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International News, April 2004

BC Govt gets an F for “fail”

The British Columbian Government in Canada has received a failing grade (‘F’) for its regulation of the salmon farming industry in a damning progress report published by the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform. “Regulating Salmon Aquaculture in BC – A Report Card” finds the government has failed to live up to most of the recommendations tabled by its own Environmental Assessment Office in 1997. The report card gives the provincial government a failing grade in 8 out of 10 areas – if this was school the B.C. Government would be sulking in the corner wearing a dunces cap. It scored lowest (F) in the First Nations and Conflict Resolution sections of the report card. The B.C. Government was hardly at the top of the class in other sections: it scored Ds for Siting, Escapes, Fish Health, Predator Control, Alternative Technology and Implementation. It only scraped a pass mark (C) in two sections: Waste and Risk Management.

“The government has failed British Columbians and continues to endanger wild salmon,” remarked the report author Suzanne Connell of the Georgia Strait Alliance. “We’re calling on the government to reinstate the moratorium and live up to its responsibility to regulate the salmon farming industry”. David Lane, Executive Director of the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, said: “The fact that citizens don’t have access to data about the impacts of salmon farming points to a serious problem as the industry continues to grow – diseases and parasites from farms could be seriously harming wild salmon runs and the public would be kept entirely in the dark.”

According to Theresa Rothenbush of the Raincoast Conservation Society the Canadian salmon farming industry has: “a track record of fines, lawsuits, and questionable subsidies from both levels of government plague this industry”. She continues: “Open net pen systems in B.C. have had catastrophic losses from disease losing millions in revenue. Despite hardy job projections they continue to quietly lay off hundreds of employees – a result of downsizing, bad practices and failure to follow even existing inadequate regulations”. Writing in the Prince Rupert Daily News (12th March) Charles Justice outlines the choice between wild and farmed salmon: “I guess we have a choice. We can play dead and let the multinational corporations lease out our coastline. Or we can tell DFO (the Canadian Government) and the rest of Canada that the wild salmon are our collective natural resource and must be protected. Because if we don't protect them who will?”

Farmed salmon fail taste test

A new national poll in Canada reveals declining consumer confidence in farmed salmon. 69 per cent of British Columbians prefer the taste of wild salmon over farm-raised, and 72 per cent believe that eating the wild product is better for the environment than eating the farmed, according to a public opinion poll released in March. 53 per cent consider farmed salmon a “major environmental hazard” while 56 per cent believe they pose a “major risk to wild stocks of salmon”. Among those consumers worried about buying farmed salmon, chemicals and toxins, including antibiotics and PCPs, are listed as the main concerns. 53 per cent of British Columbians also believe that restaurants that serve only wild salmon have higher quality compared with 50 per cent for grocery stores that only sell wild.

In British Columbia, more than half (52%) disagree with the statement: “You never pay much attention to the difference between fish farm-raised salmon and wild caught salmon” – when asked the same question in 2001, only 42% disagreed. Only 3% of Canadians plan to buy and eat more farmed salmon in the next year. 21% of consumers in British Columbia say they will consume less farmed salmon in the next year. “Obviously, personal health concerns are an important issue for Canadians when deciding whether to buy farmed salmon,” noted Jennifer Lash, Executive Director of Living Oceans Society. “This poll clearly shows these concerns are influencing decisions in restaurants and grocery stores”.

Australians “say no” to farmed salmon

Farmed Atlantic salmon in Australia is in danger of suffering the same fate as the Tasmanian tiger (extinct). The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s (AMCS) new guide - “The Sustainable Fish Finder” - advises consumers to “say no” to farmed Atlantic salmon. The group’s sustainable fisheries officer Craig Bohm told the Hobart Mercury (24th March) that farmed Atlantic salmon was included in the “no” list because of its potential for serious ecological damage. Mr Bohm said escapes from farms were common and wild populations of the fish may be forming. He said feral populations of the predatory fish would have a dramatic impact on native fish species – in Australia, like Canada and Chile, Atlantic salmon are farmed in the Pacific and are an “alien” species.

