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International News, May 2004

Wild salmon extinction in Canada

“A researcher whose past work has caused heated debate on the Pacific Coast says she has new data showing fish farms are to blame for sea-lice infestations in wild salmon,” reports the Globe and Mail (28th April). Alexandra Morton, who has been criticized for linking farms to a massive collapse of salmon stocks in several rivers, said a spring survey in the Broughton Archipelago indicates wild salmon in the area are facing extinction. “If this continues, in the end you won't have wild fish,” Ms. Morton said. “I truly am watching . . . an extinction”. Morton sampled 5,000 juvenile wild salmon and found they became infested with sea lice as they swam past fish farms. “Before they hit a farm, they look fine. Then they become infested with lice, and within a few kilometres there's no more salmon [left alive]. . . . It takes very, very few lice to kill them. Within a short time, they wither down to a whip of a body behind their head. . . . They are dead in a few weeks”.

Morton told BCTV (27th April): “I've looked at over 5,000 fish since the beginning of March, and I look at them and release them. I'm able to count the lice and set them free again. And, in the beginning, in March, it was about 70 percent were infected with a few, but now it's close to a hundred percent infected with five to 10 lice, which is about, you know, 10 lice too many. I think this run is going extinct. I cannot see how any of them can survive”. A documentary – “Alexandra’s Echo” – aired on Canadian television on 1st May. As BCTV explains: “It chronicles her lifetime work at first saving the killer whale and now B.C.'s wild salmon. She spent four exhausting years studying the sea lice problem, and the problem is that sea lice kills salmon, especially babies. Canada's former fisheries minister is outraged that the Department of Fisheries is not in the Broughton right now corroborating or debunking Morton's findings. With two of her studies now published in reputable science magazines, clearly this is an issue worthy of investigating. Morton certainly believes she is seeing the beginning of the end of B.C.'s wild salmon population”.

In 2001, Ms. Morton predicted a collapse of wild pink salmon stocks in the Broughton area, between northern Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, saying fish farms had caused a major sea-lice infestation. Salmon runs in several rivers in the area fell from about four million fish to about 150,000. As Dr Dick Shelton once famously told New Scientist of the link between sea lice and salmon farms: “It’s as plain as the nose on your face” (http://www.salmonfarmmonitor.org/guest.shtml).

Farmed and dangerous

The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform’s “Farmed and Dangerous” campaign is making headway in North America. The “Farmed and Dangerous” web-site include a list of “Farmed Free Restaurants and Retailers” and a new “Store Finder” tool that allows consumers to look up their local Safeway and Whole Foods locations all over North America. Despite the many reported environmental and health concerns associated with farmed salmon, stores like Safeway and Whole Foods continue to sell farmed salmon to their customers – find out where. A newsletter and action alert service have also just been launched.

As CAAR explain: “The Farmed and Dangerous Campaign puts activists to work demonstrating to industry that the public will not tolerate harmful salmon farming practices. By insisting on products made in a more sustainable way, retailers and consumers can provide a powerful incentive for fish farmers to improve harmful industrial salmon farming practices. Our campaign has had tremendous growth and success over the past year and we would like to thank all of you – our supporters for making this happen. With your continued support, we are confident that the salmon farming industry will reform to make their products safe for us and for our oceans”.

Legal goes wild!

One restaurant chain taking the “Farmed and Dangerous” message to heart is Legal Seafoods. In a press release (28th April) Legal Seafoods unveiled a new partnership to dramatically increase its use of wild salmon flown fresh from Alaska. “This is a very exciting move,” said Roger Berkowitz, President and CEO. “While we’ve always held wild salmon in very high regard, it’s been difficult to get enough product on a consistent basis year-round, hence our reliance on farmed product. Now, thanks to an agreement with the State of Alaska itself, Legal will be able to offer guests tremendously new and varied choices in healthy dining.”

Starting May 17th, Legal will launch a major new culinary initiative, that of the preferential use of Alaskan wild salmon. According to Berkowitz, the timing is perfect. “Newly-established arrangements directly with Alaskan processors will make more wild product available to us over a much longer season. Legal always reaches out for the best possible ingredients, and wild salmon is blessed with incredibly high levels of healthful omega-3 oils. So the time is right to go with the purest, most natural option. In the next few months, everyone in this company is going to be hearing and reading and learning much, much more about the virtues of wild salmon from Alaska.”

