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Sea Lice and Government Lies

The Premier sounded fishy when farmed salmon came up in the TV debate.

By Rafe Mair 9 May 2005 | TheTyee.ca

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Infested Pink smolts. Courtesy Raincoast Research.

The fish farm issue should be high on the election agenda and is in some ridings. For those who joined this issue late, or are just joining, offshore companies are waiting, salivating at the thought of the Liberals winning the election on May 17th, so they can declare open warfare on our wild salmon. If the Liberals are re-elected you will see licenses for new farms handed out up and down the coast.

These farms of hundreds of thousands of fish make a hell of a mess (not just in excrement, but unconsumed food, antibiotics, and artificial colouring). They are constant sources of disease. The fish escape and establish themselves in our rivers, driving out wild salmon.

And they’ve created hundreds of thousands of hosts for sea-lice. It’s this last issue I want to deal with here because it is the aspect of fish farms about which the Liberal government lies about most.

Damn lice

Here’s how it works. The ideal place for a fish farm is where the water has plenty of movement which makes inlets and archipelagos just the spots. The cages, with all those potential hosts, attract sea lice which multiply exponentially. Now imagine this simple scene. There is a channel in which there are several fish farms, up against the shore just where migrating tiny salmon go. These farms are teeming in sea lice. Come the spring, wild salmon go out to sea and must pass these farms. For the sea lice, this is like an unexpected dessert; they attack and gorge themselves. Especially vulnerable are Pink salmon which are very small and killed off by as few as two lice.

We have now had in the Broughton Archipelago, as documented by biologist Alexandra Morton who lives at Echo Bay, two virtual failures of Pink runs. We will certainly experience one this autumn. (In this regard, on March 1, on my show, the Premier refused to intervene and "fallow" the cages so the smolts could pass unmolested. In what even for him is breathtaking arrogance, he said that when the Pink run fails this fall, he and his government will accept no responsibility!)

The fish farmers have a unique answer to this problem – they say that since the sea lice are natural, it’s all the fault of the wild salmon that the farmed fish get them in the first place!

The reaction of the Campbell government to all problems associated with fish farms has been, in my memory, unprecedented in the field of government disinformation. They simply tell lies – monumental whoppers. In fact, it would be impossible to tell the precise opposite of the truth with greater clarity. They outdo themselves when they talk about the sea lice aspect of the issue.

The science is solid

The government, says the Premier, is proceeding on scientific principles. Here is the truth. All the scientific evidence, 100 percent of it, draws a straight line between the death of the Pink salmon smolts to the fish farms they must pass as they migrate. The last, exhaustive study by scientists from the University of Alberta and UBC is conclusive – it even traces the individual lice found on smolts to the fish cage from which they originated. There’s not a single scientist in the field who disagrees with these findings which were published, incidentally, by the Royal Society in London, and it just doesn’t get more prestigious than that.

Why is the government so in thrall to fish farmers?

I think it started as excitement over aquaculture which, properly practiced, is exciting.

The problem was that permission to farm Atlantic Salmon in our waters was given without any due diligence being taken by the federal and provincial governments. Had they looked at the experience with salmon farms in Norway, Scotland and Ireland they would have found out about the terrible sea lice problem I’ve just related (as well as the others mentioned earlier). In fact, the European situation magnifies our problem for there the migrating salmonids involved, Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trout (sea-run Brown Trout), are considerably larger than our Pink salmon smolts and even at that, their experience has been catastrophic.

The second influence was simple – the fish farmers generously contribute to the general Liberal coffers as well as the campaign funds of key Ministers.

The third, and perhaps decisive reason is in the person of John Van Dongen, easily the thickest politician I’ve ever met, who is Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fish and who is a farmer himself.

Unclear on the concept

Van Dongen simply believes that whatever farmers do, however harmful the consequences, must be good as long as someone with a science background says so. Producing food, to Van Dongen, trumps all other considerations including the health of humans.

Under his watch, not only have we seen fish farms wipe out wild salmon but clear evidence of waste from the agriculture in the Fraser Valley poisoning drinking water.

He is also responsible for the “outbreak” of greenhouses, not occupying non-agricultural land as they should, but on super farm land which they render unusable ever again for traditional agriculture.

Debate soundbite

Let me close with this little insight into the mind of the Campbell government. They boast that one native band that once had 80 percent unemployment now, thanks to fish farms, is down to a “mere” 30 percent. They use that to allege that Native communities support their fish farm policies. When I heard that from the Premier in the televised debate I was sickened. Imagine going into an economically devastated community and giving them the choice between continued poverty or working in a “dirty” industry! I would have thought that even Gordon Campbell would have sufficient sense of shame not to mention that.

There is an answer, of course: closed containment so that farmed salmon would keep their waste, disease and sea lice to themselves and be unable to escape and move our wild salmon off their spawning beds.

Vote as you wish, friends, but know that a vote for the Campbell Liberals is a vote for killing off the soul of our province – the magnificent Pacific salmon by which we are identified to the world.

Rafe Mair, a regular columnist for The Tyee, can be heard weekday mornings on 600AM 8:30-10:30 and his website is www.rafeonline.com  [Tyee]

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