January 1, 2007

Salmon farm industry critics question BC audit findings

By: Mark Sabourin

The BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands says the news is good for province's salmon farming industry. Industry critics, however, aren't so sure.

The Ministry's new report, entitled Fish Health Program - 2003-2005, is an audit of self-reporting by the salmon aquaculture industry. The audit concludes that industry reporting is accurate and that the Salmon Aquaculture Policy introduced in 1999 is doing a good job of protecting both farmed and wild stocks.

A key element of this policy, introduced in 2003, is a requirement that fish farms develop and maintain a Fish Health Management Plan (FHMP) specific to their facilities. The FHMP is an enforceable requirement, as it becomes a term and condition of the aquaculture licence. Generally, the FHMP require operators to report on "fish health events" (occurrences of disease where veterinary intervention is required), mortality levels and causes, and sea lice monitoring and management.

As well as confirming that industry reporting is accurate, audit and surveillance data from 2003-2005 found no infectious diseases in 76% of Atlantic salmon farms and 62% of Pacific salmon farms. Identified diseases are either endemic (naturally-occurring) or already identified diseases in native Pacific salmon. The report says there have been no incidences of disease being introduced to wild salmon stock from the farmed stock, but there is evidence of disease transfer from wild stock to farmed stock.

Disease transfer is a big risk because salmon farms are open net cage pens, with no barrier between the farm and the aquatic environment. Salmon farming's critics have singled out that system as a major risk. And despite the seemingly positive picture painted by the FHMP audit, Jennifer Lash, executive director of BC's Living Oceans Society, remains skeptical.

"Let's assume that the government analysis was true and the companies are living up to those regulations. With the impacts we're seeing in the wild, that just proves that the regulations are inadequate."

One of the clearest examples is sea lice, which are a known problem of fish farms and which almost never appear in juvenile salmon in the wild. Except now they do off BC's coast, and in the coastal waters of every other country with a significant salmon aquaculture industry.

"With the science from BC and around the world showing that fish farms cause the sea lice that cause the death of the juvenile wild salmon, it's just a crime to say that those regulations are effective," says Lash.

The audit acknowledges that sea lice are an issue. With respect to juvenile pink salmon (the species most at risk) it notes that following the introduction of a new program in 2003, federal monitoring noted an increase in pink salmon stocks in 2004 and 2005.

The audit notwithstanding, Lash also questions whether the industry is fully complying with the regulations. Not nearly enough information is being made public, and this is clearly an industry in which she invests very little trust.

"We can't learn what is the disease outbreak on a farm-by-farm basis. What are the mortality rates from those diseases? How were those diseases treated? What is the waste?" Available reports summarize how the industry is performing as a whole, but what is lacking is a measure of performance on a farm-by-farm basis which, she says, would paint a far more telling picture of the impact on the ground.

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