Historic Decision Ends Atlantic Salmon Farming in Waters of BC’s Discovery Islands

Above: Sea lice infestations are just one of the many negative impacts that Atlantic salmon farms have on wild salmon runs. Photo by Tavish Campbell (http://www.tavishcampbell.ca)

On Dec. 17, 2020, Canadian Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, of Nova Scotia, made the single largest decision on the fate of wild salmon in the history of Canada.  She announced the federal licences for the nineteen salmon farms using the waters of the Discovery Islands would not be renewed.  One third of all wild salmon in British Columbia migrate through this archipelago, including the Fraser River sockeye, once the biggest salmon run in the world and now in collapse.  Mowi, Grieg and Cermaq, the owners of the farms, were told they could finish growing whatever fish were currently in their pens, but they would never be allowed to restock these farms.  While this leaves some farms in the water for 18 months, the most critical channels, Okisollo and Nodales, will be empty this spring for the first time since 1992.

   The stated reason for the minister’s decision was that the seven First Nations of the Discovery Islands refused to support renewal of the licences.  However, First Nations have said no many times over the past 30 years.  It seems likely that the scent of scandal ahead of a looming election may also have played a role.

   The Discovery Islands are an archipelago nestled between Vancouver Island and the mainland 200km north of the city of Vancouver.  Decades of research have made it clear that the smaller the body of water, the greater the impact of salmon farms.  With salmon farms sited one after the next through these passages billions of larval lice, virus particles and bacteria flowing from the farms saturated the water to become a dangerous dose.  Young wild fish swimming through emerged to the north peppered with sea lice, infected with the viruses that accessed their bloodstream via their gills and deep sores carved into their spines. By the time they reached Johnstone Strait their fate was sealed, these fish would not return.

The salmon farming industry is in shock after the decision not to renew these licences — 30% of production in BC. 

   The salmon farming industry is in shock after the decision not to renew these licences — 30% of production in BC.  For thirty years they shrugged off local objection, First Nation eviction notices and legal decisions.  The industry and Fisheries and Ocean Canada (DFO) worked together to ignore any science measuring the impact of the industry. As wild salmon collapsed around them, the three Norwegian companies built bigger farms.  There are now more Atlantic salmon in a single salmon farm than sockeye in the entire Fraser River watershed.  DFO became one with the industry, swapping staff.  Industry and government lawyers worked together in the courtrooms of British Columbia.  Mysteriously, while every vessel packing fish in Canada must display a licence number, the farm salmon packers do not, even though they are currently considered a “fishery”.  

   At 1:30 pm, on December 17, I watched a farm salmon live-transport vessel stop at the mouth of Knight Inlet and drift as Minister’s decision went live.  The vessel, which moves young farm salmon from nursery sites to other farms for grow out, tied to a nearby farm for two days and then went back to Campbell River empty and tied up.  The Norwegian salmon farming industry has to decide whether to fight this in court and try to force themselves on First Nations, who are reeling from the collapse of wild salmon, or will they gracefully accept the loss and reinvent themselves as a land-based industry, or simply leave?  The loss of 19 farms comes in addition to the loss of 17 farms gradually being phased out under First Nation directive in the nearby Broughton Archipelago.  Closure of the Broughton farms required a 270-day occupation of the farms and a year of talks between the Province of BC and three First Nations.  Removal of the Discovery Island farms required only a few weeks of consultation.  The process of removing salmon farms from British Columbia is getting easier.

   Until this moment, the future of wild salmon in British Columbia, Canada was very dim.  The 2019 Fraser River sockeye run was the lowest in history.  The 2020 run was even lower, one third of what was forecast.   The ongoing inability of government to forecast sockeye returns meant something was killing vast numbers of salmon that DFO was not factoring into their mathematical models.  Chum and pink salmon that migrate through the heavily farmed regions of Nootka Sound, Broughton and Discovery Islands have crashed — there are no fisheries on them.  The 2019 return of the Glendale pinks was  0.1%.  Chinook in the heavily farmed areas of Clayoquot are almost non-existent.

   There are also runs of wild salmon in BC that are doing very well.  The sockeye that migrate into Port Alberni, where there are no salmon farms, on the west coast of Vancouver Island returned well above forecast.  Pink salmon in the Quinsam River near Campbell River were abundant in 2020 and there were good Chinook returns to many southern BC rivers. It is not over for wild salmon, but there are serious problems that must be solved as the few runs left will bear the brunt of all the predation, including fishermen, and will struggle to survive.    

   The evidence strongly suggests that while there are many factors, a large percentage of young wild salmon are not making it past the salmon farms.  This means fixing the other issues, such as habitat degradation, will be a futile exercise until young wild salmon are allowed to make it to sea without heavy lice, virus and bacterial infections.  A virus from the Atlantic, Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), is spreading from the farms and causes red blood cells in Chinook salmon to rupture and a bacteria causing large open sores and the disease mouth rot in the farms, the leading cause of large antibiotic use in the industry, is also spreading.

