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Economy vs. Ecology in Fish Farms Debate

Controversy has coastal Nations split. Second in a Tyee series.

Helen Polychronakos 24 May

Helen Polychronakos is a Vancouver-based writer. Her graduate thesis at the University of British Columbia's school of journalism explored B.C.'s aquaculture industry.

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Workers at the Klemtu Fish Farm. Photo by Helen Polychronakos.

It's a familiar picture. A juvenile pink salmon so tiny it fits in the palm of a hand. Like all babies, its eyes are too big for its head. But unlike most, this baby has oozing lesions dotted along its silver body.

Sea-lice infested fry like this one are poster children for salmon-farm opponents in British Columbia. Environmentalist groups say the lice leach out of the open-net pens where the salmon are grown and decimate wild salmon stocks.

But aquaculture is big business. And the federal and provincial governments depend on the industry to provide an alternative to declining wild stocks. So the scientific facts have often been drowned in the bitter acrimony of he-said-she-said debate.

Caught in the middle are the coastal First Nations that have long relied on the salmon. Fish farms have the potential to save their communities, provide jobs and fuel economies. But they can also devastate ecosystems and kill off the wild fish that have provided for them for so long.

Each of the affected nations has found a different answer, and none is willing to play victim.

The Nine Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams (NATT) rejected salmon farms in 2000. They believe this industry is the latest disaster in a long history of fisheries mismanagement that destroyed cod in the Atlantic and is now threatening B.C.'s salmon.

The Kitasoo/Xaixais of Klemtu, on the other hand, have been operating salmon farms since 1993. The industry provided a lifeline for the people after the fisheries crashed and the isolated community was left with almost nothing in the 1980s.

In the first part of this series on salmon farms in B.C.'s coastal First Nations, The Tyee contrasted Klemtu's economic boom to the slower -- and sometimes rocky -- development taking place in Lax Kw'alaams. Part two examines the ecological sustainability of the economic paths taken by each community.

A new dawn in Klemtu

At around seven in the morning, with skipper Dick Joseph at its helm, the Island Joye makes its way along the narrow channels that cut through the Great Bear Rainforest. Waterfalls cascade down the mountains and crash into the sea. A school of porpoises swims ahead of the boat.

Leaping salmon, their bodies about the size of a muscular forearm, splash noisily like carefree kids. They don't look out of place in this pristine setting.

But the circular net-pens in which these fish are enclosed, and the assortment of cleaning and feeding machinery that surrounds them, do. The farm site at Kid Bay consists of three round open net-pens, each containing about 3,000 fish.

Salmon farms first came to Klemtu in 1989 when the band launched Kitasoo Aquaculture Ltd.

Before that, the Kitasoo/Xaixais had always fished wild salmon. But climate change, collapsing prices and government policies led to a fishery that was no longer viable. Unemployment reached 90 per cent and the government wanted to move the community to Kitimat.

Kitasoo Aquaculture Ltd. worked well at first, but lack of funds shut it down in 1993. In 1998 the band partnered with Marine Harvest Canada to increase production.

Today the three farm sites and fish plant account for 50 per cent of the town's economy. The project provides about 50 jobs and $1.3 million a year for the community.

Darcy Robinson, a young harvester, remembers how his life changed five years ago. "Dickie came to my house to see if I wanted to go along. I've been working ever since," he says.

Salmon farms allow Robinson to ply an updated version of the sea trade of his heritage. But environmentalists say they may also kill the ecosystem that sustained his people for centuries.

"When anyone mentions anything like that, I try to keep away from it," he says.

His colleague, George Robinson (they're not related -- half of Klemtu is a Robinson), is much less circumspect. His aunt is from the Heiltsuk nation in nearby Bella Bella, a community strongly opposed to salmon farms.

"She asks me, 'are you working in a fish farm?' I tell her, 'I'd rather do that than be on welfare or living out on the street,'" George says.

Not sustainable

But evidence of the harm fish farms cause is mounting.

Corey Peet, a Master's student at the University of Victoria, examined wild salmon populations around Klemtu between 2003 and 2005.

Peet says that of anyone operating salmon farms in B.C., the Kitasoo/Xaixais probably do it best. He's almost pained to admit that though, because to him farming a carnivorous fish like salmon can never be sustainable in the long run.

For one, it takes between 2 to 4 kilograms of wild fish to produce 1 kilogram of farmed salmon, not exactly a great equation.

Don Radford, regional director at Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says that industry is working on that problem by developing "feed sources based on vegetable and soybean protein." Thanks to technological advances, he says, it now takes only 1 kilogram of wild fish to produce 1 kilogram of farmed salmon.

But Peet isn't convinced. First of all, he argues, Radford's figures are misleading. One kilogram of farm fish feed requires the sacrifice of a lot more than 1 kilogram of wild fish. So the ratio is not yet one-to-one.

Furthermore, vegetable and soy proteins may not meet the physiological needs of this carnivorous fish.

