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International News, July 2004

If readers have any suggestions for international news stories or any comments please email Don Staniford.

Closed containment or close down

“East Coast salmon farms should be moved onto land in a bid to control the spread of a contaminant that can cause ‘dead zones’ in the ocean,” reports the Globe and Mail. That is the recommendation of the Conservation Council for New Brunswick in Canada. CCNB is demanding that the salmon farming industry in New Brunswick be given five years to clean up their act and move their operations out of the water and onto land. “Fish that do swim into these dead zones just go belly-up, because there’s no oxygen in them,” said Ms Inka Milewski, a marine biologist and science adviser for the CCNB. “We’re not looking to be unreasonable here. Five years is a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem. Industry needs to be put on notice by the federal government and the province that this is not going to be acceptable”.

Ms. Milewski told the Globe and Mail that the contamination has become so severe in some parts of the East Coast that it has begun to come off the ocean in the form of gas. A recent study of 10 local estuaries found seven with signs of excessive nitrogen, she said. “I think [government] has to act now. There are things that the government can do now. Stop the discharge, put in place the technology. If the consumer has to pay more for farmed salmon, so be it. Having cheap salmon at the expense of the environment is just not acceptable, it’s just not acceptable”.

Wild Atlantic salmon in crisis

Also paying the price for cheap farmed salmon are wild Atlantic salmon on the East coast of North America. “When people go into a supermarket and see Atlantic salmon fillets selling for $4 per pound, they should know that these are all mass-produced products of today’s commercial sea-cage aquaculture operations, and not the remarkable wild salmon that have traveled our rivers and oceans for thousands of years,” says Bill Taylor of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “Every wild Atlantic salmon is a natural treasure”.

Mr Taylor’s comments were made as the ASF unveiled a new report – “Status of North American Wild Atlantic Salmon”. Wild Atlantic salmon populations in Eastern Canada and the United States have dropped to historic low levels. Suggested causes of the decline include changing ocean conditions, acid rain, industrial pollutants, poaching and illegal by-catch, habitat degradation, and poorly-regulated salmon aquaculture practices.

According to Mr Taylor: “Our most pressing concern is the salmon populations from rivers in the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf of Maine, and on Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast. The inner Bay of Fundy’s wild Atlantic salmon population is severely endangered. Incredible as it may seem, there are now fewer than 200 fish in the Inner Bay's 32 rivers, down from 40,000 just 20 years ago. The populations returning to rivers in the outer Bay of Fundy are likewise under severe stress.” It is surely a strange coincidence then that the highest density of salmon farms on the East coast of North America is in the Bay of Fundy.

Sex aids for stressed salmon

Speaking of high densities, pity those poor farmed salmon crammed in like tinned sardines. “With their crowded living conditions, it’s no wonder farmed salmon have a difficult time getting in the mood. Unlike wild salmon, which can sneak off for some privacy and spawn in a river, the farmed fish must perform under the gaze of countless pairs of fish eyes,” writes Natalie Southworth in the Globe and Mail. “In times of war when women are under stress, ovulation can stop. We’re guessing farmed fish must be under some sort of stress as well,” said Nancy Sherwood, a biology professor at the University of Victoria.

A Frankenfish solution comes in the shape of Syndel International Inc., a Vancouver-based company that develops chemical and pharmaceutical products. Syndel has worked with researchers from the University of Alberta, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada and the University of Victoria to develop two hormones (Ovaprim and Ovaplant) that address farmed salmons’ sexual inhibition. Coy salmon are shot with a RalGun Pellet Injector - one squeeze of the trigger injects a full dose of hormone is released over several days. Who said romance was dead?

Syndel has already conducted field trials in Canada and Chile and is now looking to market its wares in Norway. Not everyone is happy at salmon farming’s answer to Viagra: “This hormone Ovaplant is the latest addition in the repertoire of manipulation by fish-farm companies,” said Theresa Rothenbush of the Raincoast Conservation Society. “It’s another slap in the face of a farmed fish: even their sex is industrialized”. Professor John Volpe of the University of Alberta also cautioned against beefing up the sex life of farmed salmon: “There’s an analogous situation here to the bovine growth hormone, another protein hormone. It’s fine up until it’s not”.

