Gangsta Salmon

Farmed fish threaten the very waters they grow in.

I take melancholy pleasure in each update of the Audubon Society's pocket guide to responsible seafood shopping. The news is always bad, of course, with more of my favorite marine items moving out of the "green" (environmentally sound consumption) into the "red" (do not eat at the cost of your immortal soul) zone. So long, monkfish, it's been good to know ya; adios, red snapper. I can remember when you were one grade up from junk. Goodbye, farmed salmon. . . .

Farmed salmon? Now, just a darn minute, here: How can farmed Atlantic salmon be endangered? A look at the PR packet accompanying my wallet card answered that question. "[T]here are a variety of significant concerns about the impacts of farming salmon. The greatest concerns include competition of escaped farmed fish with wild species, disease problems, overuse of antibiotics and parasiticides, water pollution, and impacts on other wildlife." In other words: Farmed salmon aren't in danger; they are the danger.

You'd never know it to talk to the folks in charge of regulating salmon farms in Washington state waters. On paper, there are lots of them: the Department of Fish and Wildlife (responsible for the fish themselves), the Department of Natural Resources (the ocean floor beneath their pens), and the Department of Ecology (the water they swim in)—not to mention the federal regulatory agencies.

How are the efforts of all those agencies coordinated? "They're not," says Fish and Wildlife's Andy Appleby. "Each agency writes its own regs and looks after its own concerns." Well, OK; how are those regs enforced? Short answer: They're not. "We expect the growers to practice self-enforcement," says Ecology's Lori Levander-Pflug, who wrote the state's rules on what can legally be emitted in the way of pollution from salmon- rearing pens. "We don't have the staff or budget to do testing and inspections."

Calls to all the agencies involved produce pretty much the same answer: We're here to write the rules, not see to it that they're adhered to. "We stay up on health and safety issues as they emerge," says Appleby, "but so far we haven't seen any reason for worry. And we've got a clear directive from the Legislature to support this industry as a valuable economic resource."

Not all that valuable at this point; there are currently only nine salmon-farming leases on state land—one in Port Angeles harbor, four in the San Juans between Anacortes and Deception Pass, and four more on the south coast of Bainbridge—and according to Appleby, not all of those are currently active.

The reason's just a few miles farther north: The west coast of Vancouver Island and the shores of the British Columbia mainland north to Queen Charlotte Sound are thick with salmon farms: 121 of them, by a 2001 count. The weak Canadian dollar makes B.C. very attractive to retailers; when you see salmon in your supermarket seafood case and it's not explicitly labeled as "wild," it probably started life in a B.C. fjord.

The whole B.C. salmon business started in a fjord—a Norwegian one. Norwegian fish farmers pioneered the art of mass salmon farming. When the Norwegian government and populace began demanding tighter controls on the industry in the 1970s, the industry invested some of its profits in setting up new farms where regulation wasn't so tight, like British Columbia, whose provincial government was ravenous for foreign investment to offset a collapsing timber-based economy.

Supervision of fish farming in B.C. is even more scattered than in Washington, with four federal departments and six provincial ministries in charge of one or another aspect of the trade. But awareness of the potential environmental hazards of fish farming is far more advanced north of the 49th parallel, too, in large measure thanks to studies funded in the teeth of government indifference by the David Suzuki Foundation and the jeremiads of fisheries ecologist John Volpe.

Volpe's Suzuki-funded 2001 tract Super un-Natural takes on the salmon-farming industry's claims—that their salmon don't escape, or if they do escape they can't survive, or if they do survive they won't try to swim upstream to spawn, or if they do they won't be able to—and demolishes each in turn.

The foundation also funded an independent panel headed by a retired Supreme Court judge that concluded B.C. waters were at risk from the practice. It recommended that all open-water net-cage salmon operations be shut down by the end of 2004. The B.C. government has acted as if the report never happened.

"This issue isn't going to be decided by government but by consumers," Volpe says. "Canadian farmers are already under pressure from Chile, where regulation is, to put it mildly, light. Chile is now the No. 2 exporter worldwide of salmon. But China's entrance to the WTO is going to have the biggest impact. Chinese tariffs on fresh fish have been high; when they come down, we're going to see another 1.2 billion people entering the marketplace for farmed salmon. It'll be interesting to see how North Americans will react to seeing the whole West Coast of the continent become a fish farm for China."

For the scientific and environmental case against cage-pen salmon farming, see the Volpe and Leggett reports mentioned in this article at:

To learn more about the Audubon society's Living Oceans program and the pocket seafood guide, go to

Roger Downey's science column appears every other week.

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