Course:CONS200/2019/Wild Salmon vs. Farmed Salmon in the BC Coast

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Chinook salmon

Open-net salmon farming, and the fishing of wild salmon in British Columbia represent a complex and intensely debated issue. Wild salmon plays a significant role in marine and terrestrial ecosystem functions, and are important socio-economically, especially for First Nation communities through British Columbia. Farmed salmon are important to the economy as it is the most efficient way to keep up with increasing global demand. Both farmed and wild salmon fisheries have negative implications on the function, and stability of coastal ecosystems, and have been found to compete with one another. Open net salmon farming has negative implications to the health of wild salmon populations, and has contributed in recent years to its subsequent decline in population size. In this page, some of the primary arguments and research surrounding this topic are examined, the role of the federal government, and solutions to this complex problem in B.C. are explored.

Importance of Wild salmon in the BC Coast

The 5 species of Pacific Salmon

Five pacific salmon species are found on the British Columbian Coast, which are respectively: Chinook (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha), Chum (Oncorhynchus keta), Coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch), Pink (Oncorhynchus gorbusha), and Sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka). Within each species are populations that belong to diffrent runs throught the coast of British Columbia. These specific runs have diffrent characteristics that can affect one community diffrently than the other. The management of wild salmon on the coast of B.C. is driven by conservation goals. These goals are set out to provide sustainable fishing opportunities for First Nations communites and to support commercial and recreational fishing. Commercial and recreational fishing of wild salmon contribute greatly to national output. Fisheries in the province are monitored federally by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.[1]

Salmon are a keystone species supporting tertiary vertebrate consumers. Through the consumption of wild salmon, the consumers are able to disperse nutrients into the surrounding ecosystems. These consumers not only contain terrestrial animals such as bears, coyotes and wolves, they also include large avian mammals such as- bald eagles and owls.[2] At the end of an adult salmons journey, the carcasses of salmon are integrated into the terrestrial ecosystem of the spawning grounds. Carcasses of salmon contain an abundance of nutrients, especially nitrogen. Once decomposition initiates, nutrients in the body of the salmon input their nitrogen rich sources into the soil.[3] This nutrient cycling is one of the components that make the coastal forests of British Columbia so productive.

It has been approximated that 137 species rely on salmon as part of their diet, making salmon essential to the food chain.[4] For example, salmon are of special concern to the conservation of the Southern Resident Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) population.[5] The orca population has declined significantly, as 69% of pregnancies have been unsuccessful. Unsuccessful pregnancies have been linked to the low availability of Chinook salmon. Over fishing of Chinook salmon in a single season accounted for the decrease in Chinook availability for orca's. If salmon populations like Chinook continue to decrease, it could lead to the extinction of species that depend on them.

Salmon are also culturally and economically important for First Nations and remote coastal communities. A slight decline in salmon runs can strongly affect the prosperity of these small communities, so the long term protection of these salmon runs are important. These communities also depend on salmon for food. First Nations communities have been fishing for centuries, with fishing technologies dating back hundreds of years.[6]

Salmon farm net pens

Criticisms of Farmed Salmon

Salmon infected with sea lice

Criticisms of farmed salmon include: nutrient loading, eutrophication, pollution inputs from salmon farms, threats to wild salmon populations, use of marine resources for salmon feed, and indirect ecosystem interactions. Concerns have been raised that sea lice from farmed salmon have potential negative ecological and economic effects on wild salmon populations[7], that escaped non-native salmon from fish farms may cause pressure through competition with native salmon[8], and that the nets used in the production of farmed salmon cause high levels of marine mammal mortality.[9]

The waste from farmed salmon being released into the ocean raised concerns about farmed salmon passing pathogens like piscine reovirus to the wild salmon population and contaminating the ocean.[4] Pesticides and antibiotics used to treat farmed salmon result in these products being released to the ocean. The aquaculture bi-products of fish feces and food pellets create waste that can suffocate other marine life, and add excess nutrients to the surrounding ecosystem.[10] The input of nitrogen from these waste products can alter the surrounding marine nitrogen cycle, leading to eutrophication, acidification, and degraded ecosystem function.[11]

The nets used in salmon farms contain anti-fouling applications that may leach into the environment, and present an entanglement risk to marine mammals. Humpback whales and other marine life that become entangled in the nets rarely survive.[12] Pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) are attracted to the food source that fish farms present, and in addition to entanglement risks, may be shot by fish farmers if they are considered nuisance animals.[13] This practise is authorized by the Canadian Federal Government under the Marine Mammal Regulations under the Fisheries Act.[13]

Since farmed fish are high-tropic level carnivore, feed conversion ratios (FCR) are high and forage fish are often used in salmon feed.[14]

In spite of the negative aspects of farming salmon, aquaculture continues to be permitted to operate in British Columbia. Although salmon farms may provide some socio-economic benefits, the low levels of employment opportunities, community inequity, and impacts to the nearby wild fisheries appear to outweigh these benefits.

