By Roy L Hales
My interest in British Columbia’s fish farms began with Alexandra Morton’s fim “Salmon Confidential Documentary” and you can find a distillation of her arguments, as well as other articles critical of this industry on this website. I recently became convinced there is another side to this story that we haven’t been hearing. So, at Marine Harvest’s invitation, I went visiting Philips Arm Salmon Farm.
Visiting Philips Arm Salmon Farm
One of the first things that struck me was the safety protocols. I was not allowed onto the fish farm until I dipped my shoes into a cleansing solution.
This reminded me something the department of fisheries recently emailed me. I sent them a number of questions about Alexandra Morton’s recent video about her uninvited “visit” to the Midsummer fish farm, in Kingcome Inlet, BC. A spokesperson replied:
“DFO recognizes the rights of individuals to protest peacefully and lawfully. Individuals should be mindful of not trespassing on private property and respect the need for biosecurity protocols at aquaculture facilities….”
Morton would not have gone through the protocols I did. Marine Harvest asked her to leave. (She refused and started filming.)
After my shoes were cleaned, I was given an introductory tour of Phillips Arm’s emergency devices and protocols. The site manager showed me where the first aid equipment was; gave instructions on what I should a tsunami hit the fish farm; and directed me to the instructions for operating their communication. I was given a great deal of other information which I will never need and had little interest in. The experience served to remind me that there are a lot of safety procedures and regulations undergirding BC’s aquaculture industry.
The Slide Show
My real tour of the fish farm included the control room, where I found a screen where displayed internal camera views of the pens. After I started to take pictures, Marine Harvest offered to let me direct their cameras and they took some snapshots for me. This allowed me to make what I consider to be a fact check of Morton’s video.
She said, “I was surprised about the number of fish that were behaving sickly. So sluggish they were lying against the camera; lying against the side of the net. One of the viruses I’m studying, piscine reoviruse, is associated with a disease that causes heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI). It damages the salmon’s heart so that they become so weak they can barely move. In the scientific literature it says the fish line up on the net with their faces towards the net. That’s what they were doing in every single pen.”
So I asked Marine Harvest to move one of their cameras so I could see the edge of the net. As you can see in the slideshow above, none of the fish I saw were looking towards the net. They were swimming past it.
I’m not disputing the photographic evidence Morton presents. She claims to have spent ten minutes filming in the fish pens and subsequently displayed the images of several emaciated salmon. Morton left her audience with the impression fish farms are full of fish so weak and sluggish they could barely move.
This was not what I saw looking through multiple cameras, for 5 – 10 minutes, during my visit to Philips Arm Salmon Farm.
The dominant background noise you hear in all three of the interviews in the podcast above are the splashes made by fish jumping. (There is also the occasional ping of a light drizzle falling on my recorder.)
I tried to snap off a picture, but for the most part was too slow to get much beyond splashes. You can see three of my attempts in the slideshow.
Marine Harvest gave me the picture of the jumping fish that you see above.
According to Paul Pattison, the site manager, “A jumping fish is a healthy happy fish. They’re well fed, they’re healthy. … We have incredibly low densities. The max these fish will ever get is ten kilos per cubic meter, which … is a lot of room. Like you saw in the camera, they are quite comfortable. They are schooling. They aren’t stacked …. which means very close … Fish welfare is one of our biggest values on the farm. To make sure they are healthy, happy comfortable. That’s why we feed all day, instead of just one event.”
To which Ian Roberts, MHC’s Communications Director, added, “If they weren’t jumping, we would be concerned… They might be stressed out because perhaps there is a predator in the area, or perhaps there is plankton in the water, or the temperature is too warm. When they are jumping it is a good sign. Actually the Latin name for Atlantic Salmon is ‘Salmo salar,’ which means ‘jumping fish.’ So its’ nothing new.”
Trying To Make Changes From The Inside
One of the people I interviewed worked for an environmental group that had concerns about fish farming, before joining Marine Harvest in the summer of 2014.