According to Ann Flannery, Director of Marketing, a major publicity campaign will ensue in the Spring to support Legal’s program. A television commercial will be filmed onsite in Alaska and radio and print materials will support the message. Contests, kick-off tasting parties, and in-store decorative materials will all be designed to add to the excitement about wild salmon. Designers are busy coming up with a logo, a suitable name, press kits, and fun collateral materials to enhance the ‘wild’ approach. “Taste tests have shown most consumers believe wild product tastes better, more authentic, and more flavorful than farmed salmon,” Flannery says. “If we can find a way to get enough product in here, often enough, and at a reasonable price, then it just makes more sense for our company. Legal believes in offering the best, freshest, and most wholesome and unadulterated food products we can find, and Alaska wild salmon certainly fits that profile.” The initiative, launched under an agreement with the State of Alaska, is expected to more than double Legal Sea Foods' purchases of wild salmon and reduce its use of farmed salmon.

Organic label muddies the waters

An article – “Organic label muddies the waters” – in the San Francisco Chronicle (28th April) has re-opened the can of worms that is “organic” salmon. “We find it to be a crock,” says Tom Worthington at Monterey Fish, a sustainably inclined San Francisco wholesaler with a retail market in Berkeley. He's not selling the so-called “organic” farmed salmon. At Berkeley Bowl, fish manager Ted Iijima agrees with Worthington. And he says 9 out of 10 of his customers are ‘anti-farmed fish’. “For fish, who can truly say it's organic? And who sets the guidelines for that? I get off the boat there”.

As journalist Carol Ness writes: “Organic salmon” reads the sign stuck into pretty, deep-pink fillets in Tower Market's fish case. Same goes at Drewes market in Noe Valley. Ver Brugge's in Oakland's Rockridge calls the salmon ‘organically fed’. Up in Larkspur, Yankee Pier's menu boasts ‘grilled organic chinook salmon’. At $8 to $10 a pound, sales of the fish have been climbing in the Bay Area for the last few months. With wild salmon out of season for months at a time, consumers alarmed by reports of PCBs, dioxin and other contaminants in conventionally farmed salmon are snapping up this new alternative…..There's just one catch: It's not organic. Fish can't be certified organic in the United States, because federal rules governing organic foods don't cover fish”.

“It's kind of consumer beware,” says Brian Leahy, president of California Certified Organic Farmers. Whole Foods has chosen not to call any fish organic, even if it's certified by another country that does have standards. “We don't feel comfortable with some of the overseas certifiers,” says national seafood manager Dick Jones. And different countries have different standards. “It's very confusing to us when seafood is labeled organic because we don't know just what that means,” he says. “We think that until it's defined, it's also confusing to the consumer”. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which governs organic rules in the United States, is also under pressure from Alaska to allow wild-caught salmon to be called organic. “Why would anyone want farmed king salmon when we're entering the (wild) king salmon season soon, and it's already organic and living on its own and doing what it does?” asks Worthington. But is anyone listening?

Film-fest for fish fans

Two new films exposing the problems of sea cage fish farming are being broadcast across the United States. “Farming the Seas” is Habitat Media’s follow up to the landmark PBS documentary “Empty Oceans Empty Nets. The new sequel examines the explosive problems and bountiful potential of aquaculture, a global industry that seems to be going in two very different directions at once. From colourful locations around the world, different approaches to fish farming are presented, some embroiled in heated controversy. Revealing commentary is provided by shrimp farmers in Thailand, salmon farmers in British Columbia, tuna farmers in Spain, and by world-renown scientists including Sylvia Earle, Jane Lubchenco, Daniel Pauly, Carl Safina, Jeremy Jackson, David Suzuki, and Ransom Myers. The film also explores the powerful influence which citizens and consumers can have on the future direction of aquaculture.