Criticisms of Wild Salmon Fishery

Salmon purse seine

Wild salmon populations are in significant decline in British Columbia.[15] Research suggests that better habitat protection for salmon, and especially reducing the wild salmon fishery would have greatly improved the conservation status of many of these wild salmon populations.[16][15] The historical top-down, command-and-control methods of fisheries management has led to decreased resiliency of salmon fisheries in British Columbia.[15] Additional pressures such as: climate change, loss of genetic diversity, changes to food-web dynamics, and impacts from fish farms have compounded the pressure on salmon populations in addition to over-harvesting and habitat degradation.[15][17] Many salmon populations in British Columbia have been assessed as threatened or endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), yet have not been assigned protection status under schedule 1 by the Species at Risk Act (SARA).[18]

Salmon are fished commercially in British Columbia using gear approved by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans; purse seine nets, salmon gill nets, and trollers.[19] Purse seines account for about 50% of the commercial catch in British Columbia, gill nets account for about 25%, and trollers, for the remaining 25% of the commercial catch.[19] Purse seine fisheries practices incur a large amount of bycatch such as: marine mammals, birds, and non-targeted fish which can include endangered species of salmon.[20] Although regulations exist to release by-catch, the survival rates of released animals is low.[20]

Selection pressures applied to salmon populations by fishing is reducing genetic diversity, and may be changing the timing of salmon runs; the runs are occurring earlier in the season to avoid the fishing season.[17] Further to this, climate change may be acting to change the timing of salmon run. [17] Reduction of genetic diversity of wild salmon populations reduces the stability of the population, and the earlier timing of the salmon runs may not align with the timing of other species that rely on salmon as a food source such as bears and eagles.[17] Salmon are the primary food source of the Southern Resident Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) population, and due to declining wild Chinook salmon populations, there is concern for their continued survival.[21]

Although evidence suggests that predator culls have not been demonstrated to be successful, tensions over the degrading wild salmon populations have led to public demand for these culls.[22] Not only could culls lead to negative impacts on other species such as transient orcas, this management strategy is unlikely to aid in protecting wild salmon populations in the long term.[23] The federal Wild Salmon Policy (WSP) has been created in recent year to help guide the management of wild salmon in British Columbia,[16] [24] but independent reviews have suggested the policy is not being fully implemented.[25] Open net-pen fish farms apply further pressures to wild salmon populations, and have not led to a reduction in the allowable harvest for commercial and recreational wild salmon fishery.

Solutions through Integration of Methods of Salmon Farming in BC Coast

Proponents for salmon farming suggest it is more efficient at meeting the global market demand than commercial fishing as it has higher levels of consistency and predictability than the latter for production.[26] Possible alternatives to traditional salmon farming such as multi-trophic aquaculture designs, and closed containment systems have been proposed as a more sustainable approach for aquaculture involving salmon.[27]

It is known that open-net farmed salmon is unsustainable and flawed. A possible solution is if the industry moves away from net-cages into closed containment. Closed containment systems involve a barrier between wild and farmed salmon, thereby eliminating some of the most negative impacts of open-net cage salmon farming and significantly reducing others. Closed systems would be a solution that allows for a commercial scale salmon farming industry without jeopardizing wild Pacific salmon or BC’s marine ecosystem.Until closed containment systems are commonplace in BC’s salmon farming industry, interim measures are needed to protect struggling wild salmon stocks and the marine ecosystem from the impacts of net-cages. Reducing sea lice and disease on farmed salmon to improve the chances of survival for wild juvenile salmon is a top priority.[28]

A possible solution preventing wild salmon and marine life from being further harmed is to farm salmon on land. Farming on land will separate the wild salmon and the farmed salmon while also withdrawing the use of antibiotics as it won't be necessary if farmed on land.[29] However, this solution isn't very sustainable as it would require using a substantial amount of resources such as fresh water and massive filtration systems. This theory was first tested with Kuterra but the organization had some downfalls as the salmon had slower than expected growth rates due to technical challenges from water-quality.[4] The use of vegetable based (e.g. soy) fish feed, and more recently, bacteria and yeast cells have lowered the feed conversion ratios (FCR) for farmed salmon, making it more sustainable and reducing the impacts on forage fish.[30]

In relation to the fears the public has on farmed salmon and the negative implications antimicrobial resistance has on environmental and human health, alternative strategies are available to mitigate the activity of pathogens. These strategies will include: the application of UV rays to disinfect system water or ozone treatment and vaccinations using hormones and cytokines from algal, animal, and bacterial sources.[31]

