Thundering drums of protest echoed across the Superstore parking lot last month as over a dozen members of the Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance intercepted patrons with leaflets detailing their mission: to ban ocean-based salmon farming.
In recent months, grocery stores in Abbotsford and Chilliwack have been met with similar protests over their sales of farmed salmon. Members of local First Nations and their allies staged the Superstore protest on May 29 amid some resistance from the grocery store, who asked that signs taped to the front entry ramp be taken down and leaned against the wall instead. Shoppers paused to enjoy the drumming and take in the info banners before continuing with their shopping.
Eddie Gardner, UFV elder-in-residence and member of the Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance, explained the vital importance of wild salmon and the dangers posed by current farming practices.
“Wild salmon is the lifeblood of British Columbia,” Gardner says. “It’s an integral part of the cultural, spiritual and physical well-being of the xwélmexw, the First Nations people, but also everyone.
“Our wild salmon are endangered by many things: big oil, fracking, LNG, irresponsible mining, climate warming. There’s a whole range of threats … One of them [is] the fish farms on the migration routes of our wild salmon.”
According to the Guardian (2015), Salmon farming has long been criticized by the scientific community for its negative impact on the environment and wild salmon stocks. Atlantic salmon are raised in cramped conditions, which allows for an easy transmission of disease.
“They have these open-net pens that do not provide any barrier between the farmed salmon and the wild salmon. So when the small smolts have to swim by these farms they are prone to get diseases from the farmed salmon,” Gardner explains.
“It’s a very unsustainable industry. Very often they have to cull their fish because of diseases and when they do that it comes at the expense of the taxpayers, which is ridiculous.”
While the demand for salmon could not be satisfied by wild stocks alone, there is an alternative to having open-ocean farms.
“We need a rapid transition from ocean-farmed salmon to land based farms, aquaculture,” Gardner says. “There are two farms in BC that I know of, one is Kuterra, which is run by the ‘Namgis First Nations, and then there is Little Cedar Falls in Nanaimo which is family-run. They raise salmon in containment. It’s a very small farm, but they are already supplying some of the Save On [Foods] stores.”
Kuterra is based out of Northern Vancouver Island. The business is fully owned by the ‘Namgis First Nation and was started, according to their website, to demonstrate that land-raised farmed salmon is the environmentally friendly alternative to open-net pens. In the language of the ‘Namgis people, kutala means “salmon”; kuterra means “salmon from the land.” Kuterra’s salmon are raised hormone, antibiotic, and pesticide free, with an emphasis on respect for the salmon as a living creature.
Little Cedar Falls is another example of how land based farmed salmon can be a viable alternative. The farm raises steelhead salmon and takes environmentalism seriously; waste from the salmon is being developed into fertilizer and other soil enhancement products.
“We are encouraging the expansion of farmed salmon because it is way more sustainable than the ocean open-net farms.”
Gardner and the Wild Salmon Alliance are doing their best to raise awareness, staging protests and handing out information in front of local grocery stores. But, as Gardner explains, store management isn’t always happy to see them.
“I’m glad we have some level of cooperation with Superstore and we have lots of cooperation with Walmart and Save On Foods. Costco calls the police on us and chases us off their property,” Gardner says with a bit of a laugh. “Still working on Costco, we are still going to go back there. One good thing about Costco is that they will not sell GMO salmon. And they stopped selling some of the farmed salmon from Chile because of the high levels of antibiotics that they were using to fight off diseases. So at least they are trying to do something to protect the health of the people. But it’s not quite enough.”
Salmon farming issues are currently being reviewed in court. Public awareness and involvement is crucial, Gardner says.
Last year, biologist Alexandra Morton won a court case that banned the practice of placing diseased salmon in open net pens. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans was set to appeal the decision, but has recently secured a five month adjournment in the wake of a May 20 announcement from the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative (a partnership between the DFO, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, and Genome B.C.) that they had detected a potential case of Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI) in Atlantic salmon at a B.C. fish farm. HSMI is a costly problem for Norweigan salmon farms, who see outbreaks yearly. In a May 13 letter to Morton from the Department of Justice, Steven Postman writes that the government “needs time to complete the analysis and determine if this information impacts its position on the appeals.”
The delay in court proceedings provides British Columbians a greater window to communicate their feedback to the government. Over 16,000 people have signed a petition on leadnow.ca asking the government to reconsider its position, but more public support for the initial decision needs to be heard, Gardner says. “We want to send a strong message … to drop that appeal.”
“These farms have devastating impact not only on the wild salmon economy but also the wild diversity in British Columbia. That is why we are in front of these doors. That’s why we are encouraging and educating people to become aware of those issues and to rally the support in saving our wild salmon.”