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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
"That which you have wasted will not be there for future generations"

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Guest Column, January 2005

Rafe Mair is Canada’s best known political commentator, lawyer, former British Columbia Minister of Environment, author and journalist. In 1995 he was awarded the Haig-Brown Award for conservation work and in 1995 received the prestigious Michener Award from the Governor-General of Canada for courageous journalism, the first radio broadcaster to be so honoured. Rafe Mair is married (to Wendy) and lists as his hobbies Fly-fishing and fly-tying, sailing and reading.

The denial of science - in Canada and Europe

In May 2002 my wife Wendy and I visited Dr. Patrick (Paddy) Gargan at his station in Galway. One of his colleagues, with that laughing lilt for which the Irish are so justifiably famous, asked “can’t ye read out in British Columbia? Don’t ye know what happened in Norway, Scotland and here with the fish farms and the sea lice?”

The answer is ‘yes’ amongst the general public, ‘no’ by government.

There are 8 varieties of Pacific Salmon, two of which, the Pinks and Chum are important for this discussion. The British Columbia coastline, like that of Norway, consists of fjords nearly all of which have a salmon producing river at the head. Unfortunately, they also provide the perfect site for the fish farms, most of which raise Atlantic salmon, not native to these waters.

The problems are drearily like those faced in Europe. The penned salmon escape, they create huge numbers of sea lice, they create tonnes of filth and are prone to serious disease.

The problem with escapes is different, though, but while there’s no record of Atlantics breeding with native wild fish, they do get into the rivers, displace wild fish on the spawning grounds and themselves spawn. Whether the progeny are returning to the home river is as yet not known.

As in Europe, sea lice from fish cages demolish wild salmon smolts and at this point have all but wiped out three runs of Pinks in the area of the Broughton Archipelago (a beautiful area just where the North end of Vancouver Island nearly but not quite runs into the mainland).

An American biologist, the remarkable Alexandra Morton, [see June 2003 guest column] through her own research, warned the Department of Fisheries and Oceans what was happening and their response was to threaten her with prosecution for taking illegal samples!

I should add that the sea lice problem in BC is greater than in Europe because Pink and Chum smolts are considerably smaller than Sea Trout or Atlantic Salmo smolts, thus far less able to defend themselves.

There isn’t a single independent scientist in the world who denies the connection between fish cage produced sea lice and the loss of huge numbers of wild salmon, nor one who denies that escaped Atlantic Salmon are establishing themselves in our rivers as recorded by Dr John Volpe of the University of Victoria (BC).

How has this been permitted to happen?

In our system, the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over migratory fish. In the mid 80s the federal and provincial governments wanted Alcan, the aluminium giant, to complete a project which would have reduced the Nechako River to about 20% of its flow. There are two large Sockeye runs that pass through the Nechako which were seriously threatened any time there was a combination of heat and low water.

The top scientists of the DFO were unalterably opposed to this plan and one by one the politicians replaced them with tame “scientists” people more in tune with the wishes of the government. Although many of us were able to get the project stopped, the DFO remained politicized.

Enter the fish farms. By this time the DFO, which had the mandate to protect wild salmon was given the mandate to expand fish farms! They did this by turning the issue of licenses over to the provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) who likewise had a mandate to expand fish farms as fast as possible.

In 2001, the new Liberal government in BC abolished the Ministry of Environment (which I once held) and announced that their policy was to assist the fish farm industry not get in their way with silly old environmental rules. In fact the Minister actually warned a fish farm that inspectors were coming – he was forced to resign but shortly thereafter he was re-instated.

The few fines that were imposed for breaking environmental rules were returned to the farmers! The government proposes to expand the fish farm industry. It utterly denies the science and plods on. And we band of brothers (and sisters) fight on.

And though the odds against us are great, with your help we’re going to win.

Rafe Mair