Gloves Come Off in Salmon Wars


Written by M.L. Sheppard on May 1, 2013 in Environment, New Brunswick

Fredericton – It’s open season on open-pen salmon farming these days, with groups previously reluctant to criticize the industry going public with their concerns in a big way.

Signs of opposition have popped up since December, the most conspicuous of which, are large billboards with the entreaty, “Clean up Salmon Farming,” in the Halifax area. The billboards draw attention to harm caused by ocean-based salmon farming, namely the spread of disease and parasites from tame fish raised in pens to wild salmon stocks, coupled with the vast amounts of byproducts scientists say cause pollution and deaden parts of the sea floor.

Sue Scott of the St. Andrews based Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) says her organization is “working with industry towards more sustainable practices,” including research and development of land-based fish rearing systems. “We have taken a more vocal route with ads and billboards lately because government continues to promote open net pens and deny the science on impacts,” says Scott.

Until recently, many groups were reluctant to speak out against open-pen aquaculture. But the results of numerous scientific studies have caused a major re-thinking of this approach and the launch of the bold “Clean up Salmon Farming” campaign.

“In New Brunswick, industry has more or less had its way,” Scott says. “New Brunswickers haven’t spoken out about the industry; whereas in Nova Scotia, they’re not taking it sitting down. People are speaking out.”

Nova Scotia is the target of the novel clean up campaign due to planned expansions of the industry there. Evidence that pressure brought by the campaign may be working is a recent decision by the Nova Scotia government to decline a proposed open-pen aquaculture site in Shoal Bay. Newfoundland may be targeted next by the campaign.

Fundy Baykeeper Matthew Abbott is part of a broad coalition in the Maritimes, including ASF, standing staunchly behind the Clean up Salmon Farming campaign, which in addition to billboards includes full-page ads in the Halifax Chronicle Herald. A website completes the multi-level strategy.

“Ocean-based salmon farming has been a concern for a long time,” Abbott says. “For a while there was a hope it would take pressure off the wild stock, but that hasn’t occurred.” Instead there has been a growing concern over the effect farmed fish have on wild ones, including inter-breeding and disease transfer.

In 2010, Abbott convened a meeting of core members of what would become the Atlantic Coalition for Aquaculture Reform. Traditional fishing interests, lobster fishermen and community groups concerned about fin-fish aquaculture were all there. The coalition now includes groups from the three Maritime Provinces and ASF.

“The original vision for aquaculture in New Brunswick was for small-scale farms run by families,” says Abbott. “The industry has grown such that it is now dominated by one multinational corporation with feedlot-scale operations in the ocean.” This has prompted the change in attitudes, he says, and led people to start articulating their concerns in public. Adding to the urgency, federal and provincial levels of government have been seemingly looking the other way and ignoring criticism of permitting processes, all the while doling out compensation to corporations when diseased fish have to be destroyed.

Earlier this year the Standing Committee Report on Closed Containment Aquaculture said that it is technically possible to raise Atlantic salmon in closed-containment systems, albeit at a higher cost. This eats into profits, and then Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea sided with industry in rebuffing suggestions that closed containment should be pursued to allay environmental concerns. Opponents view this as government support for the status quo.

New Brunswick may not see a clean up salmon farming campaign soon, as there are few if any new fish farm permits to be issued. “We have reached the point where New Brunswick is saturated with fish farms,” Abbott says. “Passamaquoddy Bay and the Western Isles, in the outer Bay of Fundy, have the densest concentrations of salmon farms of anywhere in the world.”

For its part, industry remains convinced ocean-based activity is the best way forward. Cooke Aquaculture, New Brunswick’s largest producer, states on its website that the company is committed to the long-term social, economic and environmental sustainability of the communities where it operates, including Maine, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and its coalition partners defend their belief that closed, land-based containment is not only inevitable, but necessary to make fish farming sustainable, and they are determined to demonstrate this through action and not just words. In fact, diners at an ASF dinner recently splurged not on farmed salmon, but on Arctic charr raised in land-based containers in Nova Scotia’s Millbrook First Nation, near Truro. It was reportedly delicious, even more so because of its land-locked origins.