The Tasmanian State Government immediately labeled AMCS as “killjoys” for urging Australians to boycott Tasmanian salmon. In a press release – “Atlantic Salmon Safe And Good For You” - Primary Industries and Water Minister Steve Kons said the guide amounted to an attack on the state’s $130 million salmon aquaculture industry. “The Australian Marine Conservation Society is taking the most extreme and conditional approach with its suspect advice,” Mr Kons said. “The advice to consumers to avoid sustainably-produced, quality Tasmanian Atlantic salmon ignores the repeated scientific findings of the benefits salmon and its good fatty acids have in the diet. It’s rare that a food so delicious is also so good for you and to tell people they shouldn’t have it is really the act of a killjoy. With this sort of approach we would have to lock ourselves away in cotton wool and only eat mung beans”.

Speaking to the Hobart Mercury (25th March) - and presumably eating a plate of mung beans - Tasmanian Conservation Trust spokesman Craig Woodfield backed the AMCS advice not to eat farmed salmon: “Shooting the messenger won’t help,” he said. “Caged fish farming in southern coastal waters in Tasmania has a growing environmental footprint attributable to well-known problems the industry and government ignore”. According to AMCS’s Craig Bohm “it is our role to let Australians know that we do have conservation concerns about sea-cage fish farming”.

The AMCS seafood guide could not have come at a worse time for Tasmanian salmon farmers who only recently launched their new campaign – “Trust Tasmanian salmon”. Tasmanian salmon farmers, like their New Zealand counterparts, are ruthlessly exploiting the fact that farmed salmon from European waters is much more contaminated than farmed salmon from the Southern hemisphere. According to Owen Carrington Smith, Chairman of the Tasmanian Salmon Growers’ Association, “I just found it incredible the way the Northern Hemisphere press has picked this up. Given what’s happened with residue stories, it’s been a very apt slogan.” He claimed that Tasmanian salmon growers have been conducting residue testing for years and PCBs and other contaminants are “a virtual non-issue.” The Tasmanian Salmon Growers’ Association though are wisely steering clear of using “We have lower levels of contamination with cancer-causing chemicals” as an advertising slogan. “Trust Tasmanian salmon”? You must be joking.

When wild is not so wild

When is wild salmon not wild salmon? The answer is not as easy as you might think. Escaped farmed salmon can be caught in the wild and passed off as “wild” salmon even though they may contain antibiotics, chemicals, artificial colourings and have spent most of their sorry lives in cramped cages. Now the State of Oregon in the United States has run into another problem – hatchery reared salmon. When these farmed fish are deliberately released into the wild, are they “wild” or are they “farmed”?

The Oregonian (30th March) reports that a campaign to boost the image of Oregon salmon has backed off the word “wild” to describe the fish, but will use it to define how they’re hooked. The original plan was to focus attention on the state’s hallmark seafood with billboards and radio ads touting “Oregon wild salmon”. Now the ads, scheduled to start April 26, will say, “Oregon wild caught salmon”. “It means that it is caught in the ocean, so it is not farmed fish,” said Debby Kennedy, who is overseeing the marketing program. The billboards will feature a fish tail on a blue background appears next to big block letters stating, “Oregon wild caught salmon: for use with discerning palates”.

Oregon salmon fishermen wanted to use the term “wild” to make their catch more appealing - and more valuable - than salmon farmed in cages. However, a noted fish activist protested the use of the word because many of the salmon caught off the Oregon coast are reared in hatcheries. “Truth in advertising means you can’t be calling hatchery salmon ‘wild’ salmon for marketing purposes,” said Bill Bakke, director of the Native Fish Society of Oregon. “They aren’t wild salmon”. There is a world of difference between hatchery reared salmon and wild salmon. Under Oregon law, wild salmon are ones that hatch and develop in streams, then make their way to the sea to mature before returning inland to spawn. Hatcheries also harbour a much more sinister threat to wild salmon. Recent research has shown that, like escaped farmed salmon, hatchery reared salmon can decimate wild salmon populations. A new report – “Making Sense of the Debate About Hatchery Impacts” – commissioned by the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (PFRCC) concludes that wild salmon can be negatively affected by large-scale hatchery operations. The message is simple: hatcheries harm wild salmon. There is simply no substitute for wild salmon.