Social Implications of Community Thoughts on Salmon Farming

Alert Bay, BC

The arrival of industrial aquaculture has brought on many significant changes to coastal communities that rely on the sea for their livelihood. The most important positive change that was introduced for these communities is the economic opportunities that arise from the incorporation of local resource uses and values. However, in addition to these advantages- negative changes that affect environmental and socioeconomic concerns also resulted from the development. Pollution from salmon farms onto the local marine environment that is shared with many other fisheries causes a great displacement concern. The wastes produced and feed additives leak into the waters causing the quantity of other fisheries to decline which establishes a major socioeconomic inequity. Another inequity between traditional fishing societies and salmon farms is the close proximity they have within each other. The competition for marine space disrupts local fishing practices and puts strains on social relations of the communities that are affected.[32]

Canadian salmon aquaculture production is mainly concentrated in British Columbia. Due to the bulk of these salmon farm operations situating in the traditional territories of Coastal First Nations, they are the ones that are most impacted by this industry. Because of the differences in the range of ecological, economic and social values each community members have, it is hard to come into a consensus regarding the methods of salmon aquaculture.[33] Through a protest on the Marine Harvest salmon farm on Midsummer Island, B.C. in 2017, the division of opinions on salmon aquaculture within different communities of First Nations were disclosed. A number of Alert Bay's 'Namgis First Nation members who are employed in fish farms experience backlash from anti-activists and cut-ties from their own family members.[34] Derived from unresolved land claims First Nations have in B.C., the controversy over salmon farming are influenced immensely from the decisions of these coastal communities on resource management processes.

The Political Role of The Federal Government on BC's Aquaculture Industry:

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) governs the federal management of Canada's marine and fisheries sectors. Their main goal is to act as a safeguard for Canada's waters by ensuring the preservation of aquatic ecosystems that are sustainable and healthy through the use of science and conservation of habitat.[35] The management and regulation of British Columbia's aquaculture was transferred to DFO in 2010. Under their administration, the Fisheries Act which is a set of regulations that enforces B.C. to operate using sustainable methods with their aquaculture industry was established. In addition to this regulation, the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations was also introduced to conserve the environment that B.C.'s aquaculture industry is placed in as well as presenting a regulatory system that is much more effective and efficient.[36]

Despite of all the contributions and statements DFO promises in order to ensure a sustainable aquaculture industry in B.C., it has not demonstrated as a good federal role model as their primary focus is mainly on the development of the economy- not the protection of the environment. An example of the concerning attitude DFO has towards aquaculture risk management, is the judicial review of the presence of piscine reovirus (PRV) of Marine Harvest's juvenile Atlantic salmon on March 2013. The concern of this issue involved the risk of causing HSMI through the link of PRV, which is a disease that induces serious inflammation of the heart and skeletal muscle to be transferred to the wild salmon as the facility is in open waters. Undeterred by the evidence of this significant risk, DFO will not test B.C.'s salmon for PRV unless there is a transfer license. The temporary ban of aquaculture in vulnerable areas where Sockeye salmon's lifecycle occupies in was the only sole form of 'solution' DFO provided for this matter.[37]

Can Salmon Farming be More or Less Sustainable than Wild Salmon?

An endangered Southern Resident Orca hunts a Chinook salmon

Although wild salmon harvesting carries lower risks to ecosystem degradation than farmed salmon, unpredictable population sizes and anthropocentric threats make wild salmon difficult to manage sustainably. Many other species including the endangered southern resident orca population, and coastal and terrestrial ecosystem function depends on the health of wild salmon populations. Further to this, the social-economic benefits of wild salmon, such as cultural and sustenance use by First Nations are threatened by the ongoing pressure on wild salmon populations. Salmon farming may be a more sustainable option than wild salmon, if it no longer operates in open net pens. This may also offer a chance for wild salmon populations to recover. Open net salmon farming results in many negative impacts to the B.C. coast, such as an increase occurrence of sea lice, which then goes on to decrease wild salmon populations. Farming salmon on land would prevent waste from affecting wild salmon, and may be able to accommodate global demand. To improve feed conversion ratios (FCRs), and reduce the ecological impact on forage fish, feeding farmed salmon a vegetable based diet would improve its sustainability.[14] Even though salmon farming on land may reflect a more sustainable option than wild salmon harvesting, concerns such as fresh water consumption, the cost of building infrastructure, benefits to local communities, and the welfare of salmon kept in net pens requires further research and consideration.[14] For the DFO to ensure the success and effectiveness of the regulatory regime they promised, enforcement and measures of compliance for marine resources are required. Whether with the amendment of existing policies, or the establish of new policies, DFO needs to take into the consideration of certain factors in the contribution of these regulations. The influence of Indigenous communities, the impacts that aquaculture has on Canadian food security, and the environmental stressors on marine ecosystems such as climate change need to be implemented to design a holistic regime for the future of British Columbia's salmon species and the marine/terrestrial ecosystem it interacts with.[37]


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