“Net Loss - The Storm Over Salmon Farming” is Moving Images’ take on salmon farming. Filmed in British Columbia, Washington, and Chile, the excellent film examines this industrial approach to producing salmon from both local and global perspectives. Government and industry spokesmen make the case for salmon farming, and fishermen, native people, scientists and chefs explain the dangers it may pose for the environment, human health, and coastal cultures. Those who appear include whale biologist Alexandra Morton, Joseph McGonigle of Aqua Bounty Farms, Rodrigo Infante of Salmonchile, Seth Zuckerman, co-author of Salmon Nation, former Canadian MP Lynn Hunter, Chief Bill Cranmer, Namgis First Nation, and independent fishermen North and South.

“Net Loss shines a much-needed light on the fact that not all salmon are created equal,” says Bill Mott, Director of SeaWeb Aquaculture Clearinghouse. “The well-balanced film clearly shows that there are major issues associated with farming salmon. The film basically asks, what price, in terms of environmental and social costs, are we as consumers willing to pay for the flood of cheap farmed salmon?”. Video copies available from: video@bullfrogfilms.com

SOTA in top “Ten Worst Greenwashers of 2003”

And this year’s award for science fiction goes to……Salmon of the Americas (SOTA) A report - the “Ten Worst Greenwashers of 2003” – published in April names and shames SOTA for deliberately misleading consumers of the safety of contaminated farmed salmon: “Salmon of the Americas offers concerned consumers a biased interpretation of fact and fiction about farmed salmon and PCBs,” says the report from Greenlife. “SOTA is well-practiced in the art of illusion. Farmed salmon are fed artificial dyes to match the color of wild salmon, which develop their characteristic pink-orange hue from a natural diet. But there is far more at stake than aesthetics when SOTA attempts to greenwash its image. The health of people - particularly children - and the marine environment are threatened by SOTA’s lack of concern about high-levels of PCBs and the environmental impact of aquaculture”.

On January 1st - a week before the Science report was published - SOTA hired Dr. Charles Santerre as a paid consultant to help downplay the damaging study in the media, and to recommend that, if Americans should change their salmon consumption at all, they should increase it. SOTA’s third-party tactics went largely unnoticed by the media. ABC News and the LA Times, reporting on the study the day it was published, described Santerre as a “professor of food and nutrition” and “food toxicologist”, respectively. In the UK too, the West Highland Free Press, The Scotsman and The Sunday Times also fell hook, line and sinker for SOTA’s greenwashing.

Flame retardants in farmed salmon

The heat is being turned up yet higher on contaminated farmed salmon. Salmon farmers are bracing themselves for another scientific paper by the same research team who found DDT, dioxins, PCBs, toxaphene and ten other cancer-causing chemicals in farmed salmon. Dr. David Carpenter of the State University of New York at Albany, co-author of the recent study published in Science, submitted a paper on flame retardants in wild and farmed salmon to the journal Environmental Science and Technology in early March – salmon farmers are waiting with baited bad breath.

The news that farmed salmon contains significantly higher levels of flame retardants than wild salmon is bound to make the salmon farming industry hot under the collar. Salmon of the Americas is sweating already. “We intend to take a lead role among the food industries,” spluttered SOTA’s Alex Trent as they unveiled preliminary results of their own testing of flame retardants in farmed and wild salmon. Trent said early testing found levels of between 0.4 and 5.5 parts per billion in farmed salmon and 0.2 to 2.8 ppb in wild salmon. SOTA used a total of 33 Canadian farmed salmon and 21 wild fish for their testing, for a total of 11 farmed and 7 wild composite samples.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (exposed in a recent article in the Sunday Times as blatantly pro-salmon farming) is also trying to douse the flames in advance of publication. A new report concludes that the consumption of weekly portions of wild eel and trout swimming in a river system near a fire-retardant producing factory poses a minimal health threat. Tests of fish samples from the Skerne-Tees river system on the County Durham and North Yorkshire border were conducted after reports of higher levels of flame retardants downstream from the factory.

The FSA study comes in the wake of a damning report by WWF on flame retardants in wild fish. Researchers from Spanish and Norwegian universities investigating the airborne spread of flame retardants (PBDEs) found lakes across Europe contaminated. Dr Richard Dixon, head of policy at WWF Scotland, said: “It is shocking that even remote parts of Scotland are contaminated with these chemicals….Fish are at the top of the food chain, so these persistent chemicals build up in their organs. Humans are a top predator too, so the only long-term solution is to phase out these chemicals entirely”. The WWF is campaigning for tighter regulation of chemicals in Europe and hopes to push environmental issues up the political agenda ahead of European elections in June. In the meantime, consumers ought to give European fish a wide berth.

