Farming Salmon – A Good Idea ? Part Two


In Part two of her article, Sally Campbell turns the focus from Chile to the developments of Marine Harvest and the salmon farming industry in British Colombia and the concerns that were raised by local First Nation populations. She then brings us back closer to home with a look at the situation in Scotland.

So that is Chile…what about Marine Harvest in British Columbia?

The temperate waters of British Columbia are a perfect environment for wild salmon, as its diverse ecosystem depends on this keystone species for survival. There are five species that currently dominate the salmon fisheries in British Columbia: coho, sockeye, pink, chum, and chinook. Salmon are anadromous, which means they spend their life in the ocean and travel up freshwater rivers to spawn (release their eggs and sperm) and die. In fact, salmon have an incredible sense of smell that allows them to return to the very river they were born! The return of new generations of salmon to the rivers every year has been a vital component of British Columbia’s fisheries, economy, and wider wildlife existence.

Salmon farms in British Columbia gained popularity in the 1980s and soon resulted in the classic overproduction scenario, the short term profit margin driver.
Marine Harvest holds 55 licensed ocean salmon farms in B.C. with about 30 operating at any one time, while others lay fallow. 12 of Marine Harvest’s ocean farming tenures are located in the Broughton area, especially important to First Nation Peoples and wild salmon runs.

Overproduction led to a decline in sale prices and an increased risk in environmental stability. Despite overproduction in salmon farms, fishermen were reporting a drastic reduction in wild salmon catch by almost 100% in some cases. From 1994 to 2002, a moratorium (temporary ban) was placed on creating more salmon farms, but wild salmon stock continued to decline. The government is currently reviewing the leases of 20 fish farms that expire in June 2020. First Nation chiefs and other opponents are upping the pressure on the NDP provincial government leadership in hopes they will commit to ending fish farming in the ocean. But supporters of the farms say that would be a huge blow to an industry worth billions of dollars to the province.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association says the province’s aquaculture industry generates $1.5 billion a year. (B.C. Salmon Farmers Association). Jeremy Dunn, head of community relations for MH Canada, says the idea that the millions of Atlantic salmon now being reared in net pens in the ocean could be easily moved to large tanks on land is not realistic. “There have been people working to try and perfect growing salmon to market size in tanks for 30 years, and no one’s been able to make a sustainable business out of it,” he says. “A lot people have lost a lot of money.” Approximately $1.5 billion in revenue and 6,600 jobs in the province are tied to the industry, he says. “We know how to keep our fish healthy, we know how to ensure that we are mitigating any potential risk, and we know that we can coexist alongside a healthy wild fishery and help conserve Pacific salmon.” This is of course pure serendipity !

Alfred is a hereditary chief of the Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, B.C., and he has the support of elected bands and councils in the area that oppose the farms. He says the land and waters were never ceded, and he believes First Nations will ultimately acquire controlling rights over the area. It is a long-term battle still being fought in the courts and in negotiations with the federal and provincial governments. The provincial government has so far kept quiet about its plans for the leases, but recently it announced a new Wild Salmon Advisory Council to research and report back on measures needed to protect wild fish. A ground-breaking government-to-government process has delivered recommendations that will protect and restore wild salmon stocks, allow an orderly transition plan for open-pen finfish for the Broughton Archipelago and create a more sustainable future for local communities and workers. Seventeen open-pen fish farms in B.C.’s Broughton Archipelago will be phased out by 2023 under a new agreement between First Nations and the provincial government, the Premier announced.

The recommendations come out of a process undertaken by the Province and the ‘Namgis First Nation, the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nations and Mamalilikulla First Nation, following a letter of understanding (LOU) regarding the future of finfish aquaculture in the Broughton. The recommendations have been agreed to by the two fish farm operators in the Broughton: MH Canada and Cermaq Canada. “Our governments have come together to help revitalize and protect wild salmon, and provide greater economic certainty for communities and local workers. These are the kinds of gains true reconciliation can deliver,” said Premier John Horgan. “The success of this process shows that when the provincial government and First Nations work together in the spirit of recognition and respect, taking into consideration the concerns of the federal government and industry, we can deliver results in the best interests of all who live and work here.”

“Our Nations, together with many British Columbians, have been raising serious concerns about this industry for decades. We are grateful that governments and industry are finally starting to listen and work with us to find solutions that aim to protect and restore wild salmon and other resources,” said Chief Robert Chamberlin, Elected Chief Councillor of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation and First Nations’ Chair of the steering committee. “There is much that still must be done, but these recommendations are a significant positive step in a better direction.”

The Province and the three First Nations endorse the recommendations, which:

• create an orderly transition of 17 farms, operated by Marine Harvest Canada and Cermaq Canada, from the Broughton area between 2019 and 2023;
• establish a farm-free migration corridor in the Broughton in the short term to help reduce harm to wild salmon;
• develop a First Nations-led monitoring and inspection program to oversee those farms during the transition, which will include compliance requirements and corrective measures;
• implement new technologies to address environmental risks including sea lice;
• call for immediate action to enhance wild salmon habitat restoration and rehabilitation in the Broughton;
• confirm a willingness to work together to put into place the agreements and protocols necessary to implement the recommendations, including continued collaboration with the federal government; and
• secure economic development and employment opportunities by increasing support for First Nations implementation activities and industry transition opportunities outside the Broughton.

