Jennifer Lash is the Executive Director of the Living Oceans Society in Sointula, British Columbia.


Why is this one of your campaigns?

Living Oceans Society is based in Sointula on the central coast of B.C., right near the Broughton Archipelago, which has one of the highest concentrations of farms on the coast. When we first started the organization, we were really focused on marine protection areas, which we still are, but you can't work in this area without being involved in the debate around fish farms. It has polarized our communities, caused so much havoc to the environment that there was no way that a conservation organization could exist here without getting into it. So as a result we decided that if you're going to go in, you go in all the way and it's now one of our major campaigns.

What are the issues involved?

We're worried that salmon farming can do two things. It can be very dangerous for the ocean and it can be very dangerous for human health. We know for a fact that it's very dangerous for the ocean. There's the issue of disease transfer to the wild fish, there's the pollution, the waste that goes into the ocean that contains antibiotics and pesticides. This entire toxic cocktail is going into our ocean. There's the escape of the Atlantic salmon that are now spawning in our rivers. So we know for a fact that salmon farming is a threat to our ocean.

Now there are issues around human health that we're also concerned about. It's not quite as definitive at this point in time, but there are real indications that there are problems. They use a chemical additive to color the fish. We don't know the consequences of that yet. The fish are fed antibiotics; we don't know what that means in terms of antibiotic resistance developing in humans that consume the food. There are issues around the omega-3 fatty acids, whether it really is as healthy as everybody thinks it is. So we're concerned both in terms of the health of the ocean and the health of humans.

What are some of the problems?

Within a two-year period they had a new farm put up right next to a seal cove, which means they're going to start shooting the seals. We've had escapes; we've had disease outbreaks. In June of 2001 we had an outbreak of sea lice infestation on our pink salmons and these were the juvenile pink salmon, about a year ago. They were migrating out to sea and in the Broughton they found these little salmon and they were totally infested with sea lice. This is not normal. Sea lice do exist in the wild, they're part of our eco-system, but the state of these fish, so infested, so heavily with these sea lice was not normal at all. It was very similar to outbreaks of sea lice that they've have in Norway, Scotland, and Ireland.

They have proven to be attributed to the fish farms. So we were just appalled by this, that our pink salmon would be endangered so much by these sea lice. Unfortunately the federal government, our Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told us there was no problem, that the sea lice were normal, that this was a normal condition, and that the pink salmon would be fine. We've been waiting since that happened for these pink salmon to return. This is the fall that the fish that had survived would have been coming back and they're not coming back. We've seen up to a 99% collapse of the pink salmon in the four streams that feed into the Broughton Archipelago. So that's a classic example of showing how the sea lice have infected the juvenile salmon, which means that those runs basically have been pushed to the brink of extinction.

That is probably the best example of how fish farms are affecting not only our eco-system in terms of our wild salmon, the bears that live off of them, and the general health of the ocean, but also how it's affecting our commercial fishery and our economy up here. There are very rough estimates that say that those runs, in harvestable years, when it's healthy, is up to about one million dollar fishery. So we're killing our ocean and we're also killing our local economy and we can't do that anymore. We depend too much on a clean ocean for existence. At Living Oceans Society we work towards maintaining the health of the ocean and therefore supporting healthy communities that depend on it and what we're really worried about is that salmon farms are going to basically turn our healthy oceans into unhealthy oceans.

What about escaped salmon?

What most people don't realize is that most of the salmon that are farmed on the coast of British Columbia are Atlantic salmon, which means they're not indigenous to this area. The salmon farmers assured us that they couldn't escape and they couldn't survive in the wild but they've not only escaped, they've survived and spawned in the wild and we now have Atlantics that have been born on this coast. What we're really worried is they're going to out-compete our wild salmon and we're going to end up losing our wild salmon as a result of it.

What do you say to the fishery people who say that there is little to no risk?

Anybody who tells me they can predict what a fish can do, I don't think they really understand the power of the ocean. The one thing that we know about the ocean is that we don't know very much about it. We don't understand how our eco-systems work, we don't know the history of the fish, we don't understand it, and it's very complex. There is no way that anybody with 100% confidence can say that they understand what Atlantic salmon are going to do on this coast. We don't know and we can't afford to risk it. We can't gamble with the eco-system that we have here, we have to take the steps that are necessary to look after it, and that means not having fish farms on our coast.

Where should the farms be then?

