Jim Fulton is the Executive Director of the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental non-profit organization registered in Canada and the United States. He is also a former member of the Canadian Parliament, representing the Pacific coastal region of British Columbia.


What is the state of the wild capture fishery in BC?

Well the wild capture fishery in BC is in decline. If we go back a century or more, we used to get, for example, more than 100 million salmon into the Fraser River, which is right here. Now a good year we get about 20 million. If we get three million onto the grounds, sockeye for example, that’s considered good. But as anyone can figure, if you’re down from 100 million to a couple of million, it’s in decline. If you look, though, at the larger salmon issue, in terms of the North Pacific, last year, 1999, 800,000 tons were captured in the fisheries between Japan, Russia, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington — a little bit in terms of other fisheries. To give you some sense of how big that is, that’s the same as the adult population’s weight in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Idaho combined. So it’s about the same as 12 million adults, so it’s still a very large population biomass. But what’s happening is a lot of those fish are hatchery fish.

A lot of those fish are in weakened or threatened status. I mean some runs are down to two or three or four spawners, so we’ve got a tattered remains of one of the most vibrant and significant anadromous (which is a scientific name for fish that spawn and grow up in fresh water, live out their life cycle in salt water and come back and spawn in fresh) fish. They’re a wonderful complete cycle. They bring all of that nitrogen from the middle of the Pacific back into rivers in Japan, in Russia, in Alaska and British Columbia, in Washington, Oregon and California. And in some watersheds, more than 50% of the nitrogen in the trees and in the plants comes from the middle of the Pacific. These wonderful creatures gather all of this nitrogen and protein out in the Pacific and like huge roots from the continents, draw all of that nitrogen back in to feed the insects, to feed the birds, to feed the salmon, to feed the bears, and to feed the people.

The commercial salmon fishery has existed for over a century now. What kind of changes do you believe need to happen to make wild capture fisheries in general more sustainable?

The greatest non-agriculturally based cultures in the history of the world were on the west coast of North America, and it was based on salmon. So this wonderful creature provides sustenance broadly throughout the life cycles of the world and provides for a wonderful cultural base that’s still very powerful to this day all around the North Pacific, right from the west to the east.

If we go back in time a little bit for many centuries, the Aboriginal people here in British Colombia and in Alaska and also in Washington and Oregon and all the way down to Sacramento, had terminal in-river fisheries. They waited until the salmon came in, then they’d harvest them, either with some kind of a beach seine, rock weirs, or traps. All kinds of different technologies have evolved over time. Spearing, dip netting, all kinds of things, and they tended to harvest selectively. There were certain stocks that they were interested in and they would harvest those for smoking or drying or eating or whatever.

It’s only in the last century that we’ve seen the evolution of technology very rapidly and the very accurate sonar equipment to identify where the fish are when they’re in the ocean, to net them with huge seine nets that take mixed stocks. They would take different kinds of salmon. They would take king salmon, along with sockeye, and coho. They would take weak runs with strong runs and those kinds of mixed stock, interception fisheries. Where the huge nets and hook and line fisheries, were taking fish while they were on their way from the ocean into the fresh water, has lead to the weakening of many runs. In fact has taken many runs to extinction.

What we have to do now is move away from an accelerating technological capacity, which is capable of taking basically all of the fish, back to a much more selective fishery which is related to individual runs as they’re going into individual rivers and into individual streams and side streams. And it’s only by moving to wheels, where the technology, the actual movement of the water, moves the wheel, picks the fish up out of the water and sorts them with simple gravity by the weight of the fish and the species of the fish, you can either tip them back into the river or tip them into a drum and this means, from a climate change perspective, you don’t have a whole lot of fuel being burned chasing fish out on the ocean. You’re not losing fishermen who are drowning in bad weather. You’re getting a very high quality product right as it arrives at nature’s door. You know how many have gone on to spawn so you can let the right number go to spawn to feed the fish that live in the system, to feed the birds, to feed bears, to keep the system in good health.

So in order to get the system back in order, we have to move back to the traditional, historic culturally intact kinds of fisheries that occurred for thousands of years on salmon all over the world and that’s selective terminal fisheries. You can do it with wheels. You can do it with beach seines. You can do it with dip nets. You can do it with spearing. You can do it with rock weirs. There are many ways that it can be done. It’s more economically viable. It’s more profitable. It produces more jobs. It produces the same quality or better product. It allows you to have sustainable numbers of stocks going back to spawn. You allow the natural balance and evolutionary cycle to carry on without intercepting too much of one run or too much of too many runs and bringing about the kinds of collapses that are now occurring throughout all of the salmon’s range throughout all of the world.

