Opinion: Fish farming not a culprit of the declining salmon stocks

This week, the federal government’s Cohen Commission of Inquiry into declining Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks has begun its focus on aquaculture, which is the farming of fish or shellfish in the marine environment. Salmon farming accounts for the largest production share of BC’s aquaculture industry.

However, the Cohen Commission is not an aquaculture inquiry. Many factors – such as habitat destruction, overfishing, pollution and changing ocean conditions – can affect the survival of wild salmon.

Despite the broad inquiry focus, BC salmon farmers are supporting this important process by providing extensive data, and offering perspectives from people who rely on a healthy marine environment to grow their product.

 

Meanwhile, a vocal group of media-savvy activists – whose mandate has long-been to oppose BC’s salmon farming sector – are doing their best to position the Cohen Commission as an inquiry into fish farms. Those activists were hopeful that DFO scientist Kristi Miller, who testified this week, would link fluctuations in wild salmon populations to salmon farms. Much to their disappointment, Miller’s research had no focus on salmon farms. The Canadian Press reported, in fact, that "Fish farms may not be the culprit in Fraser sockeye collapse."

Opposition to salmon farming in BC has been a ‘bread and butter’ campaign for activists. For years, those opposed to the industry said salmon farming would ‘decimate’ wild pink salmon. But historical data does not support that allegation. In fact, the largest spawning returns of wild pink salmon in the province occurred in 2000 and 2001 – more than a decade after the industry began in BC. In December 2010, the allegation was put to rest by a joint Canada-US study.

The pink salmon allegation didn’t stick, so activists moved on to a new theory: That salmon farms along the BC coast were affecting the survival of Fraser River sockeye. Again, there is no evidence to support this. And, as most British Columbians are aware, last year’s historical Fraser River sockeye return of approximately 30 million fish was among the highest in nearly 100 years. Further good news is that 2011 Fraser sockeye returns have been forecast at approximately 4 million, which exceeds earlier forecasts.

 

Looking at the national picture, people should know that regulations governing Canada’s aquaculture industry are among the world’s most stringent. In fact, our finfish and shellfish farming sectors are collectively governed by no fewer than 73 distinct rules and regulations.

Why do we need aquaculture in the first place? Because the global seafood consumption rate is at an all-time high, and shows no signs of slowing down. Along with the increasingly accepted health benefits of eating seafood, per capita consumption has nearly doubled over the past 50 years. That’s good news for human health, but it’s straining our world’s oceans, lakes and rivers. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 84 percent of global fisheries are either depleted, fully exploited or over-exploited.

Meanwhile, output from the world’s capture fisheries has been stagnant since the 1980s. By contrast, aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing animal food-producing sector, and now accounts for half the seafood we eat.

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