If in fact we have to have fish farms it has to be done in a way where it's not threatening both the ocean and human health. So they have to use technology that eliminates any risk of escapes and any risk of disease transfer. You cannot have any waste being dumped into the ocean. You have to look at issues like where is the food coming from that's being fed to these fish. Right now the food that they're feeding fish is actually made of other fish, from other fisheries in other parts of the world. So in order to feed the salmon that are being farmed here, we're depleting the anchovies and herring and mackerel in other parts of the world. We can't do that. We have to look at our oceans, all of our oceans as connected, and we can't destroy one to try and feed fish in another place. What we have to be doing is, in terms of food, looking at a new food source and if we can't find it we just can't farm them.

The farmers say wild fisheries are in decline.

It's an interesting discussion when people say our fisheries are in decline. They're not as strong as they used to be and there are definitely steps that we need to take to improve our fisheries. That's a very important issue for Living Oceans Society, but we also know that they can be managed sustainably. There are runs like the halibut fishery-very sustainable. The crab fishery is doing well. If we keep monitoring them and working on them we can have healthy wild fisheries. Right now there's over 16,000 people employed in the fishing industry on this coast. So if we have salmon farms, which are going to start to destroy wild stocks and hurt marine eco-systems, we could by that fact be displacing employment. We could be causing economic havoc on this coast, as opposed to being this panacea for the situation we're in right now. We really need to look at it. Is this a job vs. environment argument or is this also a job vs. job argument?

They say they're providing jobs.

The jobs provided through the salmon farming industry are particularly in the processing. But we could also be processing wild fish. Why aren't we looking at the value being done in the coastal communities? Why aren't we looking at taking the halibut, the shrimp, and other things that are being caught right now and trying to do value-added work, so that we're increasing the employment in these coastal communities, and still looking after our ocean? So yes, there are jobs but they're not the right jobs.

We're not seeing a lot of people out there tending the farms.

No. When they first started the farms up they would have people living at the farms but like with every other industry as soon as you start to bring in mechanization and ways of minimizing labor costs, which is what every company always wants to do, there's less and less people actually working at the farms. The jobs that we see up here are in the processing facilities. That's why I say if we're processing farmed fish we could be processing wild fish too. We can look at doing more with the wild fish and getting more money for what we're catching from the ocean. If we manage our wild fisheries properly we're going to have a healthy ocean.

Some say that farmed salmon has glutted the market and prices are down for all salmon.

Farmed salmon is cheaper than wild salmon, but it's cheap for a reason. The consumer pays less but we pay more. Right now up here our community, our ocean, is paying the cost so that the consumer has cheaper salmon, and we can't carry that burden anymore. We should not have to carry that burden. If people want salmon you have to pay the price for it-you can't make us carry that cost any longer.

We're in a situation right now where the salmon that is available is farmed and it's dangerous. We have tried endlessly to get the government and decision makers to take some responsibility in taking that danger away from the ocean and it has failed. For 15 years there's been activists working on this coast, in commercial fleet, the First Nation and conservationists trying to work through processes constructively with the government and we've failed miserably. Despite the claims of our government that they've got this great management system, we've still seen the collapse of our pink salmon in our backyard. So it's not working. Ninety percent of the salmon that's exported from British Columbia is consumed in the United States. Most of that is consumed in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

If those people stopped eating farmed salmon it would make a huge difference to us up here. So there's a real responsibility of the consumer to think about what they're doing when they're buying farmed salmon. A lot of people I imagine would think, "well why do they have to think about our situation up here when they're buying a product?" Consumers also have to think about themselves, what are they putting into their own bodies, and what are they doing in terms of their own future. We'd just like people to think twice when they're at the supermarket. When you're eating this product you're eating chemical additives, there's the potential of antibiotics in there, it's been through pesticides, and that is scary. We're really encouraging people to think twice before they buy it, because it could be a product they don't want.

The dollar price is not reflecting the true cost?

A lot of research has shown that people eat farmed salmon because they believe that it's better for the environment. So we know consumers are trying to make a decision in the best interest of wild salmon and the ocean. Unfortunately those people don't have all the information they need to make an informed decision. Some of the work that we're doing is to get the information to consumers, so that they are able to make an informed decision. This is information about things such as chemical additives, pesticides, disease transfers, and antibiotics.