Organic salmon – a certified sham

Is farmed salmon “organic”? You must be joking. How can you factory farm a migratory species such as a salmon in a cage, allow untreated sewage effluent to seep into the sea (along with escapes, parasites and infectious diseases), use depleted and contaminated wild caught fish meal as a raw material and then in all seriousness call the end product “organic”? Yet that is exactly what organic certifiers such as Naturland, the Organic Food Federation and the Soil Association are doing by labelling farmed salmon as “organic”. Sales of so-called “organic” salmon are rising fast but the organic standards upon which they are based are not simply worth the paper they are written on. At best they are misleading – at worst they are lying.

According to Intrafish (11th June): “Already, some buyers are stepping away from products sold with organic attributes because of the confusion surrounding them. Industry sources say one major retailer abandoned a program with a company dealing in farmed salmon with natural attributes, and another U.S. retailer using non-certified product told IntraFish he is considering switching over to an organic salmon because of the confusion and lack of data backing up some of the claims”. No wonder we are all confused.

Given the ludicrous claims of “organic” farmed salmon in the United States, Ireland, Chile and the UK it is certainly no laughing matter. As Grinning Planet writes in a recent article – “Is Organic Salmon a Certified Sham?”: “At this point, claims of ‘organic’ on packages of salmon or other fish carry far less weight than such claims on land-based foods and should be treated with suspicion. Salmon labeled organic may or may not be better than conventional farmed salmon, and in almost all cases is unlikely to have been raised in a truly organic manner….For now, it's buyer beware, and we are left only with those two scary Latin words, ‘caveat emptor’. Long live the emptor!”. The message to consumers is the same in any language: don’t buy farmed salmon and don’t buy “organic” farmed salmon either.

Oh my cod – here we go again

Faced with a PR nightmare that still haunts them like a recurring bad dream, salmon farmers in Norway, Scotland and North America are switching species to Atlantic cod and black cod (sablefish). Bob Fraumeni, a long-time black cod (sablefish) fishermen in British Columbia, is less than pleased with the prospect of black cod farming in Canada. “The netcage model of fish farming for salmon has been a disaster. How can the province even think about allowing sablefish to be farmed? We don’t have a clue what ecological impact sablefish hatcheries or farms will have on these stocks. But I can guarantee you it won’t be good. Dumping mushy and poor tasting farmed sablefish onto the market will turn off customers and hurt local businesses. As anyone who has tasted a wild salmon and farmed salmon will tell you, there’s absolutely no comparison. Wild’s best.”

Try telling that to cod farming giants such as Nutreco. Cod farming looks set to rival salmon farming – by May 2004 there were a staggering 589 cod production licences in Norway alone. “Our ambitions for cod are sky-high,” said Magnus Skretting of Nutreco in Norway as he unveiled their new marketing offensive for farmed cod. “Within a period of four years our fresh farmed cod production in Norway will go from zero to 30,000 tonnes. Put another way, this means 380,000 fresh cod meals every day for a whole year. We are ready to do the same thing with cod as we did with salmon, but much faster.” (http://www.aquacomgroup.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=main.dspReadNews&ID=95). Over the coming years can we therefore expect to see mass escapes of farmed cod, mass mortalities due to disease, the spread of parasites to wild fish and contaminated farmed cod?

It is not so much a leap in the dark as a leap out of the frying pan into the fire. “The bottom line is a change in species could yield some solutions, but may produce a whole new set of problems as well,” writes Ed Hunt in Tidepool. “Indeed, at a time when we are just coming to grips with all the problems caused by farming salmon, we seem to be launching into a whole new unknown”. What we do know for certain, as night turns to day, is that cod farming will inevitably cause similar problems to salmon farming. The species may be different but issues of untreated wastes, escapes, infectious diseases and contaminated fish feed will be the same. Welcome to Groundhog Day down on the fish farm.

The great cod escape

It seems that Nutreco’s blind faith in cod (“We are ready to do the same thing with cod as we did with salmon, but much faster”) is manifesting itself quicker than expected. According to the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, some 75,000 cod escaped from farms during 2003. Nor is this a drop in the ocean – these escapes represented 225 tonnes of farmed cod or equivalent to one-fifth of the cod production in Norway. Speaking to the BBC’s Money Programme (9th June) Nutreco outlined their big plans for cod farming in Norway. Magnus Skretting, who is in charge of Nutreco’s cod project, believes that “the Norwegian industry can produce easily 100,000 tonnes within 2010 and then double it within 2013”. If a fifth of those fish escape then millions of farmed cod will be on the loose in the North Sea alone.

