those who may have missed this interesting article that appeared
in the Seattle PI
P-I Focus: Farming is a net-loss proposition -- ecologically, socially
A Salmon Scare
Sunday, January 25, 2004
By JOHN VOLPE
From the perspective of the specialist, it is a mixed blessing
when the world turns its attention to your chosen area of endeavor.
You feel somehow legitimized when, if only briefly, the public
shares your own intense interest in the issues to which you have
devoted your professional life. However, initial excitement quickly
gives way to exasperation as rhetoric overshadows the substantive
deliberation necessary to move from knowledge to understanding.
As a university professor dealing with issues surrounding seafood
ecology, I toil in relative obscurity. The bread and butter of
my research is how the relationship between the fishing and aquaculture
industries is altering ecological, social and economic checks and
balances the world over.
The landmark study detailing the greatly increased toxin loads
found in farm salmon relative to their wild counterparts has thrust
me and my colleagues around the world into the media limelight
for a few moments. A seemingly endless parade of cameras and microphones
has passed through my lab recently at the University of Alberta
in search of expert opinion to put these startling data in perspective.
On average, farm-raised salmon have an order of magnitude higher
load of cancer causing POPs (persistent organic pollutants) than
wild caught salmon. This is not new. In fact over the last few
years three other such studies -- albeit much smaller -- have come
to nearly identical conclusions. As the dust settles around the
current research, attention is shifting to consumer reaction and
what effect this news will have on the aquaculture industry.
What I have not seen in any of the worldwide coverage is anyone
asking "Why?" By this I don't mean, "Why are
toxin loads higher in farm salmon?" The answer is straightforward
and was predicted long ago from well-established bioaccumulation
principles. Nor am I referring to the implied paradigm of the existence
of such a thing as a safe level of carcinogen. No, my frustration
is rooted in the deafening absence of what should be a vigorous
debate -- "Why industrial aquaculture?" -- or more specifically
-- "Why industrial salmon aquaculture?"
Consider the following:
Current production methods adopt maximum economies of scale. Thus,
feedlot style, open net-pens in the oceans simultaneously maximize
consumption of marine (read: public) resources (i.e. fresh, oxygenated
water) while offloading production wastes (feces, uneaten food)
and byproducts (toxins, antibiotic residues, escaped fish, bioamplified
parasites and pathogens). Each net-pen (numbering in the hundreds
on both of Canada's coasts) is tantamount to an untreated sewer
outfall introducing solid and dissolved wastes directly into the
marine environment. This is in every way "industrial waste," disposed
of at no charge.
The unnaturally high densities of animals in the feedlot environment
of net-pens make that environment a breeding ground for disease
and parasites. Recently in British Columbia, farm-derived parasites
were implicated as the causal agent leading to the largest salmon
cohort collapse on record anywhere in the world, ever.
Three to five kilos of edible fish are used to make one kilo of
farm salmon; a net loss of protein badly needed by humanity.
The contribution of the salmon aquaculture industry to British
Columbia's gross domestic product in 2001, as calculated by
the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, was $87 million. Marine-based
industries directly jeopardized by salmon farming, including commercial
and sport fisheries and marine tourism, contributed $582 million,
or 51 percent of the provincial total.
Salmon farming in Canada is dominated (greater than 80 percent
of B.C. production) by foreign-owned multinational companies seemingly
intent on liquidating Canada's natural marine capital for a
very small profit. A similar arrangement characterizes the Washington
Farm salmon overproduction (principally from Chile and Norway)
has driven the price of all salmon to all-time lows. This forces
Canadian and American farms to slash jobs to remain competitive
and has brought ruin to coastal fishing communities across the
Northern Hemisphere (which depend on a fair price for their wild
So, even a cursory review of the available information leads to
the question of why we are engaging in this activity? This industry
is clearly a net-loss proposition, whether viewed from the ecological,
social or economic perspective. Consumers have either been uninformed
or have opted to turn a blind eye to these facts. Admittedly, the
cause-and-effect relationship between the viability of the world's
oceans and your choice of entree is not as obvious as it could
or should be but that does not make it any less real.
The take-home message of the recent research is that we can no
longer ignore the natural law that what is bad for the environment
is bad for your health. Perhaps if industrial salmon aquaculture
really held promise to feed the world's hungry or revitalize
our struggling coastal communities or even provide a worry-free
epicurean experience, there would be reason to give that industry
the benefit of the doubt.
Alas, the farm-raised salmon destined for your dinner plate arrives
with overwhelming environmental and social baggage, in addition
to -- as we now know -- not being as healthful as you've been
As with most enviro-social dilemmas, there is hope, and options
are available to consumers. The wild Pacific salmon fishery, contrary
to popular belief, is not dead. Its major problem has not been
lack of wild salmon, which have been plentiful in recent years.
Rather, the problem has been to remain viable in the face of rock-bottom
prices from the farms offloading costs of production to our coastal
habitats. There are five wild Pacific salmon species, each unique
in taste and texture.
Advances in flash freezing at sea have resulted in continent-wide
availability of a prime product 12 months of the year. In fact,
for anyone who cares about what she/he eats, Internet communication
and entrepreneurial spirit have combined to make it possible to
buy fish (not just salmon) directly from the fisherman, regardless
of location (some even have on-board Web cams). Supporting these
fisheries not only does your body a service but also helps to support
the dozens of coastal communities hurt by plummeting salmon prices.
The major hurdle to the informed consumer is the current lack of
labeling in supermarkets and restaurants. Without consistent labeling
(farmed or wild, country of origin), the consumer cannot make an
informed decision. Currently grocers and restaurants are not required
to provide this information, a situation that is unfair to consumers
and must change.
The moral of this story resonates far beyond the farm salmon debate,
coloring all of industrial agriculture: There are no shortcuts.
So long as market forces alone shape how our food is produced,
we will be faced with similar reality checks with increasing frequency
and magnitude. Market forces only work when truthful product labeling
and public understanding of all the costs accompany them.
Indeed, the current crop of toxic farm salmon stories appearing
in this paper compete for page space with mad cow disease coverage,
transgenic crops and the like -- all born of the shortsighted demand
for more with less.
In light of the remarkable shortcomings of this industry, it is
time consumers and bureaucrats
recognize that industrial salmon farming is a solution in search
of a problem. Aquaculture in general has a bright future to be
sure, but farm-rearing salmon is no one's idea of sustainability.
The story is not just that farm salmon have greatly elevated toxin
loads, but that this is actually the thin edge of the wedge.
John Volpe is assistant
professor of fisheries and seafood ecology at the Univer