We are trying to get that information out so people can think about not only about the consequence of eating farmed salmon on the environment but also the consequence of eating farmed salmon on their bodies. Even if the farms aren't at your front door step, it doesn't mean they do not hurt you. We're all connected; we all like to eat seafood. We all like to reap from the bounty of the ocean, and if we don't keep the ocean healthy we're not going to be able to have the food on our plate. There's a responsibility that we all have towards the health of the ocean. Eating farmed salmon is part of the problem; it's not helping at all. Research has shown that a lot of consumers are buying farmed salmon because they think it's taking pressure off the wild stock. They are trying to make a decision in the best interest of our wild salmon in our ocean, and that's great.

In actual fact, what they're doing is putting more pressure on wild salmon and more pressure on the ocean because fish farms are bad. They are not good for the ocean and they're not good for us. Eating farmed salmon is putting more pressure on the ocean and more pressure on our wild salmon. What we really need to do is start making a decision in the best interest of the health of the ocean and the health of us and stay away from farmed salmon. We can eat wild salmon, wild halibut. Talk to your fishmongers. There are things to do, but please don't eat farmed salmon.

Would you like to leave any other thoughts viewers?

We all have to realize that there is no wild Atlantic salmon sold in North America. If you're in a grocery store and there's fresh Atlantic salmon, it's farmed. Don't buy Atlantic salmon. There's also some Pacific species-Coho and Chinook-that are also farmed. What you really need to do is talk to the person at the fish market or at the grocery store and ask them where their fish is from. Don't let "fresh" fool you. If it's from a farm it's farmed, you don't want it.

What else with regard to the campaign?

When we first started talking about doing some sort of public education, a consumer education campaign, we started calling people all along the west coast of North America to see whether there was some interest in being involved and it's amazing how many people are sympathetic to this issue. We've had over 100 organizations offer to carry our information, to share it with their members, through public speaking and through newsletters. What we're seeing is that there are a lot of people out there who are really worried about this and want to get the information out so that we are making informed decisions. That's really profound.

What kind of organizations are these?

The groups that are helping us are a wide range. There are individual chefs who want to take this and speak to it; there are chefs who want to stop serving the product in their restaurants. There are distributors who refuse to sell it. There are natural food stores who are refusing to sell farmed salmon. But there are also organizations that meet once a month to talk about protecting a local beach that also wants to carry it. There are large conservation groups, small conservation groups, and outdoor recreation groups. There is a wide, wide range of people that are really coming together around this issue and trying to make a difference.

What haven't we covered?

There are a lot of campaigns right now around seafood. There are a lot of people out there saying, "buy this seafood, don't buy that seafood." It's getting really confusing for the consumers and that's a real challenge. I think the thing to remember about farmed salmon is this is something that everybody eats all the time. It's a very common mainstream food source in our lives which means that absolutely everybody can play a role in helping change the way we do things by thinking twice before they do buy that farmed salmon.

The power of the consumer has a large impact on this issue?

We all get disillusioned all the time with our political systems and voting and everything. There's one thing that still remains to some degree democratic and that is we can all vote with our dollar. We're just asking people to put their dollars in the right place and look after the ocean. We've been working on this issue for so long and people are always asking us what can they do. They don't want to write letters, because they feel that it's really pointless. The most powerful thing they can do is vote with their dollar and by choosing not to buy farmed salmon. If instead they can look at wild salmon or wild halibut, they're putting their vote in the right place.

Do you think marine fisheries are an unstable source of food?

If DFO thinks that fish farming is more stable than the wild fisheries, then they are basically admitting their inability to manage our wild fish. If that's the case then they should get out of the business and bring people in who can do it. Wild fisheries have been managed sustainably for hundreds of years. It can be done. The only time it gets screwed up is when our federal government makes a bad decision. When the sea lice outbreak happened here in May and June of 2001, automatically we called the federal government and asked them to get some scientists up here to research it right away. It took them over a month to come up here. By then many of the salmon had migrated already.

They also brought a huge troll vessel up here and went into an area that's full of little islands and inlets. It was inappropriate equipment, and so they ended up not testing where there was an actual infestation. Unfortunately our government is saying that they've done research, but they didn't go to the area where there was the infestation of sea lice. They didn't catch enough samples to do a valid study, and yet they somehow concluded that there was no outbreak. Meanwhile a person living in that area caught over 800 samples that were infested and was able to do a statistical study to show that there was in fact an infestation.