Escapes of cod in Norway thus far represent only the tip of the iceberg. The Atlantic Salmon Federation has also reported escapes of both cod and halibut from farms on the east coast of North America. It seems that cod are nasty little critters – as well as being cannibals they are liable to escape quicker than Steve McQueen from a German concentration camp. “The cod is a right scallywag in escaping from the cages,” said Jørgen Borthen of Sats på Torsk (“Invest in Cod”). According to Mr Borthen, Norwegian cod juvenile production is expected to reach 5 million during 2004 and farmed cod production is estimated at 4,000 tonnes. The great cod escape looks set to continue for years to come - the Norwegian government believes in cod with a passion and have already invested £20m into promoting cod farming. Not to be outshone, the Canadian government is banking on black cod – also known as sablefish.

Sablefish – a salmon in cod’s clothing

British Columbia is fast becoming the battleground for the fight against sablefish farming – salmon farming’s ugly sister. In a desperate attempt to revive failing salmon farms, the government is gearing up to unleash sablefish farms throughout BC. It is not difficult to see why wild fishermen see sablefish farming as posing the same threat as salmon farming. Like farmed salmon, sablefish are susceptible to many potentially devastating pathogens, including those causing furunculosis, Vibriosis, Bacterial Kidney Disease, and Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, all of which cause significant mortality and can reach epidemic levels. Sablefish are also susceptible to various parasites which can cause reduced growth, or affect the marketability of the fish. And because sablefish net pens will likely be located in the nearshore marine environment, they will be in close proximity to juvenile sablefish nursery grounds.

With over 40 salmon farms already approved to farm sablefish instead of salmon, Wild Canada and the Canadian Sablefish Association have launched a campaign to protect wild sablefish. Writing in the Times Colonist (11th June), Eric Wickman, executive director of the Canadian Sablefish Association, said: “Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the story is that to grow just one pound of farmed sablefish or halibut requires catching as much as five pounds of fish elsewhere in the ocean and converting it to feed. In a province that boasts of its commitment to sustainable development, promoting sablefish and halibut farming is nothing short of lunacy. And if our present experience with salmon farming is any indication, we won’t have long to wait before seeing damaged ocean ecosystems and more out-of-work fishers and retailers”.

Target of the protestors’ anger is a sablefish hatchery on Saltspring Island quietly approved last year without a proper environmental assessment by the BC government. “This hatchery is the thin edge of the wedge in a secret transformation of fish farming that could devastate marine ecosystems and a commercial fishery that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans ranks among the best managed in the world,” says Mr Wickham. Local residents, First Nations elders and fishery organizations are challenging Sablefin Hatcheries’ plan. “This is an extremely special place, identified by the government’s own Sensitive Ecosystem Inventory as comprising three rare ecosystem types,” said Donna Martin of Saltspring Residents for Responsible Land Use. “Putting an industrial fish farm hatchery on this sensitive land and discharging its waste into the marine environment is an ecological abomination,” said Georgia Strait Alliance’s Peter Ronald. Residents of Salt Spring are now waiting with baited bad breath – the Environmental Appeal Board will issue its decision some time in August onwards. Meanwhile, the Canadian Sablefish Association is attempting to secure an injunction stopping any farmed sablefish from being reared in sea cages.

Nutreco’s vision for fast (and fatty) food

The world’s largest aquaculture company, Nutreco (owner of Marine Harvest), has been presenting its myopic vision for the future of aquaculture. Like a fatty farmed salmon fillet it is not a pretty sight. Speakers at the “AquaVision” (http://www.aquavision.nu/index.html) conference in Stavanger, Norway, last month included Ray Cesca, a food business expert and former Managing Director for World Trade at McDonald’s. “To build a durable business producing fish for consumers, the aquaculture industry must first learn to understand its markets,” advises Mr Cesca. “This means finding out what is happening in the food industry. What changes are taking place in food service? Are fast food restaurants increasing?”.