Restaurants forced to identify farmed salmon

Alaska moved a step closer to being a farmed-free salmon state with a new law requiring restaurants to identify whether the salmon is wild or farmed. Senator Kim Elton is sponsoring a bill which would put the same requirements on fish served in restaurants as on fish sold in grocery stores. A law passed two years ago requires that farmed finfish be identified as such on its retail labels. “Restaurant consumers in Alaska deserve the same notice as retail consumers,” Elton told the Juneau Empire. Committee chairman Senator Scott Ogan said he was concerned that the measure would require restaurants to incur undue expense printing new menus, but supported the bill overall. “I always ask. I won’t eat farmed fish, that’s just all there is to it. I support what you’re doing here,” Ogan said.

The demand for wild Alaskan and Canadian salmon has sky-rocketed since the Science study revealed farmed salmon was up to 32 time more contaminated than wild salmon. Dave Risk of All Seas Fisheries, a retailer and specialty distributor in Toronto, says the demand for wild B.C. salmon is higher than ever and has sold much faster than usual. “I can sell all the wild B.C. salmon that I can lay my hands on,” he says. Michael Noble, executive chef at Catch Restaurant in Calgary, serves B.C. wild salmon and says the sales are strong. The restaurant provides customers with information cards at each table explaining wild salmon’s special attributes. “Consumers have discovered the wonderful taste of this product as natural, as it should be”.

The Salmon Farm Protest Group is also urging restaurant diners to ask if the fish they are ordering is farmed or wild. It aims to encourage hotels, restaurants and other sectors of the food industry to tell customers of the origins of the salmon on their menus. SFPG chairman Bruce Sandison said: “Following the success of the SFPG’s supermarket watch campaign last autumn when supporters questioned the illegal labeling of salmon products on sale in UK, we now invite everyone who cares about the quality of the food they eat to take part in this new campaign. When you eat out and see salmon on the menu, smoked or fresh, ask the waiter if the fish is farmed or wild. If the people offering you the dish don’t know, or say it is farmed, then don't order it and make it clear to the establishment why you refuse to do so”.

COOL turns up heat on fish labeling

The United States is finally following Europe’s lead – it will soon be law to label fish products as wild or farmed (the European Union made this law in 2002). In new legislation approved by President Bush in January, consumers in the U.S. will soon be able to choose between farmed Chilean, Scottish, Irish, Canadian and Norwegian salmon and wild Alaskan and Canadian salmon. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is scheduled to go into effect for fish and shellfish on 30th September 2004. COOL will require salmon to be labeled as “farmed” or “wild” and also include the country of origin.

COOL is an important first step in helping inform consumers - the vast majority of seafood, including farmed salmon, purchased in the U.S. is imported and an increasing component comes from fish farms. Fish labeling could be the beginning of the end for farmed salmon. Supermarket News (19th March) reports that: “The clock is ticking for the seafood industry. In little more than six months, seafood processors and retailers will be subject to mandatory country-of-origin labeling rules. Fish processors will be the first to live with the unpopular regulations”.

