Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Vancouver Saturday, asking the government of Canada to do more to protect wild salmon, specifically to ban open-net salmon farms.
Organized by a group called Wild Salmon Circle, the event in Vancouver drew an estimated 600 or more people. The rally was held because the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been largely silent on the collapse of the Sockeye salmon fishery. Many biologists and fishermen link the collapse of the salmon to fish farms. Farmed salmon are thought to be the source of sea lice infestations, which is believed to be the reason for the loss of about 9 million Sockeye salmon. Of the over 10 million Sockeye expected to return for spawning this fall, only 1.7 million came back.
At the rally yesterday, the Wild Salmon Circle urged the the public to boycott farmed fish. Biologist Alexandra Morton, who earlier this year expressed hope that wild salmon would be protected by the DFO because the agency is "mandated to put wild salmon first." helped organize yesterday's rally. Speaking at the rally, Morton called for an inquiry into the decline of the salmon. Morton and others were also demanding that the DFO ban open net salmon farms, which are seen to be a key source of contamination for wild salmon.
There has been no federal response to the collapse of the Sockeye fishery, nor the demands to limit the types of salmon farms. Salmon farms, largely owned by non-Canadians, have been a contentious issue for years. Experts and fisherman have accused Minister of the DFO, Gail Shea, of ignoring the salmon crisis whilst courting Norwegian aquaculture businesses earlier this summer when the Sockeye run collapsed. Fish farms have long been viewed as risky to native fish.
In September, Morton charged Marine Harvest, a large Norwegian-owned aquaculture company, with illegal possession of wild salmon. The charges resulted after Morton notified the DFO of the situation and asked for action. When the DFO did not respond, Morton proceeded with pressing charges. In her press release, Morton said the charges resulted after she witnessed Pink salmon, a wild species, inside open net fish pens owned by Marine Harvest. An unnamed witness had contacted Morton after seeing Pink salmon in a harvesting net. Morton said she had "... received many reports over the years of herring, black cod and wild salmon in farm pens. The escaped Atlantic salmon that fishermen bring me often have wild fish in their stomachs. Are Norwegian farm salmon fattening up on wild BC fish? What happens to the wild fish when the nets are pulled? What happened to the pink salmon that may have been in the truck? DFO often charges commercial and sport fishermen with illegal possession to protect wild fish, why won't they charge these Norwegian companies? "
Earlier this summer, B.C.'s Environment Ministry released a report warning that "toxic contaminants" released by a "notorious" fish farm that was shut down in 2004, will continue to "... degrade seabed marine life as much as 100 metres from the site of the farm for 15 years dating from the farm’s 2004 shutdown." The contaminants are mainly copper and zinc, which had been released by owner and operator, Marine Harvest. Marine Harvest shut down the farm after it determined that ocean currents were not strong enough to dilute the toxic metals it released. Copper is used in aquaculture to reduce the growth of algae and barnacles in fish holding pens. Zinc is found in the food fed to fish.
Last year, the government of British Columbia placed a moratorium on salmon farming along the north coast of the province, because of concerns of the impacts on wild salmon. However, a court case earlier this year ruled that the government of British Columbia had been "unlawfully regulating" the salmon fishery. The judge ruled that fish farms were part of the fishery and as such, could only be regulated by the government of Canada - in this case the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company with large interests in British Columbia aquaculture told press that "... the industry is committed to stringent standards and sustainability."
The DFO has been coming under public scrutiny frequently in the past few months. In mid-September, a Federal Court judge found that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had not upheld its mandate, violating its own regulations to protect Species at Risk, in a case concerning a rare minnow, the Nooksack Dace, found only in a very few places in British Columbia.
Concerns about the collapse of the salmon fishery now encompass British Columbia's wild bear population. A bear count is underway in British Columbia after reports that there were fewer bears seen. The loss of bears has been attributed by some as death caused by starvation caused by a collapse of the salmon fisheries. B.C.'s Environment Minister, Barry Penner, had said he thought that the abundant wild berry crop had detained the bears away. A grizzly specialist said it was not likely that the loss of one source of food would impact bears so severely.
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, open net fish farming is a controversial technique of fish farming. As the name suggests, an open net facility is an area of water that is bounded by a net to contain the fish.