AR-News: (CA) problems with fish farming
Barry Kent MacKay
mimus at sympatico.ca
Mon Sep 29 19:29:15 EDT 2003
The Toronto Star
Mon Sep 29 15:31:29 2003
Trouble on the farm
Raising fish in captivity seems like a logical and ecological alternative
to emptying the oceans
Here's a 21st century fish story: Improving technologies and dwindling fish
stocks are feeding a world-wide boom in fish-farming.
It sounds like a simple solution to a global problem, but a fierce,
three-way fight has erupted among the industry, environmentalists and
The aquaculture industry says that environmentalists are warning of
problems with fish farming are "fear-mongering."
In the third corner of the ring wary scientists are putting farmed salmon
under the microscope, questioning whether it's as safe to eat as the wild
Salmon is special. It's one of Canada's favourite foods. Not- withstanding
what the scientists are finding it has been considered good for us. All
those omega-3 fatty acids lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart
disease, high blood pressure, and stroke; much is made, certainly by the
fishing industry, about salmon as a potential fighter of depression,
Alzheimer's disease, childhood asthma, cancer, diabetes and kidney disease.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency sets no limit on the amount of salmon
we can consume every week.
Salmon is also the number one fish being farmed.
British Columbia and New Brunswick are Canada's biggest producers, with
giant marine cages, formed by thick poly rope, holding as many as 100,000
fish per net, with up to one million fish per site, floating in the Pacific
and Atlantic oceans.
Fish farming generates revenues of more than $390 million in B.C. and $270
million in New Brunswick, making up the largest agricultural exports from
these two provinces.
Globally, by 2001, aquaculture accounted for 34 per cent - 48 million
tonnes - of the fish we eat, including cultivated clams, mussels, oysters
and shrimps, the latter produced primarily in Southeast Asia. (Lobsters
roam free, so far.) Wild-fisheries provided 66 per cent of our seafood, or
93.7 million tonnes.
But just as concerns have been raised about cattle fattened in huge
feedlots, now there's a focus on fish fattened in cages.
The U.S. Environmental Working Group (EWG), as recently reported by CBS
News, "found 70 per cent of (farmed) salmon tested contained PCB levels
higher than EPA recommendations ... Similar studies in the U.K., Ireland
and Canada found comparable results."
The farmed salmon assessed by the EWG had 16 times more PCBs than wild
Earlier, USA Today reported on another study by a Canadian scientist,
Michael Easton, an expert in ecotoxicology, who found in a pilot study that
farmed salmon, compared to wild salmon, "contained elevated levels of
chemical contaminants, including PCBs - known carcinogens."
Published in the peer-reviewed Chemosphere, an international science
journal, Easton's research said that particular farmed salmon studied had
ten times more PCBs than wild fish and that the levels of contamination
posed a health risk to consumers, in his opinion.
The findings are in dispute.
The David Suzuki Foundation, the environmental advocacy group, commissioned
the Easton study, says Nell Halse, president of the Canadian Aquaculture
Industry Alliance, which has attacked Easton's findings.
"He only studied four fish. Those four fish, and that study by the
Environmental Working Group, are responsible for all the controversy that's
Halse's pointedness conveys the heated nature of the fish-farming debate.
"It's just fear mongering," he says of the PCB finding. She says the
Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been clear that PCB levels in Bay of
Fundy salmon, in her region, are well below acceptable levels.
The Suzuki Foundation says the tests were a pilot project and larger
studies are coming. "The analysis," Otto Langer says, "is expensive."
Health-risk assessment is a sensitive, tricky business. Polychlorinated
biphenyls were banned in the mid-1970s after being used in hundreds of
industrial and commercial applications including "electrical, heat transfer
and hydraulic equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics and rubber
products; in pigments, dyes and carbonless copy paper and many other
applications," reports the United States Environmental Protection Agency
Web site. "More than 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the
United States prior to cessation of production in 1977."
Under "adverse health affects," the EPA states that "PCBs are probable
human carcinogens," in addition to demonstrating a negative impact on the
"immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and
other health effects."