   2020 saw a trilogy of big salmon decisions by the federal government of Canada and the first two made the final one all the more surprising.  Last fall, then Minister of Fisheries, Jonathan Wilkinson reacted to the collapse of the Fraser sockeye by forming a Fish Health Table and tasking us to provide advice on how to reduce the impact of salmon farms, i.e. how to make them sustainable.  Sea lice were a top issue.  As in other regions of the world, sea lice in BC were responding to the constant use of delousing drugs with increased drug-resistance and this meant the industry can no longer reliably control them.

   Through the Canadian Freedom of Information Act, I have read increasingly urgent internal emails between DFO field biologists, veterinarians and conservation & protection officers about the rising number of farm lice and their inability to protect wild salmon from this.  As they explained, current regulations only require the farmers to show that they had a plan to kill the lice.  There was no requirement that the plan works. DFO staff were demanding more enforceable regulations. 

   Since 2000, I have been counting sea lice on young salmon as they pass salmon farms and have published  extensively on the impact of these lice and, so have my colleagues.  I hired photographer Tavish Campbell to document the damage that the farm lice are doing to young pink, chum, coho, Chinook and sockeye salmon.  While the research made it clear farm lice are having significant impact, it was Tavish’s images that made farm lice a political concern.

   Sitting at the Fish Health Table with us was a senior DFO scientist who had experimentally infected young sockeye with sea lice.  He recorded acute stress (glucose spikes) and profound physiological impact (inability to keep salt out of their bodies).  He reported that the impact of sea lice on young sockeye was greater than the impact on young Atlantic farm salmon.  While my colleagues and I argued for a hard farm lice limit, with stiff penalties for failure to comply including rapid culling, given the Fraser sockeye extinction trajectory, the DFO scientist did not mention his findings. 

Alex Morton collects feces and bits of flesh coming from an Atlantic salmon farm.  She carried out this work from Bainbridge Island to the north end of Vancouver Island over the summer of 2018.  Photo courtesy Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (seashepherd.org)

   The first salmon farming decision of 2020 came on March 1 when, as usual, the DFO aquaculture branch ignored the advice of scientists and issued the salmon farming industry permission to have an unlimited number of sea lice for six weeks every time they exceeded the long-standing lice limit (3 adult-stage lice per farm salmon) set by the province of B.C. to protect wild salmon.  Six weeks of soaking in lice-rich waters at farm after farm was a death sentence for young wild salmon. I withdrew my name from the Fish Health Table.  I knew from 20 years of experience the impact this would have, and I did not want to be associated with the decision. I hired Jody Eriksson and Farlyn Campbell, who have been working with me on and off for years.  They live together and so were the COVID-perfect team.  Together we recorded the impact of this decision.

   In the spring of 2020, thirty-four percent of the salmon farms in B.C. reported heavy lice infection on their websites. A recent paper tells us that the companies fail to report up to 50% of their lice, and still they were reporting numbers up to 5 times over the limit considered safe for young wild salmon.  Fifty percent of the Discovery Island farms exceeded the limit.  Predictably, 99% of the several hundred sockeye that I examined were infected at levels causing the fish acute stress, according to DFO research.

Under the new regulations, the salmon farms were in compliance, even as Canada lost a generation of what used to be the largest salmon run in the world.  Eaten by sea lice.

   However, under the new regulations, the salmon farms were in compliance, even as Canada lost a generation of what used to be the largest salmon run in the world.  Eaten by sea lice.

   As this was DFO’s fault, I did not turn to them with my findings. Instead I went to the First Nation chiefs in the Discovery Islands and the Fraser River.  First Nation governments in Canada are recognized as a federal government.  The Musqueam Nation in the lower Fraser River confirmed their right to fish Fraser River sockeye in court.  Anything impacting their right to fish, could be viewed as infringement.   In June, a group of Fraser River nations, supported by 101 nations province-wide, held a press conference in Vancouver.  They wanted the salmon farms off the migration route of the Fraser sockeye before the fish went extinct.    

   There was no reply from the Minister of Fisheries.

   The second decision came at the end of September.  That was the date set by the Cohen Commission Inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye.

   After 133 days of hearings, Justice Bruce Cohen, gave DFO 8 years to either provide Canadians with the scientific evidence that salmon farms are not a risk to Fraser sockeye, or to remove the farms from the Discovery Islands.   There are other farms on the sockeye migration route off the Northern end of Vancouver Island, but it was the mingling of Fraser River sockeye into the massive pathogen release from approximately 7 million Atlantic salmon in the restricted waterways of the Discovery Islands that drew his attention.  In the language of 2020, salmon farms in the Discovery Islands are a super-spreader event. 

