Salmon farms: a decade of problems

Portrait of David Suzuki


• The David Suzuki Foundation and others have run ads over the past decade decrying BC’s open net-cage salmon farm industry. With significant expansion planned for the West Coast, the question remains, “Has BC’s salmon farm industry improved?”

Salmon farming threatens some of the planet’s last remaining viable wild salmon – a keystone species that touches all our coastal ecosystems. The issues in dispute include feed ingredients, disease transmission between farms and wild salmon, bird and marine mammal deaths, pesticide and antibiotic use and the effects of multiple farms in concentrated areas.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program recently released science-based ranking reports on open net-cage farmed salmon in BC, Norway, Chile and Scotland. All received a “red” or “avoid buying” designation. Canada’s SeaChoice followed suit.

More than 90% of migrating juvenile salmon die before returning to freshwater to spawn, most in the first months after entering the ocean. Pathogens may be a significant factor, although not all specifics about diseases are fully known. Justice Bruce Cohen’s Commission of Inquiry investigating the decline of Fraser River sockeye included pathogen risk… as a factor in the 2009 sockeye collapse. Disease from salmon farms is one risk to wild salmon that can be controlled.

Salmon farming shouldn’t be done at the expense of wild salmon. Both wild and farmed-salmon industries provide fish and create economic activity, but the province’s sports and commercial wild salmon fisheries and marine tourism contribute more to BC’s economy and quality of life than salmon farming.

Aquaculture must stop using the ocean as a free waste-treatment system. Closed-containment – in the ocean or on land – is better at controlling water and removing feces and chemicals like antibiotics and pesticides used for sea lice. One BC open net-cage company lost over $200 million in one year because of disease, enough to build 10 closed-containment farms. Yet the industry claims closed alternatives cost too much.

Although the salmon farm industry has decreased pesticide use, improved parasite management and reduced feed waste and wild fish used for feed, it hasn’t eliminated the problems. Despite the risks, last year the federal government quietly opened the door to expand BC’s aquaculture industry. Thirteen applications for new or larger farms along the coast have been submitted.

As Justice Cohen said, more federal research into the effects of fish farms on wild salmon stocks is critical… A promising partnership between Genome British Columbia, the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to discover the microbes that may cause disease in BC’s wild salmon and hinder their ability to reproduce could provide answers. But those answers don’t yet exist.

The fish farming industry is making efforts. In 2013, a farm in Norway was the first to be certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Closed-containment systems, which have fewer impacts on the environment and wild fish, are also growing. The Namgis First Nation on northeastern Vancouver Island recently started shipping its first closed-containment “Kuterra” Atlantic salmon to Safeway stores in BC and Alberta. The aquaculture industry could also improve environmental performance by producing food such as scallops, mussels, tilapia and seaweed that are a lower risk to the environment and use less feed and chemicals.

Unless we chart a sound course, salmon will lose – but so will we and the bears, eagles and magnificent coastal forests that support so much life.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation BC and Western Region director-general Jay Ritchlin. Learn more at

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