So PCBs are everywhere in the environment, and harmful. But the question of
what is, in fact, an acceptable level persists.
"The types of PCBs that tend to bioaccumulate in fish and other animals and
bind to sediments happen to be the most carcinogenic compounds of PCB
mixtures," the EPA states. People who ingest PCB-contaminated fish "may be
exposed to PCB mixtures that are even more toxic than the PCB mixtures
contacted by workers and released into the environment."
Sensibly, the position of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance is
that "we don't want to hide from the problem," says its executive director
David Rideout. "We're not putting PCBs into (fish) pellets, PCBs are
everywhere. But if there's something we can stop doing, we'll stop. We just
want the government to put policies in place so we can move forward."
The European Union and World Health Organization set out more stringent
levels than North American jurisdictions.
But concerns about fish farming - which seems so logical as an answer to
overfishing natural stocks - expand beyond the PCB question.
For the past decade, the Suzuki Foundation has been warning about the
dangers of crowded cages that expose farmed and wild fish to diseases,
pollute the surrounding seas and seabed, and require the use of antibiotics.
Such concerns have helped turn the spotlight on alternative methods of
farming fish, including traditional methods used in China for thousands of
The Chinese - "by far the world leaders in fish farming," says George
Chamberlain, president of the U.S.-based Global Aquaculture Alliance - have
been raising carp in captivity for at least 3500 years. More than 80 per
cent of the world's farmed fish is produced in China, where the method of
cultivating carp is "more sustainable," says the Suzuki Foundation's Otto
Langer. "The Chinese raise carp in ponds or tanks. They're not in the ocean
and they're not impacting marine life."
Carp also eat vegetation as opposed to fish meal; the latter's main
ingredients include anchovies, mackerel and fish oil.
The Suzuki Foundation says it takes up to two kilos or more of wild fish to
produce 500 grams of farmed salmon. "Anchovies and mackerel are usually
taken out of the ocean near developing countries," says the foundation's
Jean Kavanagh. Thus, she says, "The fish farming process represents a net
loss of protein from the ocean."
Rideout disputes her figures. "It takes 1.4 pounds of feed to make 1 pound
of farmed salmon. It used to be higher but that was before the industry got
a handle on it. In comparison, 1 pound of beef requires 7 pounds of feed.
As well, there's a lot of research to get to grain-based feed for salmon."
The business of modern-day, high tech fish farming was pioneered in Norway
and Scotland, funded by North Sea oil revenues. It costs a minimum of $1
million to set up a fish farm, with hatcheries where salmon eggs are mixed
with milt (sperm) and hatchlings are tricked by manipulation of light into
smelting (maturing) faster. They are anaesthetized, vaccinated and raised
in fresh water tanks for a year before being trucked to sea sites.
Norwegian companies such as Stolt Sea Farms and Cermac Inc., and Nutreco
Holding NV (Netherlands), lead the industry with big operations on Canada's
coasts. George Weston Ltd., parent company of supermarket chain Loblaws,
became a major player in Canada through its start-up of Heritage Salmon in
the early 1990s. Headquartered in New Brunswick, Heritage also farms salmon
in B.C., Maine and Chile. "We're one of the largest in North America but
we're much smaller than the Norwegians," says Weston's Geoff Wilson.
Chile burst onto the scene in recent years, attracting giant multinationals
to its long coastline with cheap labour ($8 a day) and "more relaxed
regulatory climate," in the words of one Canadian official who asked not to
be named. Norwegian companies control 30 per cent of Chile's salmon
production; Norway's former fisheries minister has called for an
investigation into environmental and labour conditions in Chilean fish
farms, where unsanitary conditions are alleged.
An oversupply of cheaply produced Chilean salmon "caused a drop in price,"
says Weston's Wilson, "creating a difficult pricing environment." Last year
the wholesale market price of salmon fell under $2 a pound but it's moving
up, he says, and Loblaws' sales are still "growing in double digits,"
despite the PCB controversy.
"The market has lots of room to grow," says Nell Halse, who also wears a
hat as general manager of the New Brunswick Salmon Growers Association,
"but we have to be careful how we expand."
For Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers
Association, the problems facing the industry are complex. Technological
innovation remains a focus for fish farmers, she says, citing tests of a
new permeable net that would solve the problem of fish escaping while
allowing waste and feed to flush out to sea.
Environmentalists' concerns about protecting wild Pacific salmon against
competition from Atlantic salmon - which are farmed on the west coast
because they grow fatter quicker - are legitimate, Walling says.
"For us (British Columbians), wild salmon needs to come first. We have a
vibrant wild salmon industry and it has to be protected." But it's not
protected, according to the Stanford Fisheries Policy Project, which noted
the loss of employment along the Pacific coast for Native and non-native
communities as wild stocks decline.
Wild Pacific salmon don't adjust well to being farmed, and most of the
research done in Norway, Scotland and Ireland focused, naturally, on
Atlantic salmon. So Atlantic salmon became the standard - and a threat to
Walling acknowledges that fish farming, in its early days in B.C., gave
critics lots to protest. "In the 1970s and early 1980s we had small
operations that were not well sited, they didn't have a lot of money or
experience and there were lots of escapees."
As the industry consolidated in the 1980s - a process now underway in New
Brunswick - "there was a focus on improving practices," Walling says.
"There have been no significant escapes in the last three years. R and D is
on-going to address the issues."
As Walling sees it, "Just as environmental groups focused on forests and
Clayoquot Sound, now they've turned their attention to aquaculture. They're
funded by some wealthy U.S. environmental foundations and it's difficult
for our small industry to combat their attacks."
"Our industry is stalled," says David Rideout, executive director of the
Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance. "The public policy makers are
timid, in terms of decision making, and they're holding us back."
The process of getting licence approvals for fish farms under the Canadian
Environmental Assessment Act - with federal and provincial governments
getting in on the act - can drag on for two to four years, costing hundreds
of thousands of dollars.
"We're not saying every site should be approved," Rideout says. "If there
are problems, we'll address them. Tell us where we can farm. We want
Recently Bloomberg News reported a Canadian study showing that wild Pacific
salmon are polluting Alaskan lakes as they return to their home spawning
ground. Migrating hundreds of miles from the ocean - with PCBs absorbed
from their food contaminating their cells - they act as "biological pumps,"
University of Ottawa biologist Jules Blais said, "by transporting
contaminants upstream, where pollutants may affect their offspring and
predators such as bears, eagles and humans."
On the PCB question, Rideout says, "This is a serious problem for the
industry in general. It brings about consumer confusion."
But University of Ottawa associate biology professor Jules Blais says it's
"very difficult for Health Canada to regulate thousands and thousands of
chemicals based on limited animal studies."
"We're environmental toxicologists, we look at the fate of pollutants in
the environment, where they go, how they accumulate in the body. We know
there's evidence of PCB exposure linked to declining fertility rates in
humans and developmental affects on children exposed in utero, performing
poorly on memory tests and having higher rates of attention deficit
With every step up the food chain, he says, PCBs increase in concentration.
And with different safety standards expressed by the EPA, the FDA and WHO,
he says, it's clear that "this is an evolving situation."
No one really knows, in other words, what is a safe level.
On the policy front, Rideout says, "There are two parallel issues of equal
importance: consistency of policy in terms of siting, and establishing an
animal health program for fish similar to land animals. We need it in terms
of exporting our fish around the world."
At the department of Fisheries and Oceans, scientist Sharon McGladdery, a
fish disease specialist, says the aquatic animal health program "is in the
developmental stages, involving industry, provinces and federal government.
We're focussing on the health of both wild and cultured fish." A
groundbreaking policy paper should be ready within the year.
Rideout worries that "Canada is losing market share because we can't get
sites. We're losing our competitive edge.
``Very few places in the world are as ideal for fish farming. We have this
huge potential in terms of water mass and the best food safety regulations
in the world, but we need to let our industry farm."
Barry Kent MacKay
Senior Programme Coordinator: Canada
Animal Protection Institute
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