   On Sept. 28, 2020, the Minister of Fisheries told Canadians that the farms could stay in the Discovery Islands.  They were not a risk to wild salmon.

   Unfortunately for the Minister and her government, the DFO website explaining this decision contained a significant error.  While DFO did not provide any science for this decision on whether sea lice were harming the sockeye, the website explained that Atlantic salmon are more susceptible to sea lice than most Pacific salmon.  This assures us that since the farmers are all about taking care of the salmon in their pens, the measures to protect the Atlantic salmon should be more than enough to protect the tougher little sockeye. However, we know from the DFO science, that no one other than DFO was aware of at this point that this is not true in regard to the Fraser River sockeye. 

   This statement challenged the optics of a minister in charge and failed the standard written into her mandate letter from the prime minister to use “good scientific evidence.” Did anyone tell her that DFO science actually stated the opposite?  This website statement undermined the integrity of her decision that salmon farms are not a risk to sockeye salmon in the Discovery Islands.

   The third and final salmon farming decision of 2020 loomed quickly.  On December 18 all the federal licences for the Discovery Island salmon farms would expire and by law DFO had to consult with the seven nations of the Discovery Islands, who had been receiving updates from me on the condition of the young salmon trying to migrate through their territories.  It was during this consultation that a DFO science paper on the acute impact of sea lice on young sockeye surfaced.

   Believe me when I say that I have seen a lot of questionable behaviour in my decades of trying to protect wild salmon from salmon farms, but the circumstances around this research perplexed me.  Why had a government author of this paper sat quietly at the Fish Health Table through the discussions about the impact of sea lice?  Why was he there at all, because in hindsight his silent presences paints a dark picture of collusion with industry, also at the table and arguing lack of impact?  Did DFO’s Aquaculture Department inform the Minister of Fisheries about this work in advance of her decision that salmon farms were not a risk to the Fraser sockeye even as the entire industry was dangerously losing control of its sea lice?  While the paper was published and therefore public, no one outside DFO seemed aware of it and this had served the first two decisions, so why did it suddenly appear in advance of the third decision, where it highlighted lack of integrity of the first two decisions?  DFO is a large agency and I can only guess fault lines are opening between DFO-Aquaculture and DFO-wild fisheries and that the Minister in her effort to find solid ground decided to stand with the chiefs. 

   Not all First Nations in BC agree that salmon farms must get out of the ocean.  There are three territories where I have been told not to look at the young wild salmon migrating past salmon farms.  However, I know from experience that the salmon farming companies are aggressive, and I don’t think any nation was warned that letting salmon farms in ran the risk of destroying wild salmon runs.  It is unclear how the other nations will respond to the recent decision to close 19 salmon farms. I am hoping the salmon farmers can see that the days of cheap and dirty farming are over. That it is time to evolve, clean up, and get out of the ocean. 

Wild salmon will swim through the narrow corridors of Okisollo and Nodales Channel for the first time since 1992, when the decline of the Fraser River sockeye began, without exposure to billions of larval lice, virus particles and bacteria. 

   What I do know for certain is that the main artery that the Fraser sockeye migrate through has been opened.  While there will still be infection as the fish swim through Johnstone Strait and off northern Vancouver Island, wild salmon will swim through the narrow corridors of Okisollo and Nodales Channel for the first time since 1992, when the decline of the Fraser River sockeye began, without exposure to billions of larval lice, virus particles and bacteria.  It is going to be interesting to see how the salmon respond.

   Canada’s Minister of Fisheries, with strong guidance from First Nations, has made a decision that will positively impact future generations. Now the natural resilience of the salmon can get back to the work of rebuilding the runs.

Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist and director of Raincoast Research, has done extensive research documenting the negative impacts of Atlantic salmon farms off the British Columbia Coast on wild salmon.

Her new book to be published April 2021, “Not on My Watch” by Random House Canada, chronicles the dark story of the salmon farming industry.

For more information about her work, go to: http://www.alexandramorton.ca

To learn about Raincoast Research visit their website at: raincoastresearch.org

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of The Osprey. Read the entire issue HERE and then please support the Osprey!

   The Osprey has been bringing the latest science, policy, opinion and news stories to its readers supporting wild Pacific salmon and steelhead conservation and management for 34 years. But we are much more than a publication that you subscribe to because of your own interest in wild fish conservation. The funds we receive from our donors allows us send The Osprey to  wild fish conservation decision-makers and influencers including scientists, fisheries managers, politicians and wild fish advocates. 

   So when you subscribe/donate to The Osprey, you not only receive a subscription yourself, but you also help us put The Osprey into the hands of the people we need bring to our side to save our wild fish.

   Please go to the subscription/donation form at https://www.theconservationangler.org/osprey.html  and donate whatever you are able.