Last but not least, he says, soy fed fish are an insult to the palate. "When you feed fish vegetables, they taste like chicken."

Upsetting the balance

But flavour is a secondary concern compared to the impact the farms can have on the local ecology. Sea lice infestations are the most striking example.

In the wild, Peet says, salmon have learned to adapt to the parasite. "It's like a never-ending arms race," he explains. "The host develops a defence, and the parasite eventually overcomes that defence."

As long as this delicate balance is maintained, sea lice don't pose much of a threat. But salmon farms tip the balance in favor of the lice.

"When you have young salmon migrating out into the ocean, you tip that balance in a big way in favor of the parasite. It poses a conservation issue for those fish."

The results from Peet's studies in Klemtu are not ready for publication. But research conducted in other parts of B.C. gives him plenty to worry about.

The Broughton Archipelago saw its first salmon farm in 1989. There are now 30 sites in the waters just off Vancouver Island's coast.

Research conducted by Martin Krkosek, a PhD student at the University of Alberta's Centre for Mathematical Biology, shows that mortality rates for juvenile wild salmon in the Broughton range from nine to 95 per cent. The closer they swim to the net-pens, the higher the chances they'll catch some germ or parasite.

"We can't observe the sea lice leaving the farms and going to the wild salmon, but the accumulation of evidence shows that that's what's happening," Krkosek explains.

Peet adds that the ease with which lice move from the net-pens to the wild indicates that other, more lethal diseases, such as INH viral infections, can do the same.

What's more, unconsumed feed contains chemicals and antibiotics that leak into the sea. Excrement and other pollutants build up on the ocean floor.

Percy Starr does not dismiss the research conducted in the Broughton. But he insists it does not apply farther north. "We have cooler water here," he says. "We put [the salmon farms] where there is water flow. Here, we don't have anything to be concerned about."

'Not welcome on our territory'

But Starr's is not the only "aboriginal perspective" on salmon farms.

Eugene Bryant was a Lax Kw'alaams band councilor in 2000, when Pan Fish approached his community with offers of lucrative salmon farms. The band voted unanimously against them.

Last summer, the Norwegian aquaculture giant invited salmon-farm friendly First Nations to their shareholders' meeting. They were there to persuade investors that salmon farms operate in B.C. with the full consent and to the benefit of First Nations.

Eugene Bryant went to Norway to have his say.

At the Pan Fish meeting, Bryant did not mince words.

"I'm not here to negotiate. I'm here to tell you you're not welcome on our territory," Bryant told them. "The first thing you must do is practice this on your beaches for twenty years. And if all the animals are okay, then you can come."

Bryant is aware that Lax Kw'alaams desperately needs money. "The suicide rate is un-fucking-believable," he says. "Alcohol and drugs is what they turn to to hide their feelings." Still, most band members agree that salmon farms would do more harm than good. They'd rather wait for a more sustainable solution.

Besides, NATT fisheries manager Wayne Drury questions Klemtu's success. "That fish farm didn't create as many jobs as was hoped," he says. Klemtu's unemployment is still about 40 per cent the eight months a year the farms operate, and 60 per cent the rest of the time. But at least Klemtu is still on the map.

Industry 'constantly improving'

Don Radford, from the department of fisheries and oceans, defends Klemtu's choice. He is confident that B.C. has the best-managed aquaculture industry in the world and that includes the pens on the central coast. It is also constantly improving, he says.

Those improvements, however, should not include the close-containment systems championed by environmentalists and endorsed by a committee of the B.C. legislature last week, he argues. Close containment systems separate the fish, and presumably the parasites and waste, from the surrounding eco-system.

"Right now there is no closed containment operating anywhere in the world," says Radford. "The last one that was operating was down in Iceland and it closed down a year ago. They couldn't meet their expenses. They were producing $6 a pound arctic char."

UVic researcher Corey Peet isn't impressed by closed containment systems, either. They won't address the feed problem or improve the sustainability of salmon farms, he says

Peet is suspicious of the government's endorsement of salmon farms. "The [governments] need to maintain conditions for economic growth. Salmon farming doesn't cost them anything and it provides employment for remote communities," he says.

No victims here

Neither Klemtu nor Lax Kw'alaams plays the victim caught in the middle of the salmon farm debate. In each community, there is a united front in support of the difficult choices they have made.

"The agreement we have with Marine Harvest was established by the Kitasoo people. First and foremost, the important thing was the environment. We don't want the environment damaged," says Klemtu's Percy Starr.

In Lax Kw'alaams, the band is just as adamant that the decision to stay away from salmon farms was the right one.

"We know the salmon and its place in life," says Eugene Bryant. "We are concerned about the bear and the eagle and hawks that live on it." Environmental NGOs, politicians and industry can continue to bicker about salmon farms. But the Kitasoo/Xaixais and the NATT, while they acknowledge the consequences of their choices, have found some measure of peace in believing they've made the right one.

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