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International News, February 2004

New study links sea lice to wild salmon decline

The first scientific published report on the impacts of lice on juvenile Pacific salmon has demonstrated a link between sea lice from fish farms and the decline of certain wild salmon stocks in Canada's Pacific Ocean. Results of the study by a team of Canadian researchers appear in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, the leading Canadian peer-reviewed scientific fisheries journal. “This study confirmed that where there are fish farms, there are sea lice. Where there are no fish farms there are no sea lice. That connection is now established,” said lead author Alexandra Morton, a registered professional biologist. The paper, based on a 10-week study led by Morton, shows that wild fish were significantly more infected with parasitic sea lice when near salmon farms.

Morton and her three co-authors measured sea lice levels on juvenile pink and chum salmon in the Broughton Archipelago off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. The area is home to 28 salmon farms, the densest concentration of fish farms on the British Columbia coast. They compared sea lice levels near salmon farms to those found on juvenile salmon 75-400 km away from the Broughton Archipelago. “We found 3 cases of sea lice in a sample of 1,018 juvenile salmon outside of the Broughton Archipelago. Within the Broughton Archipelago,” where there are 28 Atlantic salmon farms, “we found 4,338 of this species of sea louse on 1,138 salmon,” - a 1,000-fold difference, said Morton. Her study showed potentially lethal levels of infection in 90 percent of wild juvenile salmon. Morton believes the young native salmon become infected when they swim near the farms during their migration from freshwater streams to the open ocean.

“Our study has enormous implications for public policy as it would appear that some areas of this coast are not suitable for fish farming,” says Morton. “We are seeing the consequences of fish farms in wild salmon nurseries such as the Broughton Archipelago where baby wild salmon are exposed to the massive salmon farms when they are just too small to survive the threats. We are accepting risk to another of our most-productive rivers if we allow this industry into the nursery waters off the Skeena River”.

Morton said that to preserve native salmon stocks, “the farm fish have to be separated from the wild fish. There are alternative technologies that allow farmers to grow fish in facilities that provide a barrier to the marine environment”. A barrier would prevent transfer of disease and parasites between the farmed and wild fish. “I don't see harming wild salmon as a prerequisite to farming salmon. Pink salmon are the ecological bloodstream of BC, essential to tourism, logging, fishing and First Nations. It seems a waste to feed them to sea lice”. The study is available on-line.

More Science where that came from

“The Scottish fish farming industry has been accused of desperately trying to intimidate the scientists who raised the alarm about the dangers of eating salmon contaminated with toxic chemicals,” writes Rob Edwards in The Sunday Herald (29th February). But the scientists are fighting back at what they do best – science. Dr David Carpenter, one of the co-authors of the offending study published in Science in January, says he is totally unrepentant about his study warning people that eating salmon farmed in Scotland more than three times a year would significantly increase their chances of getting cancer. Dr Carpenter is scathing about the salmon farming industry’s widely-reported threat to take him to court. “There is absolutely no basis at all for legal action, I think it would only make the industry look even more foolish than it does. We will vigorously defend our data to anybody, whether it be to lawyers or the public. I think it’s sabre-rattling and trying to intimidate us, and we’re not intimidated by that. We want it to have an economic impact because we feel that the product it is making at present is harmful to people. It causes cancer.”

Of Scottish Quality Salmon’s smear campaign against the Science study Dr Carpenter says: “They can’t discredit the science, so they are trying to discredit the public relations. I am a public health physician and, for a certain number of people, this is a matter of life and death. It was really very necessary that our results were not tucked away in some scientific paper where only a few academics would ever see them.” Dr Carpenter argued that the Science study underestimated the health risks, focusing only on cancers that could be triggered by three contaminants. This was only “the tip of the iceberg” – Dr Carpenter is planning to publish up to six more studies examining risks to the immune system, to hormones and to the intelligence of young children. And in a parting shot at the UK’s Food Standards Agency, who have dutifully protected the Scottish salmon farming industry rather than public health ever since the Science study was published, Dr Carpenter accused them of being “pretty incredibly arrogant and ignorant”.