Why Nutreco is looking to Ronald McDonald for business advice is unclear: do Nutreco want to supply McDonald’s fast food outlets with McSalmon burgers or McCod nuggets? Or is Nutreco interested in how McDonald’s defended itself against lawsuits in the United States over high fat levels in its food? (Nutreco, along with other salmon farming companies such as Stolt, Fjord Seafood, Heritage, Pan Fish and Mainstream, are subject to legal action in the United States over high levels of PCBs in farmed salmon.)

“As an industry, we’re not perfect, and we should improve where we’re sub-optimal,” conceded Nutreco CEO Wout Dekker as he closed AquaVision 2004. “But we have a right to – and should – defend ourselves. We see bad communication as a risk to the reputation and brand of seafood”. AquaVision also saw the unveiling of the newly-formed PR lobby group ‘Salmon of Europe’ – Europe’s answer to the ‘Salmon of the Americas’ initiative launched last year in North and South America. Europe’s salmon farmers – headed by Nutreco - desperately want to protect their market in the European Union. Figures for 2003 show that Norway has 62% market share, compared to 24% for Scotland, 7% for the Faroes, 3% for Ireland and 4% for Chile.

“War on rumours and misleading information”

Nutreco’s lobbying during AquaVision reaped immediate dividends – Fisheries Ministers and government officials from Norway, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Chile and the Netherlands agreed to pursue a joint initiative: “We agreed together that there is a world-wide need for better communication with consumers on the beneficial health effects of seafood, particularly fish which are high in omega-3 oils” said Norwegian Minister of Fisheries, Svein Lugvigsen. “We also agreed on the need to work more in harmony with each other both in proactive terms, in support of the benefits to consumers of eating fish, and in the release of good, accurate information when the industry is incorrectly criticised. We’re all in the same boat - we have to co-operate to respond to misleading information. We have to convince the consumer of the correct information”. The Minister went on to describe the meeting as the start of a ‘war on rumours and misleading information’.

Leading the way is Dutch retail giant company Royal Ahold (with sales of €72.7 billion in 2002 and 9,000 stores in the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia making it is the world’s largest food distributor): “We must have more, not less farmed fish in our diet, which is otherwise in danger of making us obese,” says Alfons Schmid ignoring the fact that farmed salmon is ca. 12-18% fat (wild Alaskan salmon can be as low as 1%). “If opponents of the industry say the opposite and base this claim on undocumented data or assumed conclusions, we must take a hard line against these parties. When clearly orchestrated, misleading information is circulated in the media, such as we have seen lately from the United States, then the industry has to actively go on the counter-attack”.

Warming to his theme in the lead up to a brain-storming session at AquaVision called “Myths and Facts” Mr Schmid threatened legal action against those responsible: “It is unacceptable that misleading propaganda campaigns, without a shred of credence, can be allowed to ruin vital food production. It’s necessary to act with firm action, and even consider taking judicial action against those people and organisations that promote incorrect and misleading ‘evidence’ about fish cultivation”. Royal Ahold is no stranger to the courts itself – last year it was embroiled in an embarrassing and costly investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. Department of Justice and independent auditors following $500m in “accounting irregularities”. The Wall Street Journal reported in March 2003 that its US subsidiary Foodservice may have failed to pass on million of dollars in rebates to the US government.

They said it

A new “They Said It” section on salmon farming issues is now online on the award-winning Save The Swilly web-site. Key quotes include:

“Salmon is a wonderful food if it is not contaminated. But if it’s contaminated, it is no longer a wonderful food” (Dr David Carpenter)

“Absolutely nothing would induce me to buy farmed salmon - I would never even poach a farmed salmon. I would rather eat one fine wild fish caught in season in the west of Ireland where I spend my summers, than all the flabby, oily, greasy specimens that are kept in a cage and sold year round” (Tamsin Day Lewis)

“A salmon farm of 200,000 fish releases an amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and fecal matter roughly equivalent to the nutrient waste in the untreated sewage from 20,000, 25,000 and 65,000 people, respectively” (Professor Ron Hardy)

“The point we are making is that even when salmon farmers follow the rules, bad things happen” (National Environmental Law Centre)

“Salmon farmers have spent all of their energy refuting health claims instead of trying to clean up the industry” (Jennifer Lash)

“Fish farms cannot be allowed in a country that considers itself civilised….In future, people will surely look back on these early years of fish farming and see in them the equivalent of conditions before the great Victorian Factory Acts: in a word, uncivilised” (Adam Nicolson)