There are already signs, however, that sales of farmed salmon are falling faster than you can say “contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals”. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “demand for salmon products is expected to be pressured by a number of factors, including the adverse publicity from the study on contaminants in salmon products”. The USDA’s latest “Aquaculture Outlook” reports that: “One of the factors spurring consumption of salmon has been its image as a healthful food, especially its relatively high concentration of omega 3 fatty acids that have been characterized as beneficial to a healthy heart. However, the authors of a study on salmon in the January 9, 2004 issue of the journal Science assert that ‘farmed salmon have significantly higher contaminant burdens than wild salmon’. The authors specifically concentrated their analysis on the presence of such contaminants as PCBs, toxaphene and dieldrin. Based on their risk assessment analysis, farmed salmon from Canada and Chile, the major suppliers to the U.S. market, should not be consumed in more than one meal per month”.

Economic terrorists?!

The global consequences of the Science study (funded by Pew Charitable Trusts) is still striking fear into the aquaculture industry. Environmental groups have long been labeled “eco-terrorists” but now they have a new moniker – “economic terrorists”. An article – “The Farmed Salmon Debate: Economic Terrorism? – by Warren Key of the Australian-based Gippsland Aquaculture Industry Network (GAIN) portrays NGOs as a mutant cross between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

“The entire issue discussed here absolutely reeks of Economic Terrorism by the Pew Charitable Trusts,” writes Mr Key. “This was a barely concealed stunt aimed at furthering their environmental and political agendas at the expense of thousands of individuals around the world. Based upon the methods and scare tactics used, the Pew Charitable Trusts should be held accountable in an International Court of Law for circulating false and misleading information resulting in extreme economic, financial and social hardship for others”. No matter that it is salmon farmers and supermarkets who find themselves in court (see February International News).

There is no doubting the economic impact of the Science study though. “The fallout from this report has had an enormous impact on the industry both economically and socially,” continues Mr Key. “It has created negativity towards a healthy food source, hardship for industry participants, including the employees and families of many companies, the retail sector and every facet of the industry in between. The overall cost to the industry is almost incalculable and will continue to mount as the industry works towards restoring consumer confidence. The impacts of this report have been felt globally. In some areas it has been reported that retail sales of salmon products have fallen by as much as 70% and industry recovery is going to take considerable time”.

GE salmon on menu

Sales of farmed salmon will take a giant leap forward if biotech companies have their way. Genetically engineered farmed salmon could even make a ghastly appearance on supermarket shelves in the United States by as early as next year. The Canadian firm Aqua Bounty says it aims to apply for regulatory approval by the end of 2004. “If regulatory approval is granted, it could open the door to other varieties of GM fish; about 30 different types have so far been created in various laboratories around the globe,” reported BBC News. Garth Fletcher of Aqua Bounty is convinced that GM fish will inevitably come to market; and if his negotiations with the Food and Drug Administration go well, he says that could be as early as next year. “Test marketing could be done just after FDA approval, and that could be 2005; commercial sales, you're looking at two to three years beyond that”.

But there is a growing backlash in Europe and North America against GE foods – there is simply no market for Frankenfish. The Centre for Food Safety lists 468 businesses in the US which it says have pledged not to buy or sell GM fish. One is the four-star New York seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, once named top restaurant in the US. “It’s totally unnatural, and it could actually be dangerous,” said executive chef Eric Ripert. “The fact that they are not going to let us know on the markets where we buy the fish whether they are genetically modified or not is to me a big issue, and I refuse to buy that fish. We find wild salmon in North America and in Scotland and in Norway; and I think if we are reasonable in fishing and we don’t over-fish, we can keep those stocks forever and enjoy these natural fish”.

Next time you order a king prawn madras down your local Indian restaurant maybe you should ask the waiter if the fish has been genetically engineered. India has developed experimental transgenics of rohu fish, zebra fish, catfish and singhi fish as well as GE prawns and shrimp. The Financial Express reports (25th March) that “transgenic rohu recently produced from indigenous construct at Madurai Kamaraj University has proved to be eight times larger than the control siblings”. In India, research in transgenic fish was initiated in Madurai Kamaraj University’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology with borrowed constructs from foreign scientists - the first Indian transgenic fish was generated in 1991. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research is now actively promoting transgenic fish research. Indian scientists are concentrating on developing transgenic fish through autotransgenesis which involves increasing the copies of growth hormone genes present in a fish as opposed to allotransgenesis which amounts to transfer of genes from different species (scientists have already injected fish with genes from pigs, chickens, cows, sheep and even humans). The increase in growth hormone genes leads to an increase in flesh content. Mmmmmm.