International boycott

Judging by free-falling sales of farmed salmon across the world, it seems the public trust the Science rather than the “arrogant and ignorant” Government. Scottish Quality Salmon is looking very foolish indeed. “Scottish salmon sales have plummeted after a controversial report claimed it was among the most contaminated in the world, according to supermarket figures released yesterday,” reported The Scotsman (16th February). According to newly released supermarket figures, sales of Scottish farmed salmon have fallen by a fifth and producers have reported a drop in orders worth £10m. The biggest impact has come from France, Scotland’s biggest export market, where sales have dropped by up to a third. In some other European countries sales have fallen by 80% as shoppers switch to salmon produced in New Zealand and North and South America.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London, told The Sunday Times (15th February) that he was not surprised that shoppers in Britain and abroad had turned their backs on Scottish salmon. “A drop of a fifth in a month indicates that a lot of consumers have taken notice. It’s easy to lose sales but hard to win them back. The Scottish salmon industry is going to have to work very hard to show consumers, objectively and independently, that salmon feeds are less contaminated.” Shoppers are clearly voting with their feet and it could be the death-knell for the industry. The industry is trying to defend the indefensible by suggesting work published in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals is wrong. You cannot argue with the facts and they are clearly that Scottish farmed salmon is unsafe and a health hazard.

Chicken of the sea

In turning to farmed salmon from New Zealand instead of contaminated Scottish salmon, consumers may be getting more than they bargained for though. “Two of the country's largest salmon companies are feeding their fish ground poultry feathers,” reported New Zealand’s The Sunday Star Times (1st February). “But the companies, New Zealand King Salmon and Sanford, both say feathermeal is safe. It is a by-product of chicken processed for human consumption, heat-treated and hydrolysed to make the feathermeal, then heat-treated again to remove any traces of bacteria”.

Green MP Sue Kedgley was shocked by the practice because with tests being done on potential risks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in chicken, she was concerned the bacteria could then be spread through the salmon. She thought it “bizarre” that salmon would be fed chicken feathers: “I don’t believe we ought to be feeding animals to fish”. Mt Cook Salmon general manager Rick Ramsay said the company did not use feathermeal in its salmon feed and would not because of the potential damage to its image. “We don’t use chemicals, and we only use fish meal. Even if we needed an extra protein source, I wouldn’t be keen to use it”.

A week later on Radio New Zealand (10th February), chief executive of New Zealand King Salmon, Paul Steere, claimed New Zealand were not the only country in the world using chicken feathers in their salmon feed. The Salmon Farm Protest Group has now written to all the major salmon farming producers asking whether this is true. Such practices make the phrase “Chicken of the Sea” much more apt. But if God had meant salmon to eat chickens he would have given them a bushy tail and called them a fox. Do salmon farmers who run out of fish feed pop down to the Kentucky Fried Chicken drive thru and get a KFC bargain bucket take away? Salmon farmers who use feathermeal are trying to defend the indefensible – they do not have a chicken leg to stand on.

Vegetarians who also eat fish would be horrified to find out farmed salmon had been fed on chicken feathers. By the same token Jewish consumers of kosher salmon would not be best pleased if salmon were fed on rendered animal protein from pigs (ditto for Hindus re: cow products). As an article in the Globe and Mail (3rd February) concluded: “You are not only what you eat, but what you eat eats”.

Mad as a fish

Many people would argue that you would have to be mad to eat farmed salmon. But farmed salmon giving you mad fish disease – now that’s a completely different kettle of fish. It is becoming clear that there is a potential for fish to catch a piscine version of mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). An article – “Prions get fishy” – published in Nature last year stated that: “Fish, like sheep, elk and humans, could suffer a version of ‘mad cow disease’, or BSE, preliminary evidence suggests. The results might help to reveal how the disease jumps from species to species”.