I’ve heard you say that a lot of the high technology on boats isn’t really necessary for going after something like salmon because salmon come to you.

It’s extremely important that we move back to the historic terminal fisheries because salmon, unlike many other fish in the world, hatch in the fresh water. They spend most of their life out in the ocean, but they come back to the same fresh water. This is not rocket science. The fish are going to come back. You don’t have to go chase them on the ocean. You can wait ‘til they come back into the fresh water rivers, let the number go and spawn that you believe need to go and spawn, and then you can take that excess fish and use it for sport, commercial, processing, whatever.

To what degree do you think the precautionary principle is being applied to fishery management decisions in British Columbia?

The precautionary principle is understood and it’s mouthed by the federal government. But it’s not actually practiced. Whether you’re running a shoe store or a fishery, one of your fundamentals is you’ve got to have inventory. Most of the 9,000 runs in British Columbia, are not inventoried annually. Even the number of spawners on the grounds aren’t counted each year, let alone the number of fry going back out. In order to practice the precautionary principle, you have to have an inventory. You need to know how many you’ve got. Are they increasing or decreasing? And many of our runs in BC have either already gone extinct, several hundred have gone extinct. We know that several thousand are probably at very high risk and there are only a few hundred that are really in good shape. The precautionary principle is not being practiced in BC. The fundamentals simply aren’t being put in place.

They just closed snow crab on the East Coast. It’s collapsed after only five years. That was the replacement fishery for the cod collapse. Now they’ve fished it out.

How important are salmon to the coastal ecosystems here?

In British Columbia, in many of the river valleys, up to half of the nitrogen that’s found in everything from the huckleberries to the giant cedar trees, comes from the mid-Pacific. We’ve been doing radioisotope work. We’ve been drilling trees. We’ve been gathering information about the source of the nitrogen and we now know that up to half, in some cases more than half, of the nitrogen in the entire system has been brought there by the salmon from deep Pacific. We also now know that up to a third of the actual body weight of young salmon when they’re heading back to the ocean, has come from the nitrogen brought by their parents from the middle of the Pacific back up into the river and as they have passed on, they’ve left that nitrogen in the system. It’s gone into insects and into other forms of life. Up to half of the nitrogen in the plants and up to a third of the actual body weight of young salmon on their way back to the ocean, has come from nitrogen brought by the adult salmon back in from the Pacific.

Down in the Northwest in the United States, hatcheries have been identified as a big part of the problem which has led to a decline in wild salmon populations. Is that a big problem here in British Columbia?

The utilization of big hatcheries has been a problem throughout the range of salmon. In Alaska now about 1.2 billion young salmon are released from hatcheries per year into the Pacific. Here in British Colombia, 485 million per year. In Washington, Oregon and Northern California, another 465 million a year. So you’ve got more than two billion young hatchery-raised, genetically reduced in terms of fitness, salmon going out into the ocean. Hatcheries have created a problem for wild stocks because it’s allowed more intensive fisheries to take place on the wild stocks. So as you’re catching large volumes of hatchery returns, you’re also catching increasingly large numbers of wild salmon, who may be in reduced numbers. The hatchery populations have masked, for some years, the problem of declining wild biodiversity.

Hatcheries are a problem for biodiversity and hatchery fish are now also not returning in as high levels as do wild salmon. We’re in a process now of moving out of the hatchery age, as we move into this new millennia, and we’re going to move back to more enhancement, perhaps, in river of wild salmon stocks. But it’s the wild salmon that are the basic part of the salmon structure that we now have to work the hardest to protect, to restore, and to enhance.

Why is it important that fishery managers in BC respect and work with the first nations?

The first nations on the whole of the coast of North America have fished salmon at least since the last Ice Age, so they’ve got 10,000 years of experience and they know many of these runs very well. Generally, one or two families will have specific fishing rights on particular streams. On particular runs and they know a lot. It’s passed on from generation to generation to generation about when you should take them, how many you should take and there’s a whole lot of traditions. Science is only now starting to realize the true wisdom of these traditions. It’s not jiggery, pokery or hocum locum or whatever. An awful lot of what Aboriginal people know about salmon is wise, traditional science. It’s based on thousands of years of observation, which is the basis of modern science: observation. And governments have to pay a lot more tribute to the kinds of information that traditional Aboriginal people bring to the table about salmon.

To what degree is the decline of salmon fisheries here a habitat problem?

There’s documented evidence from some river systems here in BC that the loss, the extinction of specific salmon runs can be laid 100% at the door of logging companies. Logging practices have brought about the demise and extinction of salmon in some systems in British Columbia.

But it’s not just logging companies, it’s road construction. It’s the place where the toxic and hazardous waste and sewage into rivers. It’s over grazing. It’s taking too much water out.

