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Fate Of B.C.'s Wild Salmon All Comes Down To Trudeau's Next Move

Will our prime minister's commitment to greater environmental stewardship lead to more protection?
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, this is your wake-up call.

The potentially calamitous recent spill of tens of thousands of invasive Atlantic farmed salmon into the Salish Sea near Victoria, B.C., should be ringing in your ears like a shrill alarm clock.

If you truly care about Canada's wild salmon, as well as the First Nations peoples who rely on this traditional food source, you need to ban open-net pens at salmon farms.

You don't need to kill this controversial industry. Just legislate Canada's mostly foreign-owned salmon farming operations onshore, where land-based pens for farmed Atlantic salmon can't harm wild salmon.


Atlantic Salmon.
Thomas Kitchin & Victoria Hurst via Getty Images
Atlantic Salmon.

The recent spill saw as many as 150,000 of an invasive breed of salmon escape into the ocean near Victoria. This is analogous to a large oil spill in terms of the damage it can do to migrating wild salmon returning to Vancouver's Fraser River.

If these potentially lice-ridden Atlantic salmon co-mingle with wild salmon, it could be devastating.

Even B.C.'s aquaculture industry has in the past grudgingly conceded that sea lice from salmon farms can be harmful to wild populations.

Similarly, migrating wild salmon now have to run the gauntlet of potentially being exposed to the deadly exotic diseases that are synonymous with farmed salmon.

Cooke Aquaculture is the Canadian-headquartered owner of the collapsed salmon farm, which is located in northern Washington State.

This is no mom-and-pop operation that blundered. It is "Big Business" that is entirely at fault. In fact, Cooke sells more farmed Atlantic salmon in the U.S. than anyone else and generates $1.8 billion a year in sales.

stockcam via Getty Images

A lethal, double-barrelled threat to wild salmon

Am I being alarmist about the threat posed by farmed salmon to their wild cousins? Consider this: a $37-million taxpayer-funded federal investigation into the precipitous decline in sockeye salmon in the Vancouver region came to the same conclusion.

"Potential harm posed to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farms is serious or irreversible," the Cohen Inquiry commission warned in its findings in 2012. The three-year inquiry included 179 witness testimonies, as well as thousands of exhibits and hundreds of public submissions.

However, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) continues to insist that invasive species of Atlantic salmon do not threaten wild salmon. Instead, DFO promotes the so-called virtues of open-net salmon farming in B.C.

Critics of DFO, including myself, believe that its mandate to protect wild salmon is being shamefully neglected because the government agency is in bed with politically-influential salmon farming corporations.

At the very least, it's a troubling conflict of interest for DFO.

Unfortunately, wild salmon don't pay millions of dollars each year to lobbyists. And they don't contribute money to help political parties get elected.

But the aquaculture industry does. This helps explain why the federal government has even been using Canadian taxpayers' dollars to subsidize the business operations of Norwegian-owned fish farms in B.C.

All across the globe, this has proven to be a controversial, scandal-tainted aquaculture industry.

It looks to me like DFO has morphed into a taxpayer-financed public relations agency for the salmon farming industry. And damn the wild salmon.

Truth be told, the recent salmon spill is not a new threat. Wild salmon have for many years been exposed to devastatingly lethal exotic diseases and equally deadly concentrations of parasitic lice that originate on salmon farms.

In fact, tens of millions of them have died as a result of being exposed to this double-barrelled onslaught, according to critics of the salmon farming industry.

Yet B.C. has more than 120 licensed marine farm sites so far. And the industry wants to continue to expand. Yet, all across the globe, this has proven to be a controversial, scandal-tainted aquaculture industry.

For instance, here is some disturbing footage revealing how badly diseased and sickly so many farmed salmon are within the excrement-filled, open-pen nets where they live. It reveals images of emaciated and diseased salmon (including visible tumours), as well as some with sea lice.

Frankly, it is not big surprise that Alaska and California have already banned salmon farms. And there are none in Oregon, either.

Again, I am not advocating an outright ban in British Columbia. I am merely suggesting that salmon farms be moved onshore, where they will not pose a threat to wild salmon.

What is ultimately at stake?

A fishing boat heads to the mouth of the Fraser River as signs hang from a docked boat in Steveston, B.C.
Andy Clark / Reuters
A fishing boat heads to the mouth of the Fraser River as signs hang from a docked boat in Steveston, B.C.

Consider this: the Fraser River sockeye salmon run used to see well in excess of 10 million salmon return to spawning grounds each year. Yet the river's once-prolific sockeye numbers have for the past two decades experienced a sustained decline, with as few as one million (or less) returning this summer.

So, where have they all gone? Besides being eaten alive by parasites that originated on salmon farms, tens of millions have also died from a fatal heart-weakening disease called heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, according to researchers.

They insist that the same disease is common on salmon farms, from which it has spread to wild populations.

Interestingly, the beginning of this precipitous downward trend in the wild salmon stocks coincided with the introduction in the early '90s of large-scale salmon farming to the migratory coastal routes used by wild Fraser River salmon. So says internationally acclaimed salmon biologist Alexandra Morton.

The gradual killing off of wild Canadian salmon populations is also having a devastating impact all the way up the food chain. Bears, eagles, wolves and orcas are just several iconic species that can go hungry — or even starve to death — when there aren't enough salmon returning to spawning grounds.

Will Justin Trudeau's commitment to greater environmental stewardship lead to more protection for our wild salmon?

If it does not happen sooner, rather than later, then B.C.'s wild salmon seem doomed. And that will give Canada an ugly black eye for the whole world to see.

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