable way to famr salmon requires the use of fully enclosed pens. I do not understand the details, but basically this would require raising fish in large bags rather than in nets, so that no waste is released into the ocean, and all of the water is treated before being released.  I am no fish farm expert, but I believe Tim when he says that these measures are economically unfeasible – the use of contained farms is equivalent, he argues, to the end of the fish farming industry on our coast.

In addition, one needs to consider the ecological implications of contained farming. Fish raised in higher density. The energetic demand of the system. The increased potential for spread of disease. An impression that I came away with, as a result of these discussions, was that environmental groups have focussed somewhat narrowly on a subset of the relevant issues (e.g. the spread of disease to wild stocks), and that this has sidetracked the industry from a broader social and ecological assessment of the issue. That said, we will be meeting with a local environmental group next week and I expect to hear a very different set of arguments.

Most of the students were surprised by their visit to the fish farm. What they expected was the ocean equivalent of an industrial chicken or beef farm, with animals tightly packed together. What we saw, however, seemed fairly benign from our perspective. The whole operation is white small. Fish are stocked in low density. Considerable attention is even paid to humane ways of killing fish to reduce the amount of suffering.

There is still a lot of information to process after this very insightful visit. However, one of my lasting impressions is that the public is not fully aware of the many recent changes that the fish farming industry has undertaken (undoubtedly at great cost) in recent years. What people who oppose farmed salmon are resisting are a set of practices that are no longer in effect.  Interestingly, the fish farming industry seems to have been relatively unsuccessful at communicating these changes to the public, compared to the environmental groups who oppose them. On the other hand, Tim admits that environmentalists have played a key role in motivating these changes. I see an interesting philosophical issue here. Environmental groups, through their anti-fish-farming campaign, have caused this industry to improve its practices. They have done so (arguably) by over-stating the negative ecological impacts of fish farming. Or, at the very least, they have failed to acknowledge improvements that some companies like creative are undertaking. To what extent is it necessary, I wonder, for environmentalists to adopt this approach in order to  effect positive change?

After our fish farm visit, we grabbed lunch in town and ate in the park overlooking the harbour. Then we visited with Josie Osborne at the Tofino Botanical Gardens for an amazing introduction to the local geography and natural history - but those details with have to wait until my next post. 

Tomorrow we are headed to Hesquiat harbour, at the northern end of Clayoquot Sound, to spend the night at Hooksum Outdoor School.  Looking forward to it!! 


1 comment:

  1. Dan Lewis from Friends of Clayoquot here. If you are going to read one thing about the salmon farming debate in BC, please check out Alex Morton's blog posting from August 30: http://alexandramorton.typepad.com/alexandra_morton/2011/08/heres-why-i-think-salmon-farms-are-the-gatekeepers-to-survival-of-the-fraser-sockeye.html.

    As an environmentalist, I face constant opposition from industry to the concerns we raise. I question what I do and wonder if we are wrong. However, it seems to always turn out that we were right, often righter than we thought.

    I will never forget driving to a workshop with a logging union leader in 2007. She said "everything you enviros said back in the early 90's has turned out to be true".

    I recall her words when I deal with people who represent corporations whose only concern is to maximize profits for their shareholders, period.