There’s a whole slew of ecological issues that are badly managed on the terrestrial land side in British Columbia, but clear cut logging is a real and significant problem. It causes increased sedimentation. It causes water pulses at the wrong time of year without the root systems to hold the water. So you get all kinds of problems, not the least of which is that without the trees along the edges of the rivers, they either get too warm or too cool at the wrong times of year. The insects that live in the trees and fall into the rivers, they can’t do that if the trees aren’t there, and again, this isn’t rocket science.

We’ve had particularly bad land management in British Columbia to protect those very fragile, narrow zones near rivers and streams and we're just starting now to wake up to the fact that at least for 100 or 200 meters around all bodies of water along the Pacific, these lands should be left alone for salmon, for birds, for insects, for all of those oasis-oriented forms of life that live in, around, near or upon water.

In the Northwest States of the United States it’s now often heard that saving salmon will require a whole re-shuffle of the region’s economic base. To what degree is that true here?

There’s a huge re-shuffle that’s required, but when one looks at the co-benefits that come from keeping your water clean, protecting the rivers and plants along riversides, reducing the amount of sediment and toxic wastes going into salmon spawning grounds and so on, as you’re doing it supposedly just for salmon, we’re also doing it for ourselves. We’re doing it for our children so they can swim in the rivers again. We’re doing it for bird populations so that people who like to watch birds can see them moving around in the environment. So there’s a huge number of co-benefits that come from restoring salmon habitat.

So while there are those power companies and so on who don’t want to see their dams taken down, I think it’s worth remembering that as we move to more renewable energy, more conservation and higher levels of efficiency, these are the engines that will make the Pacific Northwest economy grow in a positive and balanced and sustainable way. It will also give people a better lifestyle. A cleaner, healthier environment brings all kinds of new investment and a kind of balance and sustainability that the world needs and I think if we do it, if we clean up and restore salmon habitat and salmon runs here in the Pacific Northwest, it will be a beacon to the world that we can have balance and sustainable humanity with the natural world throughout the world.

The problem with farm salmon is that they’re raised at such high levels of concentration, 10 kg per cubic meter. That’s like having two ten-pound salmon in the bathtub with you while you’re in there. There’s not much room to swim around so that’s why they get infections. That’s why they get disease. That’s why they’re bred to be docile, slow moving, not particularly fit or intelligent. Farm salmon are raised to be a bit dolt-like and that’s just one other aspect of why you will continue to find higher levels of contamination of both metals and toxic contaminants and drugs in farm salmon is because of what they’re fed. Wild salmon are a bit more picky. They go out and they have a nice, varied diet.

Could you speak about the numbers of salmon here that have escaped?

Here in British Columbia over the last few years, we’ve had more than a million escapes. These are the reported escapes. A government study that was done two years ago suggests that it’s at least double that number so we’re up around a couple of million that have escaped. What’s different as you have adults escaping compared to introducing fry in the systems, is that the adults when they escape, go and find a niche that they believe is suitable to go and breed in. The difference with Atlantic salmon, unlike our Pacific salmon, is that Atlantic salmon don’t die after they spawn. They go back into the ocean and come back again. So if they’ve escaped and they find a river and they go in and they successfully spawn, not only may their offspring go out and come back and spawn, they will come back again so you start getting these problem areas as they have in Norway, Scotland and other countries where they’ve had a longer history of salmon farming. They’ve now basically lost their wild salmon populations entirely due to escapes, disease introduced by escapes and one of the problems that Atlantics bring even to Pacific. Even though they can cross breed but are unlikely to, is that the Atlantic salmon will go in and disrupt natural spawning, natural breeding and take up natural habitat and food.

There have been some outbreaks of diseases that have affected wild salmon populations. Could you talk about that?

The hard science is still not in on whether or not disease that is breaking out at salmon farms in BC is spreading into the wild populations. What we do know is that diseases can go in from wild salmon to farm salmon and we also know that disease can come out from farm salmon into wild salmon. Regrettably a lot of the salmon farms here on the Pacific Coast are along the migratory roots for huge volumes of salmon coming back to their birthplaces. We simply don’t know yet how much disease coming from salmon farms has gone into the wild populations. All we do know is that huge numbers of salmon in recent years have been either completely disappearing, sometimes a million at a time and huge numbers of salmon are dying once they come back into the rivers from diseases that are also found in salmon farms. The forensic evidence isn’t in yet making the direct link and the reason is that neither industry nor government are studying it. There are no studies being done to confirm or to deny the rate of transmission of disease from farm salmon to wild.

You talked about the declining salmon stocks being masked by hatcheries. Is the same true for farm-raised salmon here in BC?