A ban on any mammalian meat and bone meal from farm animals being fed to fish has been in place in Britain since 1996, cutting a theoretical route of BSE infection on fish farms but the risk is still there. The world’s largest salmon farming company, Nutreco, have conducted trials in Australia using “meat, meat and bone, blood, feather, poultry meals” and “rendered animal products” in farmed salmon diets. Skretting Australia (a subsidiary of Nutreco) also manufacturer fish feed for barramundi farms containing Land Animal Protein (LAP). “This product contains restricted animal material – do not feed to cattle, goats, sheep, deer and other ruminants,” reads one of their labels. With fish oil and fish meal increasingly depleted, contaminated and extremely expensive the temptation is clearly there for salmon farmers to use LAP (the same argument holds for GM vegetables with enhanced Omega 3s).

The European Commission’s Scientific Steering Committee last year tackled the subject of whether even feeding fish meal (not LAP) to farmed fish constituted a risk of TSE. Whilst it believed that the risk was not proved it stated that “these possibilities cannot be totally excluded”. Presumably the risk increases if you start feeding salmon with meat and bone meal, feathers, etc? Research is now ongoing and more studies are taking place. According to an article - “Search for BSE type disease turns to fish farms” – published in the Guardian in 2002 the UK’s Food Standards Agency’s are investigating this issue.

Nutreco’s net loss

You need to be an anorak accountant or a whiz kid at maths to read Nutreco’s accounts for 2003 – but they don’t look good in anyone’s language. Net sales for 2003 were €3,674.3 million – down 3.6% on the previous year. The 2003 result after impairment was a net loss of EUR 137.1 million. As well as being the world’s largest salmon farming and fish feed company Nutreco is also one of Europe’s largest pig and poultry farmers (it certainly has a lot of pig fat and chicken feathers to get rid of that’s for sure).

Nutreco’s fish feed and animal nutrition operations, including speciality feed and feed supplements (premixes), saw almost €2billion in sales – more than 50% of total group sales. Consumer products in poultry saw sales of €720 million; pork had sales of €450 million, and salmon and other types of farmed fish sales of €500 million. Nutreco’s Aquaculture’s operating result (EBITA) before impairment of concessions amounted to €69.9 million, down 3.1% on the result for 2002. Normalised for incidental gains and losses in 2002 and 2003, EBITA before impairment of concessions was €41.5 million, a drop of 32.7% compared with 2002.

Their financial plight is so bad that Nutreco was forced to take an impairment of €193.1 million on goodwill, concessions, and non-consolidated companies (including tax effects). In 2003 Nutreco closed two processing plants in Norway and one in Scotland (in 2002 they closed another two). In Norway alone over 200 jobs were lost – over a quarter (26%) of their payroll. In Scotland, 82 jobs (15% of the payroll) went down the drain with the prospect of more to come. Nutreco is also embroiled in a multi-million dollar lawsuit in the United States – it is accused of fraudulently short-weighting on a supermarket contract. Given all the contaminants in farmed salmon these days I would have thought being given short measures of farmed salmon was a good thing!

Slice is not nice

Salmon farmers’ reliance upon toxic chemicals is leaving a trial of destruction in their wake. Emamectin benzoate (manufactured by the US pharmaceutical giant Schering Plough) has recently been found in wild scallops near a salmon farm in Maine, USA. Tests carried out by Heritage Salmon at Birch Point in Cobscook Bay found emamectin benzoate contamination at three times the food safety limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The National Environmental Law Centre say the discovery warrants a warning to harvesters and seafood consumers - the area is a commercial fishery for scallops, lobster and Pollock. The NELC have also called on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to conduct rigorous, comprehensive monitoring of non-target marine organisms for residues of drugs and other chemicals used at salmon farms. Other sediment scavengers such as prawns, shrimps and crabs are also at risk and may be contaminated with emamectin benzoate.