Dioxins in Baltic wild salmon

Some good bad news for the beleaguered European salmon farming industry – wild salmon from the Baltic are also contaminated with dioxins. On March 31st, the Danish government banned all salmon fishing in the Baltic Sea due to dioxin contamination in wild Atlantic salmon. The Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture followed the Danish lead and immediately banned salmon imports from the Baltic Sea. Denmark’s minister of Foods, Agriculture and Maritime Fishery, Fischer Boel said: “Dioxin contamination is a common problem in Europe, and we will be reporting the test results to the European Commission and other Member States to ensure a single stance on the management of this type of contamination”.

According to the AFP news agency (2nd April), contamination levels of 30 salmon tested exceeded five to 85 per cent of the maximum authorised limit. Dioxin contamination in wild salmon is not surprising – in 2000 the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Animal Nutrition concluded that fish from European waters were eight times more contaminated than those caught in the Southern hemisphere. It is these contaminated wild caught fish that are the raw material for fish feeds for farmed trout, salmon and even pigs, sheep and chickens. The European Commission is currently compiling an inventory of dioxins and PCBs in a range of foods including wild and farmed salmon. The results will be published at the end of this year.

Job losses in Norway and Faroes

The salmon farming industry in Norway and the Faroes – fingered in the Science paper alongside Scotland as having the world’s most contaminated farmed salmon – is in dire financial straits. In April the Faroe Islands’ largest aquaculture company Vestlax laid off a number of employees, and more are expected to lose their jobs over the coming months. According to the Faroese newspaper Dimmalætting, Vestlax gave notice to a number of its employees at its headquarters in Kollafjørður. Diseases and mass escapes have plagued the Faroese salmon farming industry. Infectious Salmon Anaemia has closed down several farms with many more placed in quarantine.

The Norwegian multinational Cermaq is also losing millions via their Scottish subsidiary Mainstream Scotland. Disease problems and poor profits mean that Mainstream will now focus on a smaller number of larger farms in order to maximise “potential for economies of scale and cost efficiency”. Another Norwegian company – Stolt – is in a similar boat. Last year they were $6.2 million in the red. As well as Atlantic salmon, Stolt Sea Farm - a Stolt subsidiary – farms trout, turbot, halibut, sturgeon, bluefin tuna, and tilapia. Perhaps Stolt are preparing the way for a life after contaminated farmed salmon? Rats deserting a sinking ship?

Chilean workers are revolting

Staff working in Chilean processing plants have had too much farmed salmon to stomach – so they have gone on strike. Workers at Los Fiordos (a subsidiary of Canadian-owned Heritage) have spent several weeks on strike already this year. Disgruntled employees were protesting against low wages and workers rights. Whilst workers wanted a raise in wages of 40,000 CLP (ca. US$ 65 monthly) Los Fiordos were proposing an increase of only 1,000 CLP (a little less than US$ 2).

Chilean workers are clearly unhappy that the US$ 1,200 million industry is not reaping rewards for those on the shop floor. “I think that on the one hand you generate commercial and financial success, and on the other side of the fence you see badly-paid workers,” said Marcelo Albornoz, Assistant Labour Bureau Director. “When there is growth without equality, the conflicts will multiply and especially in those emerging sectors that have no negotiation history and tradition.”

A conference – “Corporate Social Responsibility, Salmon Farming and the Rights of the Coastal Communities and Workers of the Sea” – was also organised by Centro Ecoceanos in April. Labour Inspection Office representative, Victor Inostroza, rattled some salmon cages when he described Chile as having “the weakest labour legislation in Latin America”. He claimed that the government only had the capacity to control 12% of the salmon farm installations, and that in the Los Lagos Region (X region) there are infractions of the law at almost 73% of the companies. Mauricio Henríquez, president of the Newen Trade Union of the salmon company Los Fiordos-Agrosuper, confirmed that most if not all trade unions are not sufficiently trained on civil rights aspects.