Upstream battle

Wild salmon underpins British Columbia's coastal culture and economy. The rapid growth of salmon farms threatens to alter the region's identity.

Only 100 residents keep this former pulp-mill town from being swallowed by rain forests that hug Canada's rugged Pacific coast.

That modest population doubled on Jan. 15, when chiefs of the Heiltsuk and Nuxalk nations met in Ocean Falls to protest construction of an Atlantic salmon hatchery. The facility is being built by Pan Fish of Norway, the world's second-largest aquaculture company. If finished, it will produce 10 million young Atlantic salmon a year to supply farms proposed for much of the province's central coast.

The global fish-farming industry continues to grow, providing one-third of the fish people consume. But as production rises, so do questions about environmental impact and the conditions under which fish are raised. British Columbia, with its tradition of commercial fishing, tribal fishing rights, and environmental activism, sits at the center of the controversy.

"We are struggling to save a way of life," Heiltsuk chief Edwin Newman told the crowd at the Ocean Falls rally. Alongside other chiefs dressed in their button-blanket cloaks and carved cedar masks, Mr. Newman declared, "We do not want fish farms on the central coast."

Most First Nations, as aboriginal peoples in Canada are called, have never signed treaties ceding their land. They see the government-backed expansion of fish farms as a violation of their territorial rights.

The Heiltsuks have a lawsuit pending against Omega Salmon Group, Pan Fish's Canadian subsidiary. Tribes wield legal clout in British Columbia, because the province must provide compensation if they can prove resources were taken from their land.

"In Canada, under laws that have been hard fought and established through the Supreme Court, industry and government must both consult and accommodate First Nations in economic development projects. That simply hasn't happened here," says Mike Jacobs of the Heiltsuk Fisheries Program.

Hours before the protesters arrived in Ocean Falls, Omega announced a temporary halt to construction. "We are fully committed to a positive and transparent dialogue with First Nations," said Omega project manager Kjell Aasen. (The company has resumed construction, and expects to finish by summer.)

Environmentalists and fishing interests support the Heiltsuks' efforts as part of an international campaign against the salmon-farming industry. Underwater cages have replaced the sea as the main source of the world's salmon and in the process transformed salmon from a seasonal delicacy to a cheap staple food.

So far in British Columbia, 85 salmon farms are in operation, only three of which operate on the remote central coast, the territory of tribes such as the Heiltsuk. Last September, the province's newly elected government lifted its seven-year-old ban on new fish farms. In recent months, 90 salmon farms have been proposed. Premier Gordon Campbell's administration aims to quadruple the province's salmon production in a decade.

The government has taken heat for its pro-business stance, and faced increased scrutiny. The minister for fisheries, John Van Dongen, who led the drive to boost aquaculture, resigned in late January after an announcement that he was under investigation for allegedly giving confidential information to a salmon-farming company.

About half the salmon eaten in the United States were once livestock, not wildlife. Coastlines in Chile, Norway, Scotland, Canada, and the states of Maine and Washington are dotted with salmon farms, grids of square platforms floating on the waves. Tens of thousands of salmon swim inside a 30-foot net suspended from each platform.

The jagged coastline stretching from Alaska to central British Columbia is one of the few places on earth where economies and local cultures still revolve around wild salmon.

"We are salmon people, just like you," Heiltsuk chief Harvey Humchitt told listeners in Ocean Falls. "We rely on our salmon, we rely on all the resources from the ocean, and we see the Atlantics as a threat to all those natural resources that live in the ocean."

Farmed salmon is the province's most valuable legal export crop. (Only marijuana is believed to bring in more cash.) Most of the farms grow Atlantic salmon, which are more docile and faster-growing than Pacific salmon. "It's like raising any kind of livestock, you don't want them fighting each other, you want them eating," says Mary Ellen Walling, director of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association.

The isolated fjords and straits of the central coast are ideal for raising salmon: their strong, clean tides flush wastes away from the floating net-pens where fish are raised in dense concentrations. Clusters of farms closer to the US border have been hard-hit in recent years by diseases that can spread from farm to farm. When viruses occur, farm operators are often forced to kill all their fish, compost them on land, and sterilize all nets, boats, and equipment.

Biologists and critics of salmon farms believe diseases and parasites such as sea lice can spread easily between wild and caged fish.

Though there are no regulations on managing sea lice, the Salmon Farmers Association has offered to shut down half its farms in the area this spring and to control sea lice outbreaks on the rest with pesticides. "We are committed to operating salmon farms in a responsible manner without harm to wild salmon populations," says Ron Kilmury, the association's chairman.

The promise of aquaculture is that it can provide nutritious seafood while reducing demands on the world's oceans. Fish farms are careful not to waste the fish meal they feed to salmon.

"We monitor the amount of feed being dispersed to the fish with underwater cameras, so the amount of overfeeding and wasted feed is almost zero," says Ms. Walling.

Even so, raising carnivores like salmon and shrimp may actually reduce the amount of fish in the sea. It takes 2-1/2 pounds of ground-up fish to make a pound of farmed salmon.

Over the past decade, more than 400,000 farm-raised Atlantic salmon have escaped into British Columbia waters. Biologists have found Atlantics in 77 British Columbia streams; a few have successfully spawned. Although Atlantics do not interbreed with other salmon species, First Nations and environmentalists worry that the fish could displace wild salmon, in all their genetic diversity. Salmon farmers discount this fear, since few domesticated fish survive for long in the ocean.

The industry and its critics also clash over the health implications of fish farms' use of antibiotics, pesticides, and artificial coloring. Concern is rising over possible genetic modifications that could produce bigger salmon in less time. But both sides agree that low-cost competitors overseas, especially in Chile, are hurting Canada's coastal economies.

The lure of new jobs has caused divisions in British Columbia's impoverished seaside communities. "We've got 85 percent unemployment," says John Bolton, a taxi driver on the Heiltsuk reservation in Bella Bella and former director of the Heiltsuk fisheries program. "If I had to choose the lesser of two evils, I'd take the hatchery."

The Kitasoo Nation, to the north of Heiltsuk territory, has allowed a salmon farm to be built near Arthur Island, an area the Heiltsuk also use. A viral disease outbreak last year forced that farm to kill all its salmon and may have spread the virus to wild salmon and herring, important food sources locally.

"Everyone needs jobs," Philip Hogan, the Heiltsuks' leading fish farm critic, acknowledges. "But this threatens the economy we already have."

Most analysts expect aquaculture to keep expanding worldwide. But the Heiltsuk are determined to keep fish farms out of their little corner of the Pacific. "This isn't the first company that's come in here and tried to push something on us," Mr. Hogan of the Heiltsuk Nation says. "We've been successful in the past at stopping unwanted projects, and we think we'll be successful here."

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