The findings in the U.S. are confirmed by report - “The Occurrence of the Active Ingredients of Sea Lice Treatments in Sediments Adjacent to Marine Fish Farms” -published in February by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. SEPA found residues of ivermectin, emamectin benzoate, teflubenzuron and cypermethrin in 11% of sediments sampled under salmon cages. Emamectin was detected in the flesh of farmed salmon but “well below the maximum safe limit for human consumption”. Emamectin was also detected under the salmon farms at 3 times more than the “monitoring trigger value within 25m of the cage edges, indicating that surveillance monitoring effort should be reviewed to ensure that there is no adverse impact on sediment re-worker fauna.”

These findings are hardly surprising – residues of emamectin used in agriculture have been found in soil, water and crops growing in contaminated soil. Emamectin leaches into the marine environment months after treatment and is extremely persistent – it hangs around even longer than the mother-in-law. Schering Plough’s catchy sales slogan of emamectin is “Slice kills lice”. Yes, but it also kills also crustaceans such as lobsters, crabs and shrimp – Slice is not nice at all.

The polluter gets paid principle

The incestuous relationship between the Government and the salmon farming industry has turned “the polluter pays principle” on its head. The San Francisco Chronicle (6th February) headline “B.C. forgives fish farms for more than $1.7 million in fines” says it all. Documents obtained by the Sierra Legal Defense Fund show that the British Columbia government refunded hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to fish farmers and forgave other fines shortly after the Liberal party took office in May 2001. The salmon farming industry had been let off the hook for as much as $2.3 million (US$1.74 million) in fines.

“We don’t know the full fiscal impact, because we don’t have the full story,” said Tim Howard, a Sierra Legal lawyer. “Handing the fines back to the industry sends the wrong message. It encourages companies to knowingly violate their licences, and short-changes the taxpayer. An independent investigation is needed to shine a light on these fishy dealings”. T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation Executive Director David Lane added, “Instead of the salmon farming industry complying with government regulations and fines, the government is bending over backwards to comply with the wishes of the salmon farming industry”. In the warped world of salmon farming the polluter gets paid.

Out of sight, out of mind

Fish farmers are now looking to move further offshore to evade public scrutiny. The Los Angeles Times (13th February) report that a San Diego firm have announced that it wants to use an old oil platform off Ventura County to create a commercial fish farm, the first of its kind on the West Coast to specialize in fin fish. The nonprofit Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute wants to use Venoco Inc.'s decommissioned Grace platform, in waters about 10 miles west of Ventura, to build an experimental operation that could produce up to 300 tons of fish annually.

For the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy this is a leap too far. “I just don't think we need offshore aquaculture in our oceans. It's a pipe dream, it's like exploring the moon and it has ominous implications,” said IATP’s Mike Skladany. In a new report – “Open Ocean Aquaculture” - issued in February the IATP asserts that a bill pending in Congress that encourages the use of decommissioned oil rigs for aquaculture would create a “new giant bio-polluting industry”. Open ocean aquaculture is the practice of fish farming from three to 200 miles off the coast. The IATP report calls for a moratorium on commercial open ocean aquaculture development until national aquaculture legislation is adopted and comprehensive, open and transparent regulations are formalized.

The big fish that got away

The inherent risks of offshore aquaculture were rammed home by a new paper – “Transgenic male mating advantage provides opportunity for Trojan gene effect in a fish” - published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Genetically engineered fish could doom wild fish populations according to a Purdue University research team. Although the genetically modified fish will be bigger and have more success at attracting mates, they may also produce offspring that are less likely to survive to adulthood, the researchers say. If this occurs a population could dwindle in size over time and potentially disappear entirely.

“Ours is the first demonstration that a genetically modified organism has a reproductive advantage over its natural counterpart,” said Rick Howard, a professor of biological sciences in Purdue’s School of Science. “Though altering animals' genes can be good for humans in the short run, it may prove catastrophic for nature in the long run if not done with care. And we do not know just what kind of care is necessary yet, or how much. With all the concern over whether transgenic food is safe for humans, the environment has been more or less left out of the picture. Plenty of laboratories are studying whether genetically modified organisms are safe for human consumption, but to my knowledge, ours is the only one that looks at whether they will be safe for the Earth” ().