There is a real market issue here. A lot of people, when they go to the menu choose farm salmon over wild, thinking if I eat farm for a while, that will allow the wild population to bounce back. Regrettably, what’s happened in terms of the market is because farm salmon is available all year long, they are able to significantly influence price by when they bring their product on-line. They know that when wild salmon come on the market in July, August, September, and into October, that’s when they have the least amount of their product going into the market, but by keeping a significant choke hold on the market, they’ve pulled down the amount paid to salmon fishermen for wild salmon and it’s cast the whole of the wild salmon fishery on the west coast of North America into chaos with plunging prices. So they’ve done this deliberately.

Some of the big players which are giant, international, multinational chemical companies are both vertically and horizontally integrated in farm salmon. They’re into massive opportunities to manipulate price and to drive down the price paid for farm salmon, which drives down the likelihood of governments doing the right thing to protect salmon habitat that leads to lower numbers of salmon in their resident populations and it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Salmon farmers don’t like wild salmon. They don’t like wild salmon. They would like to see all wild salmon extinct so they have a monopoly on the market. And it’s only tough minded consumers who will deliberately go to the menu and demand wild salmon, that are actually helping wild salmon to survive. Clearly some stocks will need to be certified so that we know that they are being sustainably harvested, but I think the big issue right now that the public have to grab onto is to save wild salmon. It’s a good thing to eat wild salmon and it’s a bad thing to eat farm salmon.

Salmon farmers say that they produce jobs. How would you respond to that?

There’s not much employment in the salmon farming industry. If you look at it throughout it’s whole life cycle, there’s very little in the way of jobs in capturing the feed that goes into the industry. It’s all big, deep-sea trawlers. If you look at the industry here, most of them are so highly automated, you just have one person who clicks on the automatic feeders. You have a vet who comes and throws in some drugs. You have the fish that are then suctioned out of the net cages and they’re then taken to a plant where they’re quickly eviscerated and filleted and shipped off to market. Here in BC fewer than 1,000 jobs are related to this entire industry, which produces almost 40,000 tons of farm salmon for the Los Angeles, Denver, and New York markets. Almost all of the fish raised here is sold in the United States white tablecloth market in three cities.

In terms of marine aquaculture, how can it be done right?

When you look at farm salmon, whether it’s in British Columbia, Washington, Chile, Norway — wherever it’s going on, a first and most important first step is to go to safe fail technology. This means closed containment systems, so that you’re sure you can use the cooling capacity of the ocean, which is a very expensive cost for raising fish. You can pump in water from the ocean but then it has to be completely filtered prior to going back into the ocean and it must be hard sided.

The reason so many seals, for example, are killed is they naturally are curious. They see their favorite food swimming around in the ocean. Where are they supposed to eat? Are they supposed to get out and go to the local McDonalds for lunch? No. They see salmon swimming in the ocean, they’ll try and get in and get them. That’s true of sea lions and to a certain extent, of whales and many, many birds.

So hard sided, closed containment systems is clearly the way to go and not just for salmon. We are seeing an expansion into halibut and into black cod and into many other species around the world where private capital want to capture the opportunity of feeding a domesticated stock. This is something we’ve done on the land and to an increasing extent will be done in the ocean and in lakes and in rivers. I think it’s a very clear signal that the public have to send to the regulators. If you’re going to let these industries operate in the ocean, they must be fail safe. No escapes. No sewage. No disease. Don’t let those fish loose to kill off our wild stocks. Closed systems are the way to go.

How do you think restaurant go-ers can make a positive influence when choosing salmon from a menu, particularly with an emerging certification process for sustainable seafood?

I think consumers need to start asking some of these tough questions when they go into a restaurant. If they see wild and farmed, say they prefer wild but then when they ask for the wild, they should increasingly ask the restaurant or the chef "Is this a certified wild salmon?" "Does this come from a system where I’m not eating the last fish?"

There is work being done now to start certifying some of the salmon in the world. It’s going to start probably in Alaska. I think it’s important though that it be a more refined certification process than is being worked on right now. I think it has to be run-specific. We have to know that the run itself is healthy.

Here in British Columbia we have 9,000 runs, and as I said earlier, only a couple hundred of those 9,000 runs are big, robust, healthy runs that can be extensively harvested. So it’s important that we know, as labeling starts to occur, that we’re getting into selective fisheries, that they’re terminal fisheries, that these are fish that are captured that are being captured in a balanced and sustainable way from runs that will continue on into the future. That’s what labeling is for. Labeling is an important aspect of this. It’s in it’s earliest days, but it will only happen in it’s majestic salmon saving form if consumers ask for it, demand it, and get it.