By Kevin Libin
Last month, 1,000 British Columbians showed up on Government Street in Victoria for a protest against salmon farms. Their signs read “ban fish farms.” They called them dangerous. Said they spread disease to wild salmon stocks. They’re messing with ecosystems. The fish is bad for you. They violate traditions of coastal First Nations. Their messages seemed heartfelt; their victory felt imminent.
“I’m thinking we get to keep our salmon,” Alexandra Morton, the activist biologist who led the protest, said to cheers.
She had reason to be optimistic they were winning their battle. The movement against fish farms on the Pacific coast has proved a potent one. The B.C. government has been paralyzed on the issue. In 2008 it slapped a moratorium on granting any new licenses to fish farms on the north coast, despite record demand from Europe. Last year, Ms. Morton sued the province in court arguing that oceans were a federal matter, and the province had no right to even regulate aquaculture: the province lost.
The Cohen inquiry, launched this week, will bring a microscope to the fish-farm industry on the Fraser River, where wild salmon stocks collapsed last summer. Last week, William Shatner endorsed a federal NDP push to bring more regulation to fish farms. And dozens of environmental NGOs (ENGOs) including Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation are behind Ms. Morton’s efforts to restrict B.C.’s farmed salmon industry. More to the point, the environmentalists have millions of dollars to help their cause from a quiet but powerful ally: Americans.
This is not a conspiracy. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute admits it has received “lots of private foundation money” from billion-dollar funds such as the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust to help fight B.C.’s fish farms and pressure stores and restaurants to boycott their products. The foundations aren’t concealing it, either. B.C. fish farms threaten Alaska’s wild salmon industry, after all, and the coastal communities that depend on it. Nothing personal; this is business.
“The issue is not the environment. I think the issue is competition,” says Vancouver seafood industry researcher Vivian Krause. “American wild- fish interests are thwarting the [Canadian] farm-fish interests in the name of science, sustainability and conservation.”
From 2000 to 2008, U.S. foundations granted US$126-million to B.C. groups opposed to fish farming, according to tax returns Ms. Krause has compiled; the Packard foundation alone has spent more than US$75-million, through 56 organizations to convince retailers and restaurants to avoid farmed B.C. fish. Marketing efforts for so-called sustainable fish going by the name of “Seafood Choices” have moved Wal-Mart to favour “Marine Stewardship Council” certified seafood — of which Alaskan salmon comprises 95%. B.C.’s Overwaitea Food recently announced it will favour only salmon from land-based farms, not ocean pens.
The U.S.-backed groups’ “objective is not to find solutions to make this a more sustainable industry; their objective is to not have the industry,” says Ruth Salmon, Executive Director of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance. “The upside of the scrutiny we’ve been under is that we have an industry that’s come a long way in the last 25 years . . . but the ENGOs don’t give us any recognition for that.”
Fish farming in Canada goes back centuries, really, but when commercial aquaculture began to ramp up in recent decades, Alaska was hardest hit. Its waters are too cold for farming, so they rely on wild salmon. Prices for Alaskan wild-caught salmon collapsed in the ’80s and ’90s: the value of a harvest plunging from more than $700- million a year to $125-million in 2002. Fishing communities were devastated. In 2003, then governor Frank Murkowski announced the solution lay in finding “a new way of marketing”: branding Alaska’s fish as superior to farmed products.
Since then, the pressure on B.C.’s fish farms has been intense. Widely publicized studies from interest groups suggested farmed Pacific salmon contain higher levels of cancer causing PCBs, and campaigns to warn pregnant women to avoid it. The studies have been refuted as misleading and Health Canada advises there is no higher risk in farmed salmon than in the wild-caught variety, and that the benefits of eating either are substantial. But the myth persists.
Then came environmental scares. The latest: alarm over sea lice spreading from farms to migrating wild salmon. In tight quarters it makes sense that lice might breed more actively in fish farms, says Robert Scott McKinley, UBC’s Canada Research Chair for Aquaculture and the Environment. But there is no evidence that it’s a problem, he says, or that it’s being transferred to wild salmon. Testing the hypothesis is possible with the right research; it just hasn’t been done.
Still, the anti-fish farm movement is running with it: of all the public submissions on the Cohen commission’s website, roughly half claim it’s fish farms and their ecological impact — most mention sea lice — behind the reason just 1.2 million of an anticipat ed 10 million expected sockeye returned to the Fraser River in 2009. (Interestingly, while environmentalists publicly warned three years ago that pink salmon would be extinct by 2011, due to sea lice spreading, Brian Riddel, CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, says pink salmon have in the last few years been returning in historically high levels.)
The strategies have worked: since 2002, prices for Alaskan salmon has more than tripled — something for which America’s Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations explicitly and publicly gives credit to the Packard foundation — while Ms. Krause admits that Canada’s aquaculture industry has yet to land many punches in fighting the anti-fish farmers. Their dollars, she says, can’t match those coming from the American foundations. And though the industry employs about 6,000 people in coastal towns hard hit by declines in logging and wild fishing, environmental types are more numerous. The industry, worth about $6-billion, could be twice that, she believes, if it were only given permission to grow.
Even Ms. Morton, godmother of the anti-fish farm movement, acknowledges that too many anti-fish-farm groups have been captured by American interests. She says she cut her own ties from U.S.-connected funds two years ago.
“If you become a [heavily funded] environmental organization, you will be tied back into the same roots of the tree that’s growing these big corporations, which, biologically, are causing havoc on our planet,” Ms. Morton says. “I want to be free of that whole life-support system.”