“My family was involved (in fish farming) from the very early days in B.C., back in the late 80’s. So I had been on salmon farms. I was familiar with the practices. I wasn’t happy with the route some of these (environmental) groups were taking. … I didn’t feel there was an appetite for engagement and engagement was what was needed. If there is something that you don’t like and you want to change it, then you need to be willing to meet and discuss and work together to make improvement. Just standing on the sidelines saying you don’t like it isn’t going to help anything,” said Katherine Dolmage, MHC’s Certification Officer.
Feeding Farmed Salmon Other Fish
Prior to my visit, Joe Foy of the Wilderness Committee emailed, “Humans do not need salmon farms for food. We actually lessen the supply of protein available for food because we feed farmed salmon a huge amount of dried smaller fish gotten from fishing grounds located far away in southern oceans.”
Ian Roberts touched upon this issue, when I asked him for an example of something good the environmental community brought to the table.
“When we first started (fish farming), our feed diet was probably composed of about 50% fish meal. If you do the math, you probably realize we were feeding more fish to raise less fish… For the past 25 years fish farms and companies have looked for alternate protein and today our marine ingredients (fish meal) is about 10% to 15%. When you do the math, we are now feeding less fish to produce more fish. That’s a huge gain that many people don’t know about,” he said. “Conservationists at that time raised the concern and because of that, and because it is the right thing to do, fish companies and farmers and companies reacted.”
Are Fish Farms Using The Ocean As A Sewer?
One of my readers emailed me, “The ONLY reason we have floating open net pen farms is because it’s cheaper to use the ocean as a sewer, but no industry has the right to use our public resource as a dumping ground for it’s created waste.”
Dolmage had a very different perspective of this, “Before we put in a site there is a huge amount of environmental information we are looking at. So we’re looking at the flow of water; using current meters to determine how quickly the water is moving; how much turnover there is; how deep the site is; what the sea floor looks like; what the contouring looks like to predict what the potential impact will be; and then we can use all that information to create a model. And when a site is reaching peak biomass we have biologists come out and take samples of the sea floor … and make sure we are not exceeding what we predicted.”
After the fish are harvested, sites are left fallow for anywhere from three months to a year and a half. At the time of our interview, Marine Harvest Canada was leasing 40 sites, only 30 of which are in operation. Phillips Arm is one of their oldest sites and its’ current operational cycle began eight months ago. According to the site manager, they will be harvesting the salmon next summer.
Dolmage said that if all of the fish farms in British Columbia were compacted into a single area, they would occupy less than a square mile.
Do Fish Diseases Spread From The Pens To Wild Salmon? Or The Other Way Around?
One of the principal concerns some environmentalists raise is the possibility fish farms spread disease to wild salmon.
Alexandra Morton claims salmon farms “produce lethal levels of sea lice, viruses and bacteria.”
Joe Foy emailed, “I believe that it is just a matter of time before we face disaster in the way of a major outbreak in our wild salmon that comes from the salmon farms – if we continue to allow open net cage salmon farms.”
This is not what the industry and Department of Fisheries are saying.
In a previous interview, Ian Roberts told me that in the Spring there is a danger that smolts could be infected with sea lice as they pass by the pens en route to the ocean.
Dolmage added this is a concern, but not a proven danger. MHC conducts checks before and after the smolts reach the pens.
“We are not seeing any surprising levels one way or the other. The pre and post (sea lice) levels on wild fish are fairly similar, but it is early to draw any conclusions,” she said.
However Dolmage is certain wild salmon are infecting the pens when they return to spawn in the autumn.
“These wild fish are coming back with lice infection and we do see the numbers (of infected fish) on our farm increase. For us it is not a health concern, but it is something we want to stay on top of. If we need to manage we will treat our fish to get those numbers (of fish with sea lice) back down.”
Are Fish Farms All About Greed?
One of the allegations sometimes hurled at fish farms is that they are all about greed.
Joe Foy emailed, “Salmon farms are built for the purpose of providing profit to their owners and they gather some community support because of the jobs they provide.”
Every corporation wants to be profitable.
