Wonder + Wildness

Chasing wonder on a science guided journey through the natural world in search of meaning, connections, and the courage to hope

Salmon Fight

This was originally written in 2015 based on a New York Times video from 2008

I decided to share this based on this week’s news that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has downgraded British Columbia farmed salmon to “Avoid” for their “potential transmission of pathogens and parasites from farms to vulnerable populations of high concern.

When you are studying Orca whales, it is safe to assume that a rather effective approach in doing so would be to follow the Orca to their food source. It is also safe to assume that those sources may be in some fairly isolated areas. That is exactly how Alexandra Morton, a self-trained biologist and activist, and her late husband found themselves moving to Echo Bay, nestled in the Broughton archipelago of Canada. After Morton’s husband passed away, she decided to stay and continue their research. That’s when she began to notice that the Orca seemed to be vanishing.

The Orca’s feed on wild Pacific Salmon, which travel to Echo Bay, and various other places, to spawn.  So, it is reasonable that to begin an investigation into the Orca’s disappearance, one must first look at the salmon. Alexandra began researching local wild salmon populations to determine what could be happening to them that may be affecting the Orca’s return. It wasn’t long before Alexandra decided on the culprit; salmon aquaculture. 

Wild salmon population returns fluctuate from year to year but recently, including a crash in 2002, those returns seem to have much more significant variation than what occurs naturally. Morton blames the local fish farms. Salmon aquaculture in the Broughton, where companies like Marine Harvest raise imported Atlantic Salmon, rakes in roughly $450 million per year. While it may generate a lot of money, its environmental effects can be disastrous.

The traditional methods of aquaculture are known to be big polluters, whether in the form of eutrophication, disease, or something else. The “pollution” in this case is in the form of sea lice. Morton discovered that the wild salmon decline was being caused by the fish farms of the Broughton inadvertently serving as breeding grounds for sea lice and vectors for spread to wild fish populations. The wild salmon are a keystone species and anything which affects their health will, in turn, affect an entire chain of living things within the ecosystem. Morton’s research predicts that the sea lice alone may cause a local extinction of Pacific Salmon within the decade.

Morton argues that there are only two options to prevent this tragedy from occurring. One, the fish farms need to change methods by converting to closed tank systems or two, and this being put quite bluntly, leave. The Canadian government is working on new management practices and regulations for these farms but ultimately will not determine if the farms stay or go. That happens depending on consumer demand. The more people buy farmed salmon, the more fish farms are needed to satiate their demand. But if consumers take a stand and choose to buy wild caught salmon, fish farms, especially in the Broughton, will have little reason to stay.

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