Natural Life Magazine

Whales Don't Eat Farmed Salmon:
Why Should We?
by Alexandra Morton

As I scanned the horizon looking for whales, a strange steel structure slipped passed my field of view.  Closer scrutiny revealed floating pens used to raise salmon. It was a fish farm. Good idea, I thought to myself, raise domestic salmon for us and leave the wild ones for the whales. But I was wrong. In a few short years the farms multiplied and the whales vanished. Wild salmon populations crashed and the pristine waters of the Broughton Archipelago turned red. Another ecosystem was dying.

Whales Don't Eat Farmed Salmon; Why Should We?I am a killer whale researcher. In 1984, I found the perfect place to study whales year round – an intricate cluster of islands called the Broughton Archipelago, on the west coast of Canada. I moved here fourteen years ago with my three-year-old son to begin the fascinating process of understanding whale communication. First I lived on a boat, then a floating house, and now a tiny homestead surrounded by my vegetable gardens. My research broke new ground as I spent my life watching orca as they slept, foraged and played.

Then in 1993, the salmon farms began broadcasting very loud sounds underwater to repel seals. Although the sounds cause them pain, the seals continue attacking the sluggish domestic fish. The orca, however, who do not consider farm salmon edible, are repelled by the wall of noise. Acoustic harassment devices are becoming popular with salmon farmers around the world, forcing whales out of increasingly large areas of essential coastal habitat. “Dispersing” whales violates the Canadian Fisheries Act, but I have been unable to inspire the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to uphold its own Act. My research ground to a halt when the whales departed.

Whales are not the only species impacted by salmon farms. Many B.C. fish farmers are Norwegian and they insist on farming their own Atlantic salmon. This movement of salmon between oceans is considered by many experts to be “biological insanity”. DFO ex-director-general Pat Chamut has stated that the spread of new diseases was “guaranteed” if Atlantic salmon were brought into B.C. Unfortunately, he caved in to industry demands and approved huge imports of Atlantic salmon anyway.

In 1991, the first diseased Atlantics arrived in the Broughton and their oozing sores spread rapidly to coho returning to a nearby enhancement hatchery. Disease-free during the previous ten years, the hatchery lost most of its broodstock that fall to the disease, called furunculosis. Two years later, a second batch of disease-infected Atlantics arrived. Although the fish were again in pens, the bacteria spread 19 kilometres through prime wild chinook salmon habitat, to infect another farm. This strain was resistant to all antibiotics approved for salmon farming and so erythromycin was administered. Erythromycin was previously banned for use in fish destined for human consumption. Nothing was done to protect wild fish and that fall the chinook population crashed and coho were dying again, this time infected with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria. DFO insisted the wild and farm epidemics were completely unrelated.

"I am a reluctant witness to the crushing corporate footprint of fish farms."

Prawn fishers came to me reporting that prawns vanished near salmon farms.The sea floor beneath salmon farms becomes heaped with rotting faeces, uneaten food, chemicals, antibiotics and toxic anti-foulant paint. This massive, rotting mound consumes all available oxygen, creating an anaerobic environment where nothing can survive, except antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Alarmed by the apparent impact of the farms, I sent out 9,000 pages of letters to government, scientists, media, fishers and others, trying to inspire someone to bring these farms under control, but I was ignored. In 1994 we saw our first toxic algae bloom as the waste pouring out of the farms fed a deadly organism called Heterosigma. No one dared get wet as the crimson stain spread. While Japanese research reports toxic blooms are common near fish farms, DFO said the bloom was unrelated to the exponential increase in farm sites.

While most fish farm impact is underwater, the gunfire of farmers  killing seals, sea lions, otters, herons, and even porpoise worries visitors and residents alike. They are afraid of being shot. Firing high powered rifles over the water is outlawed because bullets skip unimpeded for long distances, however an exception has been made for this industry.

Who are these farmers and why are they allowed to defy Canadian laws and threaten human health? They are multinational corporations such as Weston Foods and Stolt-Nielsen, a chemical tanker corporation. The top four companies report annual sales of over $1 billion, of which salmon farming is only a small percentage. Stolt reported a loss of $12.8 million on their sea farms in 1994, but still managed a profit of over $7 million that year.

"Learn from the whales: Farm salmon is not food."

I am a reluctant witness to the crushing corporate footprint. This archipelago is dying beneath a phantom organism so large that most of its weight is supported half a planet away. In Nature, life exists within ecosystems, but the big corporations have escaped this essential limit to growth. They are unaffected when one natural system collapses, as they are feeding off several simultaneously. These ecosystems form a continuous fabric of life over the earth's surface.

Massive food production techniques can have deadly consequences. Antibiotics used extensively to farm salmon, stimulate evolution of uncontrollable “superbugs”. Farm salmon are fed animal by-products from organisms they do not eat, such as chickens, even though “mad-cow disease” made clear the deadly consequences of reorganizing the food chain. Farm salmon flesh is grey and must be chemically colored to fool us into believing we are eating a real salmon. Pesticides, hormones, vaccines, toxic net paints and other chemicals are all used to produce salmon in violation of natural laws. Additionally, it takes four pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farm fish, a doomed equation for a planet facing food shortages.

What is the answer? Eat wild salmon. Salmon farming is a corporate darling here in the Pacific Northwest. If farm fish can replace wild fish in the market, wild salmon habitat will be auctioned off. Wild salmon need more than politicians can afford to give them. They require functioning ecosystems – the same ones the wealthiest powers on earth are hungrily vying for. Learn from the whales: Farm salmon is not food.

Alexandra Morton is a whale researcher based in Simoom Sound, B.C. You can visit her website, read more about her activism work, and learn how to participate in saving wild salmon and fighting fish farming. You can also read a recent excerpt from an interview with her by author and broadcaster Silver Donald Cameron.

This article was published in 1997 in Natural Life Magazine.


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