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Debating Aquaculture's impact on NL salmon

Rows of salmon fish displayed on a fish store counter.
Salmon at a fish stall.

By Jaymie White

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

WEST COAST — On Monday evening, Jan. 22, Enviro Watch NL, a network of citizens across the province working together to protect the lands and waters for present and future generations, held an online public forum to discuss fish farming and whether or not it is the right choice for Newfoundland and Labrador. Ahead of the meeting, Enviro Watch NL issued a release discussing open net pen salmonid aquaculture and distributed the following:

• When open-net-pen aquaculture occurs near wild Atlantic salmon rivers, the salmon population drops by 25-35 per cent and continues to decline.

• The salmon populations in all 75 rivers on the South Coast of Newfoundland have been assessed as “Threatened” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Despite this, open-net-pen aquaculture has been practiced in this area for over 40 years.

• Since open-net pen aquaculture began on the South Coast, wild salmon numbers on the Conne River have declined from 10,000 annually to just 200, a drop of 98 per cent.

• Since open-net-pen aquaculture began on the South coast, DFO has documented that over 800,000 farmed fish have escaped from their pens. When escaped aquaculture salmon interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon, it leads to genetic dilution (introgression), which threatens the survival of wild salmon populations. If there is more than 10 per cent introgression in a salmon river, survival of the wild salmon population is at risk.

• Holding aquaculture fish in high densities, as is common in open-net-pens, amplifies sea-lice infestations, bacterial diseases, and viral outbreaks like Infectious Salmon Anemia.

• Data obtained through an ‘Access to Information Request’ shows that from 2019-2021, approximately half of the 9 million fish that were stocked in sea cages on the South Coast did not survive, resulting in a 50 per cent mortality rate.

• A planned expansion of open-net-pen aquaculture to the west will threaten a proposal to establish a ‘Marine Protected Area’ near the Town of Burgeo, which was announced recently by Parks Canada.

• The Federal Government has ordered that open-net-pen salmonid aquaculture in British Columbia must transition to other forms by 2025, but continues to support the expansion of open-net-pen aquaculture on the East Coast of Canada.

The intent of the forum was to offer an open discussion with a panel assembled by Enviro Watch NL who have in-depth knowledge on the impact of sea-based aquaculture to human and marine health.

The panel consisted of Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, authors of Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favourite Fish; Bob Chamberlin, Chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance; and Neville Crabbe, Executive Director of Communications for the Atlantic Salmon Federation. Frantz and Collins started the discussion by giving an overview of why many fish farmers in Norway want to come to Canada.

“A Norwegian member of parliament once told the Canadian parliamentary committee in Ottawa, he said about Norway, ‘we are very strict about the quality and environment questions. Therefore, some of the fish farmers want to go to Canada.’ They said, ‘we want bigger fish farms in a place where we can do exactly what we like.' That is a very hot subject, I think,” said Collins. “He said this back in December of 1990 and some things have never changed. Norway continues to be one of the largest producers of farmed salmon. They produce about half the farm salmon in the world. Their mortality rates are like what you see everywhere in the world, between 10 and 25 per cent every year. Every year, 200,000 fish are reported to escape from these Norwegian fish farms — it's probably more than that — and as a result, 71 per cent of Norway's rivers are considered genetically polluted because of these escaped salmon. The population of wild salmon in Norway, as in other places, is estimated to have been cut by half in the last 20 years.”

Even the promise of jobs may not be to the level that people expect when looking at the potential positives on the economy. 

“This is one of the things that the industry says all the time. ‘We bring you jobs and you guys need jobs.’ Well, that's true. Newfoundland needs jobs. Nova Scotia needs jobs, but we don't need bad jobs. We don't need jobs that destroy other marine businesses and other fisheries, and the numbers are not that great. In Nova Scotia, they only employ about 250 people province-wide,” said Collins. “Compare that to the number of people who work in the lobster industry. I pulled a Newfoundland day labour document that said that the seafood industry employed 17,500 people throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, but only 579 work in aquaculture. Another Newfoundland study put that number closer to 300, and disturbingly, those jobs aren't great jobs. The annual salary, median income, is something like $19,000. They're the government's statistics.”

Crabbe worries about the impact to the species itself.

“The reality is that this industry has resulted in the most recently domesticated animal known to humankind, a wonderful wild fish known as the king of fish for hundreds of years now reduced to traits like size, like aggressiveness for food in hatcheries, its ability to survive in confined environments, and these fish have been bred selectively over generations and generations and generations,” said Crabbe. “And now we have a new fish that is salmon by name, but far from wild salmon, and that there's not only an environmental dimension to that, but an ethical and moral dimension as well.”

On the pacific coast strides have been made to raise awareness.

“This entire topic is very complicated and that's where I think industry gets its foothold, is because you have to connect all the dots for it to really be shown what a travesty open net pen fish farms are for the environment. I think back to when I first became elected chief of my nation, the Kwikwasutinuxw. That was in 2005 and our people had been fighting the fish farms in our territory for almost two decades before I started,” said Chamberlain. “And so for the past going on — this would be 19th year fighting to protect salmon — and the most likely source of impact that we've identified is the open net pen fish farms. This doesn't absolve logging companies from what they've done in the watersheds. It doesn't absolve man for its impacts all along the Fraser River, but it is something that we can reach out and change to benefit salmon.”

In this province, federal regulations are not the same as on the west coast of Canada.

“The federal government regulates the fisheries on the west coast. On the east coast, these salmon farms are considered agricultural and they're under the control of the province,” said Collins. “This is part of the reason that B.C. has been able to make some progress, whereas our four provincial premiers have doubled down on this filthy industry, and we are not making progress, and we're in real danger.”

wild salmonOne of the main takeaways is that sea based aquaculture is a factor in wild Atlantic salmon decline.

“What's behind this discussion is the fact that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is considering allowing one of the largest expansions of this industry in Canadian history, from Bay d'Espoir over to Port Aux Basques, covering a massive swath of the south coast of Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Crabbe. “The key decision makers for us in Atlantic Canada are provincial and they know whether or not this industry can expand in Newfoundland and Labrador and wreak havoc on wild Atlantic salmon populations from Bay d'Espoir to  Port Aux Basques and on Atlantic herring populations. That decision lies in the premier's office, as it does here in New Brunswick, as it does in Nova Scotia. We've seen it time and time again in Atlantic Canada, wherever the industry exists, wild Atlantic salmon populations that are adjacent to the industry are assessed as threatened or endangered by the committee on the status of endangered Wildlife in Canada, and we have identified three major pathways why that's occurring. It is escapes, it's parasites and it's disease, and arguably nowhere in the world is the situation worse than it is right now on the south coast of Newfoundland.”

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