“There is no such thing as reconciliation in this territory as long as these farms exist. They’re not welcome here. They don’t have social licence; they hardly have a legal stance.” One big concern for opponents is a parasite known as sea lice. They attach themselves to the fish, weakening and sometimes killing them. Opponents are convinced the farms, with thousands of fish packed together, amplify the number of lice in the open ocean. “I’m 100 per cent sure these farms are killing off wild salmon,” says Alexandra Morton. She has been involved in this fight for 30 years, and has published research documenting the risks posed by the farmed fish. Morton says the companies could move to land-based farms, where the fish and their effluent are contained. She and other opponents are buoyed by action in Washington State, which in March 2018 effectively banned the farming of Atlantic salmon in its waters. Leases will not be renewed. This followed the escape of 305,000 fish from a farm in Washington State. Chief Robert Chamberlin with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs says the ban will be welcomed by Indigenous people in B.C. and Washington.

It seems that in contrast to Chile, the industry including Marine Harvest, has realised that grandstanding is counterproductive and cooperation might be a better survival strategy !

So what about Scotland and Marine Harvest practice here after these 10 years since the Oslo AGM?
We have seen all the same trends here in MH as in the other salmon fish farming countries.. escapes, diseases, use of antibiotics and neurotoxins, damage to wild salmon and its associated tourism, demands for increased biomass on licensed farms and planning applications for new salmon farms still being allowed despite evidence of damage to marine ecosystems.

Most recently in December 2018 MH-Scotland has reported that 24,572 salmon weighing approx. 1.1kg escaped from its farm at the high-energy site of Hellisay, Isle of Barra during Storm Duncan. A previous escape was of 16,000 4.5Kg farmed salmon at the beginning of June 2016 from Carradale has been described by experts as “potentially massively serious” for wild salmon in the Firth of Clyde region. The fish escaped in stormy conditions into the Kilbrannan Sound from a fish farming cage at Eilean Grianain, Carradale on the eastern coastline of Kintyre.

In October 2017, about 125,000 salmon died due to a disease outbreak at two MH fish farms on the Isle of Lewis. Marine Harvest confirmed that the sites in Loch Erisort have been hit by the bacterium Pasturella skyensis. The company apologised to local people concerned about the smell of decay in the area and the sight of lorries carrying away dead fish. The pathogen is believed to have taken hold at the farms at the end of August.
One theory behind the emergence of the disease is that climate change and rising ocean temperatures could be making Scottish fish farms more vulnerable to bacterial infections. This of course bodes ill for the long term future of open cage fish farming.

In Scotland Marine Harvest has been consistently the heaviest user of antibiotics on their salmon farms. Two of the major drugs use between 2003-2017 are Aquatet, which is a broad spectrum antibiotic oxytetracycline of which MH used in total 14.2 tonnes, more in the latter half of those years and Florocol of which over half a tonne was used in the same period. This is used for the treatment of furunculosis (Aeromonas salmonicida) infection of Atlantic Salmon. Florfenicol is a broad spectrum antibiotic which is active against both Gram positive and Gram negative bacteria.
In the same period a total of 16.731 tonnes of 7 antibiotics were used on all salmon farms in the west of Scotland.

So after ten years there has been some progress in Chile and British Columbia, but in Scotland it has been up until now “light touch regulation”, easy planning permission and with economic drivers from the Scottish government. Scotland has been steered away from the worst of what happened, as exemplified in Chile. But more intervention is justified and at last SEPA is developing a much more vigorous compliance regime, better accumulative waste research and increased routine monitoring by SEPA itself including spot checks. The two Scottish government committees (Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee) have both urged stricter control of all aspects of the salmon aquaculture industry. Bravo at last many of us are saying !

In all this, over years with some poor PR from the media, and environmental NGOs, MH has been a powerful voice of ”wonderful product, pristine waters, healthy fish”. Now it is soon to commission its own huge feed plant just over the bridge to Skye at Kyleakin. The plant will produce fish feed to supply MH’s salmon farms across the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, as well as Ireland, Norway and the Faroe Islands. Meanwhile as of 1 January 2019 the company will launch the MOWI brand into selected markets. The branded product line it is claimed will provide customers with added value in taste, convenience, nutrition and traceability. Excuse me whilst I smile !

As the erstwhile MH says “Mowi is an inspirational name that recalls our pioneering spirit that has developed over the past 50 years. Since the first salmon was farmed in 1964, we have grown into a global fully integrated company, including breeding, feed, farming, processing and sales. Throughout the past 50 years, we have always remained true to our core value – the care we have for our people, our fish, our customers and the environment.” MH has outlined the thinking behind its plans to change its name to Mowi and launch a salmon brand of the same name. Speaking at the launch of the brand at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, CEO Alf-Helge Aarskog said the company would invest €35 million in the brand over the next two years and aimed to be making €1 billion in branded turnover by 2025.