In the podcast version of this article, all three of my interviewees state they believe in what they are doing. The most eloquent is probably Roberts, who said:
“One of the biggest reasons why I continue in this business, and I will continue to be a salmon farmer until I retire, is because it achieves three important things for me.
“As a conservationist, I think it is a response to not only feeding people but taking care of our oceans. As a kid growing up in the 80’s, I saw what commerical fishing was doing to our fish resources …. We were taking more than we were giving. Aquaculture, or farming in any sense of the word, is kind of producing our own or giving back. So we can compliment commercial fishing by producing fish for a growing population.”
Roberts also spoke about the ten years that he worked in the small coastal village of Klemtu. The local Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation had a small fish farm operation before partnering with Marine Harvest door in 1998. Now they process ten million fish a year.
“I see the lifestyle impact that having a regular paycheque and not living off the system has done for the people of Kelemtu. … This business has created a product in the middle of nowhere for communities, First Nations Communities included. 78% of the salmon in BC is produced under agreement with First Nation communities and I have personally seen the impact it has had for individuals. They walk a little different. They work. They have a paycheque. They’re proud and that’s huge.”
“So, providing food, a part of the conservation movement and providing an economy for coastal communities that don’t produce too much nowadays.”I think it is a fantastic story.”
Is The Media Treating Fish Farms Fairly?
“I think if you know anything about a subject, you see that the media likes to highlight controversy. It likes to highlight the negative and sometimes if you are seeing a story you know little about, you don’t know if the story is balanced because you know little about the story. You hope the media filter is providing that balance so you can create opinions based on fact. I know that not to be the case with fish farming. I can see how someone sitting in Vancouver could have a negative perception of our business based on the flashy headlines; the controversy,” said Roberts.
He added, “Looking at the global perspective, there is a strong case for fish farming when you look at the conservation aspect, the food providing aspect and the economic aspect. Think of where the economics happen, in coastal regions that have been hard hit by downturns in other resource industries.”
“I find that the reporting in British Columbia, specifically, gives quite a voice to a minority that doesn’t necessarily represent the balance of the conversation, in the world, around fish farming.”
“I think we have to take that responsibility on ourselves. We have a responsibility to communicate what we do. We have a responsibility to communicate our challenges and what we do as a response to those challenges. I think we have done poorly over the last twenty years. … We have let some voices run the conversation. The media has been happy to pick up that side of the conversation and now I think you are starting to see salmon farmers speak up for themselves.”
Suing Alexandra Morton
As we were heading back to Cortes Island, Roberts informed me Marine Harvest is suing Alexandra Morton for her occupation of their Midsummer fish farm. He said they could not idly sit by and let her trespass on their facilities.
In their notice of civil claim, Marine Harvest states Morton ignored their demand she leave their facility “and instead walked upon the facility, inspected the facility and tampered with the equipment owned by Marine Harvest and used in the course of its aquaculture activities.”
Morton told the Tyee, “I did go on the farm and I used a camera in the public interest and as a guest of a nation that has accused the company of trespassing on their territory for decades.”
Roberts said the title issue is not straightforward and Marine Harvest has agreements with other First Nations groups within the same territory.
Marine Harvest’s position is that they were granted a license of occupation by the Government of British Columbia and have a right to be there.
Top image: Roy L Hales interviewing Katherine Dolmage, Certification Manager from Marine Harvest Canada (MHC), at the Philips Arm Salmon Farm – photo courtesy Ian Roberts (MHC)
Some of the Sources Quoted Above
- email from DFO spokesperson, which I give a longer quote in “Hard Evidence from the inside“
- Alexandra Morton’s video Hard Evidence, embedded on this website with her permission
- Roy L Hales interview with Paul Pattison, site manager for Phillips Arm Fish Farm
- Roy L Hales interview with Ian Roberts, Communications Director for Marine Harvest Canada
- Roy L Hales interview with Katherine Dolmage, Certification Officer for Marine Harvest Canada
- email from Joe Foy, Wilderness Committee
- email from one of the ECOreport’s readers, who prefers not to be named
- email from Alexandra Morton