Opinion: The state of Canada’s beloved salmon has become woefully fishy

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An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, British Columbia, October 31, 2018.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz are award-winning journalists and co-authors of Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish.

Salmon is Canada’s most popular fish, a staple of our diet and culture since the days of the first Aboriginal peoples. Dalhousie University’s Food Analysis Lab found that nearly eight out of 10 Canadians eat salmon, and almost 10% of them eat it at least once a week. We’re told it’s good for us, too: Doctors recommend salmon for its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other health benefits, and the salmon farming industry boasts that its fish are naturally and sustainably raised. .

But the reality is strangely different.

We came across this reality in January 2020, when we attended a public meeting near our home in Nova Scotia. At this well-attended event, we heard from experts, fishers and neighbors expressing their concerns about plans to locate up to 20 salmon farms along our coastline. We decided to look into the matter.

In recent decades, wild Atlantic and Pacific salmon have nearly disappeared from Canada’s rivers and oceans, victims of habitat destruction, overfishing and climate change. They have been replaced by farmed Atlantic salmon, which now accounts for up to 90% of global salmon consumption. Canada’s signature fish has become an industrial product, as have feedlot cattle and industrial chickens.

Salmon farming is now a global business worth US$20 billion a year and dominated by a few multinational corporations, including Cooke Aquaculture in New Brunswick. These intensive operations condemn the salmon to spend their adult life in cages in floating feedlots called net pen salmon farms. These farms are located primarily along the coasts of Norway, Chile, Scotland and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada, often along wild salmon migration routes.

What often happens below the waterline in these fish cages is shocking. A single farm can hold a million fish, crammed into a dozen cages made of plastic netting, suspended by flotation devices and anchored to the seabed. The fish are fed ground fishmeal pellets, poultry by-products such as feathers and legs, and vegetable ingredients. The food is mixed with pesticides and antibiotics to fight the twin plagues of parasites and viruses.

They pose a threat to the environment and human health. Droppings, excess food, and chemical residues sink to the seafloor, creating toxic areas that can kill or drive away lobsters, scallops, and other marine life. A photo taken under a farm in Nova Scotia shows a measurement embedded at the 32-inch mark in the noxious stew.

Farms are also vectors for pathogens and parasites that can spread to wild salmon, a particular threat to vulnerable smolts. The same diseases and parasites kill tens of millions of farmed fish each year – the mortality rate is estimated at 15%, far exceeding 3.3% for cattle and 5% for chickens. A single death at Newfoundland farms owned by Norwegian company Mowi ASA killed 2.6 million salmon in 2019, and more farmed fish died in cages than was harvested in the province this that year.

Finally, the flesh of farmed salmon contains residues of pesticides and antibiotics. This creates risks for consumers, especially infants, children and pregnant women. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s respected Seafood Watch advises consumers to avoid farmed Atlantic salmon from British Columbia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland due to excessive use of chemicals and diseases.

These dangers have long been debated by researchers, as science evolves with the times. But all the while, consumers have been left in the dark. The government’s dereliction of duty has meant labels have become meaningless, often failing to even identify the salmon as farmed, let alone provide information about possible chemical and antibiotic contamination.

“It’s confusing, and I suspect there’s some willful confusion there,” said physician Leonardo Trasande, an internationally renowned leader in identifying the consequences of environmental toxins on children. “We know that every fish is a compromise between omega-3s and toxic content like PCBs. From the perspective of salmon in general, the balance favors the consumption of this fish. Now, the challenge here is that I can’t tell which salmon are farmed the right way or the wrong way.

Three years ago, Ottawa promised to develop a traceability program for seafood sold in Canada to protect consumers from deception. But few concrete steps have been taken since then. Watchdogs SeaChoice and Living Oceans Society have responded by organizing a coalition of 26 grocery chains, seafood industry representatives and researchers to urge the government to deliver on its commitment to mandate honest labeling by tracing fruit from the boat to the plate.

There is good news on two fronts. On June 22, the federal government pledged to develop a plan to transition salmon farms to net pens in British Columbia within two years. It also refused to renew licenses for 19 farms deemed a threat to Pacific salmon in the Discovery Islands archipelago between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Ottawa is able to do this because it has jurisdiction over BC waters after a court case ten years ago; unfortunately, the decision is unlikely to have an effect in the Maritimes, where the provinces retain control.

Elsewhere in the private sector, a promising new technology – recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), which use large onshore tanks – can be used to farm salmon without chemicals, thereby protecting the environment, salmon wild and consumers. Canada is at the forefront of this innovation.

These systems imitate nature. Young salmon begin life in freshwater tanks before being moved to saltwater tanks, where they grow to market size. Ultraviolet lights and biofilters remove contaminants and solid waste from the water, which is then recycled. Solid waste is used as fertilizer or burned to generate electricity. Closed systems eliminate the need for chemicals and antibiotics and ensure farmed salmon never hit the ocean.

Sustainable Blue and Cape d’Or Salmon now operate two RAS plants near the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. Both brands are available in the Maritimes, and Sustainable Blue recently went on sale in Ontario and Quebec. In British Columbia, the ‘Namgis First Nation farms Atlantic salmon on Vancouver Island and sells it in grocery stores in British Columbia and through distributors elsewhere.

This technology is also appearing in unusual places. The largest RAS plant in the world is Atlantic Sapphire, about 60 kilometers south of Miami; others are in the United Arab Emirates, Tasmania and Japan. Superior Fresh in Wisconsin has incorporated hydroponically grown vegetables into its salmon farming relying solely on fresh water.

Fish raised by RAS tend to be more expensive. The systems require land, buildings, and waste handling – capital costs that are largely absent with self-service ocean farms. However, costs come down as projects grow and technology challenges are resolved, and if they continue to do so, this new method could disrupt and clean up the industry.

After all, consumers want a safer choice. Recent market research revealed that 86% of Canadians want to know that their seafood products are healthy and environmentally friendly. Educated consumers are essential to protecting our planet and our people. The government must therefore ensure that the seafood we eat is safe by taking action against misleading advertising and introducing transparency measures. Canadians, and salmon too, deserve so much.

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