Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How Marine Harvest stole the fish farms

An enclosed, land-based aquaponics fish farm. Photo socialearth.org
The public overwhelmingly supports Alexandra Morton's campaign to remove open-pen fish farms from BC's waters. In particular, Alex's recent demand that fish farms disclose all their disease-related data since the beginning of their operations is extremely well received in the general public. It is fair to say that, today, the campaign has gained tremendous momentum and could be reaching critical mass. Victory is now a clear and distinct possibility.

Those observations made a recent conversation I participated in all the more distressing.

I was meeting with an old friend at a coffee shop and he introduced me to two of his friends. The conversation rapidly landed on the topic of fish farms. They were both enthusiastically sympathetic to Alex's cause. I was cruising, enjoying the pleasure of finding myself in such friendly territory without even having to work at it. Then one of them said: you know, the problem with farmed salmon is that it tastes awful. The wild salmon has this “gamy” flavor which cannot be replicated in a fish farm.

Whoa, hold it there buddy. I was stupefied by what I had just heard. Is that what we have reduced the wild vs. farmed salmon issue to –  a mere consumer debate?

I told my new acquaintance that if, tomorrow morning, Marine Harvest got its act together, took all of its fish farms out of the ocean and brought them inland into properly contained systems, I would applaud loudly. That, moreover, if Marine Harvest took the additional steps of rendering its farming operations sustainable by (a) finding alternative feed sources to ocean fishing by-catch and (b) ensuring the proper recycling of its waste – I would become Marine Harvest's most faithful customer.

As for the actual taste of salmon, I told him, I couldn't care less.

I love the taste of sockeye, don't get me wrong. It's one of my most intense and rewarding culinary pleasures in life. But I would give it up without hesitation if that could save this magnificent species from extinction. Hell, I've already done that! I have hardly eaten any sockeye in the past 3 years because of collapsing runs. In 2010, I have feasted on sockeye knowing full well that I may have to renounce it for good as early as next year. Because – no matter how tasty the flesh of a sockeye is – it does not come close to the transformative experience of watching the sockeye return to its river to spawn.

Why in the world did I have to remind this well-intentioned person of such basic and self-evident truisms about wild and farmed salmon? How did we ever get here?

It made me realize that Marine Harvest's impact goes further than just the potential eradication of the wild salmon itself. Another secondary and far reaching impact is that, through its operations, this corporation is instilling in people a deep and long lasting hatred for fish farming in general. The problem is that if we start hating fish farms, we and the oceans are in deep, deep trouble indeed.

Fish farms were supposed to be a positive and workable solution to the awful plague of ocean overfishing. High-tech farms, that is: farms which are enclosed, running in a closed cycle, producing their own feed through a combination of plants, worms, non-carnivorous fish, and predator fish (a technique sometimes known as aquaponics). Farms which do not overcrowd their fish or replicate in the ocean the scourge of land-based factory farming.

In our ongoing struggle to save our wild salmon, it appears that we are – once again! – fighting on the terms set by the corporations rather than our own. We are asked to choose between two impossible evils: destructive, overcrowded, ridiculously low-tech operations consisting literally of a net thrown in the ocean which the industry has the nerve to call “fish farms”. Or, the continuation of mindless overfishing of the ocean, down to the very last wild fish. Are we learning anything yet? We must reject both alternatives and proudly advance our own progressive agenda, our own solution to the tragic depletion of our oceans: fish farms!

In that regard, we must listen to Alex Morton's core message more carefully. She is and has always been a fervent advocate of contained land-based fish farms, provided that they are run under sustainable conditions. We need to ensure that we remain focused on that message and that we communicate it clearly to the general public. We LOVE fish farms and we WANT them, and Marine Harvest's operations DO NOT constitute fish farms.

As such, any part of our campaign that depreciates farmed salmon (e.g. popular slogans such as “farmed salmon sucks”, “tastes awful”, is a “freak of nature”, “has two heads”, etc.) is misplaced and actually counterproductive. We should instead glorify this magnificent animal, the Atlantic salmon, and recognize it as our objective ally in the battle to save its brother the Pacific salmon. Atlantic salmon are good! They taste good! They could taste even better with the proper application of technology and know-how! Contained, high-tech fish farming is good! The overfishing of wild salmon is evil! Marine Harvest's usurpation of the term “fish farm” to describe its nets in the water is evil!

Perhaps a more progressive, although slightly more complex, slogan for the general public would be something along the lines that “We want to reclaim fish farms from Marine Harvest”.

As I indicated at the beginning of this post, there is a distinct and reasonable probability of us actually winning this campaign. This poses the practical question of what happens after we win.

1. Will we win on time? Will it give the wild salmon a chance to rebound, recover, and adapt to other threats such as overfishing, loss of habitat, and (perhaps) climate change?

2. What will be the cost of this victory to the reputation of aquaculture and fish farming in general? A key question indeed, given that we need fish farms to save our oceans and, therefore, our wild salmon.

Once Marine Harvest has been forced to remove its despicable open-pen fish operations from our waters, do we just mindlessly go back to overfishing the ocean and eradicating our wild salmon through criminal mismanagement, DFO-style? No, of course not! From there, we move on to fish farms. Real fish farms, enclosed, high-tech, sustainable ones.