Mowi has always been the name of Marine Harvest’s broodstock but the Mowi-branded salmon will have higher omega-3 content, a redder colour and softer marbling, appealing to the millennial shoppers concerned about health and sustainability. The fish will be from specially selected broodstock, get special feed and come from special Mowi farms. So that sounds to me like more krill or GM omega 3 imported seed oil in feed, more colouring with artificial carotenoids and more active swimming to reduce fat content? Mmmm! Is all I can say ! All the Mowi fish will be Aquaculture Stewardship Council-certified. This rules out Scottish farms for the time being, as MH Scotland’s use of freshwater lochs to grow smolts has prevented any of its sites being eligible for ASC approval. However, the company is confident that will change soon under a review of ASC rules.

Ah well, when there are troubled times, closer scrutiny, poor publicity, change your name, re-brand. We have seen it elsewhere in the farmed salmon market. Marks and Spencer’s Loch Muir “Our responsibly sourced salmon”, and The Scottish Salmon Company (SSC) is aiming its new Lochlander Salmon brand to target premium restaurants, up-market hotels and top class chefs in the USA in order to accelerate overseas sales. I have used Marine Harvest worldwide salmon farm rearing as illustrative of the past practices and conflicts in this industry as a whole and how it is facing up to the strong headwinds of criticism. After all it is 10 years since that Marine Harvest Oslo AGM. There are signs that the word sustainability might slowly be recognised as an important goal going forward. Undoubtedly the greatest challenge going forward will be the introduction of genetically modified farmed fish, a development this industry is ill-equipped to handle.

Sally Campbell
December 2018

PostScript January 2019
Save The Swilly. Ireland’s perspective.
In my pieces about the Oslo AGM in 2008, I presented the CEO with a letter from the Save the Swilly Group in Ireland, contesting Marine Harvest expansion plans for the Lough. I recently enquired how The Swilly was doing and the replies came back from two active participants as follows: Like many of us on the west coast of Scotland, Chile and British Columbia, they constantly lobby to prevent expansion, raise standards and take on the Government.

Quoting my two correspondents :-

Around 2000 onwards MH reactivated applications for multiple sites in the Swilly, we have held those off, however we know they could come back at any time. We have, along with other groups around the entire Republic of Ireland coastline, forced the Govt into a position where there is effectively a moratorium on licence applications and licence renewals, this when the Govt is actively promoting aquaculture of all sorts. The downside is that the Govt have given the nod to farmers to carry on, on their old sites. I have no doubt that the situation would be much, much worse if we did not exist, licences granted on the nod, farms operating outside their licenced area with no regard to law, protocols etc. We have also raised public awareness immeasurably.”

“Save The Swilly has become involved since that time in the wider Water Framework Directive, and we have made a number of submissions under that umbrella over the years, with specific reference to the coastal zone, on the one hand, and more explicitly to the issue of aquaculture. Ireland has been in a virtual stasis due to the successful challenge from an environmental NGO, Friends of the Irish Environment, to the failure of the Irish government to adhere to Natura 2000 in their aquaculture licensing regime. This has been a fair cop, and instead of immediately correcting the licensing regime the Irish Government was frozen in the headlights for a number of years, until last year when they launched an accelerated licensing “catch-up” and granted a raft of licences simultaneously.

The whole approach is disappointing, as the licensing authorities appear to have learned little from this process other than to be even less transparent and consultative. (Sally: in other words take cover !) “I believe that MH/MOWI in Donegal continues to use pesticides, dyes and antibiotics, but references are oblique. This is from their website:
“Our fish health management focus is on disease prevention which includes vaccination and builds on control approaches, supervisions by our fish health professionals and a continuous quest for new knowledge and in-depth understanding. The use of therapeutics for the control of parasites and infections is strictly controlled by “Organic standards”. By the strict definition of “organic” these products would not be defined as such, but the Soil Association, among others (Naturland Verband (Germany), Bio Suisse (Switzerland) and the Global Trust Certification) has compromised the definition.

This is what the Soil Association says about the use of chemicals: “To limit the use of chemically synthesised inputs to situations where appropriate alternative management practices do not exist, or natural or organic inputs are not available, or where alternative inputs would contribute to unacceptable environmental impacts”. In other words, they can use chemicals if nothing else works! On feed, the Soil Association has also compromised by setting the bar low:

You must source feed for carnivorous aquaculture animals with the following priorities:
1. organic feed products of aquaculture origin
2. fish meal and fish oil from organic aquaculture trimmings
3. fish meal and fish oil and ingredients of fish origin derived from trimmings of fish already caught for human consumption in sustainable fisheries
4. organic feed materials of plant or animal origin
5. feed products derived from whole fish caught in fisheries certified as sustainable under a scheme recognised by the competent authority in line with the principles laid down in Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council.

You must record the type and quantity of feed. The feed ration may comprise a maximum of 60 % organic plant products”.

“The question is whether consumers realise that the “organic” salmon they are eating actually has been exposed to chemicals from various treatments; that the feed is organic only to the degree specified by the definitions agreed. There is NO black and white in this process, only degrees of greyness…”