from the blog: It’s BBQ season, time for some infected salmon

New research and words I put together with my  friends at The Canadian Environment. This post speaks to theBBQ Salmon pressing issue of aquaculture sustainability in Canada and the new era of consumer responsibility that demands us to make healthy and safe eating decisions at the grocery store.

Check the full post as originally publishing at The Canadian Environment. The Canadian Environment publishes daily summaries and analysis of Canada’s most pressing environmental news stories. 


It’s BBQ season, time for some infected salmon

Andrew Wright

This May, it will be for many the start of the BBQ season and it will also be six months since the CohenCommission released its report on the collapse of the Fraser River salmon. Once the main source of fish for grills across the country, now it’s been replaced by fish farms on both sides of the country.

Open-net fish farms are a likely source of disease, said Cohen, and present devastating long-term effects on wild salmon populations. Cohen recommended aquaculture regulation, increased government monitoring, and a freeze on new farms across B.C.’s central coast. The report also pointed out a glaring integrity gap within Fisheries and Oceans Canada, calling for DFO to be relieved of its double duties to both protect wild fish and promote aquaculture.

In the classic Canadian game of kick the can down the road and then ignore it, the judicial investigation and its recommendations were abandoned even before they were released. Through the three years of the Commission’s study, the federal government made monumental cuts to DFO and legislated the dismantling of the federal Fisheries Act. Assessing the environmental soundness of aquaculture projects is no longer a federal responsibility. As Cohen noted, DFO’s mandate no longer protects fish habitat and the Fisheries Act no longer protects fish. Combine this with cuts at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and then even more cuts at DFO the question remains as to how under-funded public agencies could ever enforce standards, let alone enact change.

And change is needed because salmon fisheries from coast-to-coast are a mess.

What’s good for the goose?

What’s good for the goose, sometimes ain’t so good for the gander. Or to take a line from CFIA: what’s safe for human consumption may likely be a fatal disease for farm-raised Atlantic salmon. Infectious salmon anemia (ISA) is out-of-control in the Maritimes. In January, the CFIA gave the go-ahead for ISA to officially enter Canada’s food supply. Some 240,000 potentially contaminated salmon from a Nova Scotia fish farm were filleted and sold at your local grocer.

Aquaculture promoters say the fish were merely exposed to ISA, not necessarily infected. Experts say low levels of ISA areharmlessly common and the fish are essentially safe to eat. But for Cooke Aquaculture, the owners of the infected salmon, to say the infected fish has nothing to do with human health is regrettably misguided.

A plate of the infected fish may not kill you, but industrial food production that cultivates a fatal disease, destabilizes coastal ecosystems, while putting other industries at risk, has everything to do with human health and more. If the gander’s falling down ill, the rest of the gaggle can’t be too far behind.

In a telling statement, grocery retailer Sobey’s announced it will not carry the contaminated fish in its stores. The ISA-infected product fails to meet our customers’ expectations, says the company. It is revealing that consumer expectations aren’t quite so high, nor important, in the eyes of our food inspectors, producers like Cooke, or the politicians in charge of our government.

Maritimes ISA here to stay

The fish farming discussion is controversial and complicated. A Norwegian import, ISA quickly settled into Atlantic Canada’s $170 million salmon farm system and is now so widespread CFIA considers it ineradicableGovernment subsidies are fueling the industry and plans for wide-scale expansion of open-net farming is imminent. CFIA’s mandate is to ensure food safety, but also compensate farmers ordered to destroy sick livestock. This amounts to roughly $100 million since 1996. Lost in the equation is the growing consensus that the high-density high-stress conditions created by open-net farms intensify the spread of disease.

Maritime provinces trade $200 million worth of salmon across the border each year, but U.S. authorities say the doors will remain shut to diseased fish. The independent operators, whose traditional fisheries produce the region’s top exports, are increasingly worried about their fishing holes getting backwashed in waste products from open-net farms. And in an underreported saga, Cooke Aquaculture is facing criminal charges from Environment Canada for poisoning lobsters withillegal pesticides from one of their salmon farms.

No ISA in Pacific waters, right?

In Pacific waters, there’s a hefty $435 million export market at stake. The feds keep a close watch on ISA, but tests by a respected P.E.I. scientist and a DFO lab found ISA in pacific salmon. CFIA says the virus hasn’t spread in B.C. and the lab work by Dr. Frederick Kibenge from Atlantic Veterinary College was sloppy – time and more tests will reveal if the virus has spread. ISA aside, similar bugs have troubled farmed salmon lots for years.

Notably, Norwegian companies control most of the West Coast industry and the dominant product in Pacific waters is Atlantic salmon. This scenario has gone down before, Chile is still reeling from a multi-billion-dollar ISA-induced collapse of their salmon farm industry.

On an obvious scale, B.C.’s extensive feedlot system endangers traditional fisheries, threatens local marine life, and is significantly implicated in the collapsing stock of wild Pacific salmon. In a region intrinsically connected to its land and waters, passions run high. Aboriginal groups lay strong claims to coastal ways of life and traditional rights to wild salmon. In 2011, sport fishing trumped both aquaculture and traditional fisheries as the biggest contributor to the province’s GDP. From this angle voices are rising, and they want a wild salmon first approach.

Land-based race?     

With revenues, jobs, and a lot of food on the line, Canadian fisheries are big business on both coasts. There is no disputing the important role aquaculture plays in this scenario, but as many have said, why can’t we do it right? Our national mantra of take what you can and forget the rest, is getting old.

In March, a Parliamentary Fisheries and Oceans committee reported on the economic feasibility of land-based and closed containment aquaculture. This is the way forward, the report says, but adds nothing about the current system, acknowledging only that it won’t be changing anytime soon. The well-funded voice of the aquaculture industry maintains there is nothing wrong and repeatedly says land-based aquaculture is cost prohibitive and unrealistic — without government support of course.

Despite industry claims of helplessness, responsible actors do exist and are leading exceptional initiatives to innovate aquaculture and protect food quality. Organic, land-based, and self-contained farming operations that reduce environmental impacts and increase health prospects are possible. Fish can be raised disease and parasite free, without drugs or pesticides, and in facilities where waste is captured and water re-circulated. And this can be done for a profit. In the Yukon, they’ve been doing it for years.

While a national grocery chain might seem like an unlikely source for inspiration, there remains hope in the recent statement from Sobey’s, and promise as other retailers follow suit. Our expectations for health, safety, and sustainability should be held high. And when elected officials and government agencies stop working in our favour, I guess our only consolation is that we live increasingly in the age of buyer behavior.

So what will you be barbequing this summer?