By denigrating fish farms as we sometimes do, we are cutting the branch we are sitting on. We are contributing to bankrupting in advance any chance of establishing viable commercial aquaculture operations as an alternative to killing our oceans. Yes, we need to - and we will - get Marine Harvest's factory nets out of the water. But we also need to stop undermining fish farms. Now.

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9 comments:

  1. Excellent piece and an excellent point. Contained fish farms on land - good; fish farms in the ocean - bad! Get them out of the ocean and up on land. Soon!

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  2. Interesting perspective indeed. Although, I think you're quite alone in your thoughts.

    People, generally, don't like fish raised in tanks (polls always suggest this). They like animals raised in their "natural" environment, which salmon farms currently do. The worlds water also is 3% fresh and 97% salt, so there is a smart reason why fish (salmon) should be raised in saltwater.

    Question for you. If fish meal and fish waste is a concern to you - how do you feel about 5 billion hatchery salmon being released into the ocean each year and sold as "wild-caught". It concerns me, yet I never hear about this from anyone? Makes we question who is behind some of the push to move fish farms on land?

    Teresa Molvan

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  3. Teresa,

    Good points.

    While I wouldn't go so far as to say I am alone in my thoughts, there is no doubt it's a minority view.

    As every other species, humans transform their environment and are transformed by it. Hatcheries are indeed a great example, but you could push your argument even further. Take Adams River, which I recently blogged about: the Roderick Haig Brown provincial park where sockeye come to spawn is a prime example of human transformation of its environment. Salmon find there a perfect spawning habitat, with the added advantage that there are virtually no predators (our numbers keep most bears and eagles at bay). By setting this as a provincial park, we have altered the salmon's environment.

    So I don't hold the romanticized view that humans should not tamper at all with their environment. That's impossible. We are tampering whether we want it or not, just by breathing and metabolizing and working. I see it both as a management and an evolutionary issue. How do we control our impact on the salmon? Right now, we don't control anything, there is no plan. We just push living species towards extinction, driven by the profit motive. DFO's catastrophic failure as an agency is a tragic manifestation of this. Our role as activists is to accelerate the evolution of human interactions with the salmon before they go extinct. Taking the farms on-land is part of it.

    You are also correct that there are some capitalist forces in play today which are trying to push fish farms onto land, and are therefore in competition with Marine Harvest. Are we activists therefore being played by those forces? Yes and no. We play them too, it's the name of the game. We should enter into a tactical alliance with them and help them in any way that we can to bring farms on land and force Marine Harvest to either change its business model or go out of business. As capitalists, those new players will necessarily introduce new imbalances on-land, and therefore bring on crises of a different order. When that happens we will fight that too, and so on towards the next level. That's how evolution works.

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  4. Ivan says "(if fish farms move on-land, it) will necessarily introduce new imbalances on-land, and therefore bring on crises of a different order. When that happens we will fight that too, and so on towards the next level. That's how evolution works."

    Boy that quote is telling. Apparently it doesn't matter how we produce food to feed a future 10 billion mouths, activists are happy to sit on the side lines and whine. Not producing at all, just whining.

    They'll say it's required to keep everything 'in check'. Wow, aren't they lucky they're in the 21st century, cause about 400 years ago these folks would be culled for the obvious strain on society they are. Culling the weak was also evolution - ahhh, the good old days.

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  5. You know, I have to say that I’m actually incredibly relieved that some salmon farms are finally taking an initiative into a more sustainable direction and away from past practices, such as the ones recently outlined online in the press (http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=CUECRUKZDUO1&preview=article&linkid=dd75b2ba-428b-47fc-b155-6cf49dbfdef4&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d). Still, with the increasing population and thus demand, it will take more than lukewarm measures to ensure a good, stable source of salmon and other seafood.

    Well anyway, some food for thought :]

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  6. You know, I have to say that I’m actually incredibly relieved that some salmon farms are finally taking an initiative into a more sustainable direction and away from past practices, such as the ones recently outlined online in the press (http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=CUECRUKZDUO1&preview=article&linkid=dd75b2ba-428b-47fc-b155-6cf49dbfdef4&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d). Still, with the increasing population and thus demand, it will take more than lukewarm measures to ensure a good, stable source of salmon and other seafood.

    Well anyway, some food for thought :]

    ReplyDelete
  7. You know, I have to say that I’m actually incredibly relieved that some salmon farms are finally taking an initiative into a more sustainable direction and away from past practices, such as the ones recently outlined online in the press. Still, with the increasing population and thus demand, it will take more than lukewarm measures to ensure a good, stable source of salmon and other seafood.

    Well anyway, some food for thought :]

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think the important thing here is that the stakeholders in the local ecology actively participate. A foreign owner who relies on mass production for their profits becomes disconnected from the land because the are not sustained by it. I like the approach that says if some consumes salmon, they take on the responsibility to ensure its sustainability. I would also like to see us adapt back to the natural cycles that the environment bring and eat salmon when they return. All the other 200 species that feed on salmon wait their turn when they arrive, so why can't humans. We can make other choices, I suppose aquaponics and other technologies can buy us time, however it too is a human enterprise system and will be exposed to infectous greed. Personally I would love to see the Fraser River restored to 100 M Fish returning annually, if it takes a mix of approaches to get there then so beit. However I would love to see what nature gives us when given a real chance.

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