Cod – the new salmon

With the reputation of farmed salmon sinking to new depths, interest in cod farming is rising. A report published in March by the Royal Society of Edinburgh concluded that cod farming could replace salmon farming in Scotland: “In view of the restricted number of new sites suitable for aquaculture, there is a clear role for the substitution of existing salmon farming by cod rather than a major expansion of the size of the industry.” The report added that cod farming can take place in sites and facilities currently used for salmon, and that “this may be particularly beneficial where relocation of existing salmon farms is being considered in important areas for wild salmon stocks, or where there may be concerns about possible genetic interaction with wild stocks”.

Norway is already predicting an ambitious cod production capacity of more than 400,000 tonnes by 2015 and Canada is also eyeing up a big cod-piece. According to a recently released report from Canada’s Commissioner for Aquaculture Development, Canada has the capacity to produce 128,000 tonnes of cod worth CA $545 million by 2015. To accommodate this phenomenal expansion, farmers would have to develop four to six cod hatcheries and 120 marine farms. Newfoundland in particular is taking steps towards that objective. The province’s industry has grown close to 2000 percent - from 11 tonnes in 1998 to 227 tonnes in 2002 - to reach a value of $900,000. Newfoundland has already granted eight licenses for cod aquaculture and is reviewing another 12 applications. Norwegian companies have also expressed interest in developing cod farms in the province’s Bay d’Espoir and Fortune Bay areas.

Cod farming, however, is not the panacea it may seem on the surface. Delve deeper and the waters become very murky indeed. Cod farms produce more waste than salmon farms, spread sea lice just like salmon farms, require even more fish feed than farmed salmon and escape in exactly the same way. For example, figures released by the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries in February revealed that 75,000 cod escaped from Norwegian cod farms during 2003 alone. The Atlantic Salmon Federation also report that escapes from cod and halibut farms are a growing problem on the East Coast of North America.

The panda gets tough on tuna

Cod is not the only new sea cage fish farming industry causing problems. The booming tuna farming industry in the Mediterranean is spiralling out of control and threatens the survival of the highly-endangered wild bluefin tuna. WWF has quit an international working group on sustainable tuna farming in the Mediterranean because the group is dominated by industry and is putting profit ahead of conservation. “Tuna farming is totally out of control in the Mediterranean,” said Dr Sergi Tudela, Fisheries Project Coordinator at the WWF Mediterranean Programme. “We have decided to quit this working group because it was clearly putting business interests ahead of the urgent need to conserve tuna stocks, and failed to listen to our concerns. This is very disappointing as WWF is a key actor in tackling the urgent problem of regulating tuna farming practices”.

The working group was established in 2002 following a request by WWF to the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) to set up a formal process to address the sustainability of tuna farming in the Mediterranean and to produce guidelines for its sustainable regulation. It is coordinated by GFCM and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) - the two most important bodies for the regulation of fisheries in the Mediterranean. WWF is also highly critical of the European Union, whose subsidies boost tuna fishing and farming activities in the Mediterranean.

Tuna farming — the fattening of wild tuna in cages — increased by close to 50 per cent in the Mediterranean last year, to reach 21,000 tonnes. The Mediterranean countries with tuna farms are Spain, Italy, Turkey, Malta, Cyprus, Croatia, Tunisia, and Libya. Other countries, such as France, don’t have tuna farms but are involved in the capture of tuna. Tuna farming, like salmon farming, is driven mainly by the Japanese market demand for sushi. Tuna cages now litter the coasts of South Australia, Mexico, Hawaii as well as the Mediterranean. Will we ever learn from our mistakes with sea cage salmon farming?