British Columbia (BC) farmed salmon could carry a certified organic label if federal aquaculture boosters have their way. The proposal by the Canadian General Standards Board and organic aquaculture working group at Fisheries and Oceans Canada to give the organic stamp of approval to BC farmed salmon raised in open net-pens is nothing short of Orwellian.
Among the many practices that should be considered antithetical to the spirit and intent of organic certification, the fish farm industry in BC relies on the application of the agricultural drug SLICE to their "salmon feedlots" in order to address chronic sea lice outbreaks.
Emamectin benzoate is the active ingredient in SLICE, which is administered in feed. The use of SLICE in farmed salmon is a concern to scientists like Dr. David Carpenter. A professor at the Environmental Health and Toxicology Division at the University of Albany in New York, Carpenter has said "emamectin is one of a class of drugs known to block a major inhibitory neural transmitter in the brain. Animal studies have demonstrated exposure to this chemical during development causes changes in behavior and growth as well as pathological changes in the brain."
Little is known about the long-term impact of SLICE on other aquatic life. Mounting evidence indicates that SLICE may negatively affect crustaceans (e.g., krill, shrimp, etc.). Canadian ecotoxicology research scientist, Dr. Les Burridge, has written that "chemicals used to control infestations of sea lice on cultured salmon have a potential for impacting non-target organisms, particularly other Crustacea. Investigations have focused on lethal impacts, but observations made during these experiments indicate potential for ecologically important sub-lethal impacts."
University of Victoria researcher Dr. John Volpe has related how "fish farms are run feedlot-style and like similar land-based operations, rely on drugs to maintain a healthy population. The inadvertent breeding of 'superbugs' or drug-resistant bacteria is promoted in this way, and the potentially devastating long-term ramifications of such practices are only now becoming fully appreciated."
In addition to SLICE, BC salmon farms utilize colorants, fungicides and disinfectants in the course of production. Salmon farms are the marine equivalent of industrial agricultural feedlots and have been located in some of the wildest ecosystems in the world. The significant impact from open net-pen fish farms on the benthic environment alone is cause for serious concern.
Wild salmon throughout BC are under pressure from a number of factors including habitat destruction from clearcut logging and urban development, overfishing, pollution run-off, changing ocean conditions as a result of climate change, consequences from hatchery and enhancement programs, and fisheries mismanagement. In addition, there are the ongoing threats from the aquaculture industry; disease, parasites, non-native fish escapes, antibiotics, pesticides, chemicals, and fecal waste from salmon farms are among the impacts facing wild stocks in BC.
In 2002, a collapse of over three million pink salmon on BC's central coast was linked to parasites from adjacent fish farms. In Europe, salmon farms are believed to have forced the brown trout onto the endangered species list. Currently, Raincoast Conservation Foundation biologist Michael Price is investigating what role fish farms might have played in the 2009 collapse of Fraser River sockeye salmon in which some nine million fish went missing.
According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), organic agriculture is based on four principles, one of which is the principle of ecology. IFOAM states that "this principle roots organic agriculture within living ecological systems...for example, in the case of crops this is the living soil; for animals it is the farm ecosystem; for fish and marine organisms, the aquatic environment." IFOAM further explains that "organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them."
Approximately 80 percent of farmed salmon produced in BC is exported outside of Canada, with the majority of those exports going to markets in the United States. Promoters of the aquaculture industry are counting on health-conscious consumers flocking to farmed salmon once it is certified organic. But those American consumers might want to think again. Take some pellets with fish meal produced from fish stocks at the base of the food chain in the southern hemisphere's oceans, add a dash of pink chemical pigments, sprinkle with antibiotics, decorate with a startling array of bacteria and viruses, glaze with PCB's and you have your average farmed salmon fillet from your grocer or local restaurant.
At the root of this debate is the fundamental question of whether or not farming carnivorous species such as salmon is actually sustainable. In order to farm salmon, harvesting of wild fish (for example, sardines, whiting, and anchovies) and krill for fishmeal is required to produce the feed. In contrast, farming herbivorous species (like tilapia and carp) requires minimal inputs of fishmeal.
Leading fisheries experts, such as Dr. Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, have cautioned against "farming up the food web" because of the inefficient and wasteful use of biological resources, all of which are already used by humans and other organisms, and some of which are commercially valuable. Estimates indicate that farming salmon requires anywhere from two kilograms to four kilograms of wild fish to produce one kilogram of farmed fish.
Past and current scientific information suggests that farming salmon and other carnivores is not sustainable, contrary to industry claims. Farming carnivores is inherently illogical from an ecological perspective and layering another risk factor upon BC's salmon with open net-pen aquaculture when our wild stocks are already under a suite of pressures makes no sense at all. Certifying open net-pen farmed salmon as organic would appear equally nonsensical.
A version of this article previously ran in the Vancouver Sun.