Farmed Salmon Issues: Some of the Environmental Issues Can Be Resolved

In the previous post I wrote a bit about the problems associated with farmed salmon – these fish are relatively unhealthy to eat due to the toxins in their bodies. The toxins get into the farmed salmon through the pellets that they are fed and the medications the salmon are given for the control of parasites and disease, and there is not much to be done about that problem at the moment. But there are available solutions to the negative impact these salmon farms have on the environment, so although the fish may be unhealthy to eat, at least the problems generated by the farms can be reduced.

Typical Salmon Farm Pen (Creative Commons Photo)

The following review is from Orca Network’s informative summary on the problem with fish farms:

The farming of fish such as salmon so high up the food chain is an extremely efficient way of concentrating contaminants. Some fish feed is so contaminated it should be disposed of as hazardous goods rather than fed to farmed fish destined for human consumption.

Yet, fish feed companies have known about PCB contamination, for example, for over 20 years. Recent scientific research has revealed contamination in Canadian, Norwegian, Scottish and Irish farmed salmon. Dioxin contamination of fishery products is now well known with DDT, chlordane and hexachlorobenzene recently detected in 97% of ‘fresh’ (i.e. farmed) salmon on sale in the UK (the only negative sample was the one wild fresh salmon sample) (Cameron: 2002c, PRC: 2002)

…Salmon farming is running on empty – it is literally running out of fuel. Such is aquaculture’s insatiable growth that it already uses up ca. 70% of the world’s fish oil and ca. 35% of the world’s fish meal (Tacon and Forster: 2001, Tacon and Barg: 2001).

Canada’s David Suzuki Foundation provided the following information:

…there can be other additives in the feed such as colouring agents (to make the farmed salmon flesh pink), binders and antioxidant preservatives. There is also an increasing use (limited at the moment) of immunostimulats.

To reduce the number of times the nets have to be cleaned, farmers will apply antifouling paints to the nets. The most commonly used paint in B.C. is copper based, where the copper is the active ingredient. The copper can make its way into marine waters by slow leaching of the paint or when the paint is striped during net cleaning.

Another toxic metal that is emitted by salmon farms is zinc. This is because zinc sulphate is added to salmon feed as a way to help the fish avoid contracting cataracts…

48 per cent of the farms had sediment concentrations of copper and zinc which were above what the government considered “safe”.

The farms themselves have far-reaching impacts on the ecosystem which extend well beyond the areas where the farms are located. The non-native Atlantic Salmon escape in mass numbers, and cause havoc with wild salmon:

The reported escapes of farmed salmon in BC between 1987 and 2001 fluctuates from one year to the next with the average being about 90,000 escapes per year for the period 1990-2000. Since the 1980’s, salmon farms in BC have switched from farming pacific species to mainly Atlantic salmon. This is reflected in the escape figures, which are now predominantly made up of Atlantic salmon.

Finally, research published in Science
found that:

The louse-induced mortality of pink salmon is commonly over 80% and exceeds previous fishing mortality. If outbreaks continue, then local extinction is certain, and a 99% collapse in pink salmon population abundance is expected in four salmon generations. These results suggest that salmon farms can cause parasite outbreaks that erode the capacity of a coastal ecosystem to support wild salmon populations.

However, there is a viable alternative to the environmental problems caused by open pen fish farms, which although not a long term solution might buy our salmon-hungry world some time while we restore the wild salmon population.

Being tested now and with plans for future development are closed-system tanks, made of fiberglass and designed to treat wastes. Depending upon how the wastes are managed and the materials that are used that contact the environment, these tanks could virtually eliminate the contamination to wild salmon and by extension, to the orcas that feed upon them.

J40 catches a salmon off False Bay, September 8, 2008 (CWR photo by Astrid van Ginneken)

But the industry has a long way to go before they produce a healthy, natural fish fit for consumption.

Farmed Salmon Are Really Bad News – For Us, for Wild or Captive Orcas, and for the Environment

According to an Indiana University study, “PCBs and other environmental toxins are present at higher levels in farm-raised salmon than in their wild counterparts”, and they recommend that we eat a maximum of two meals per month of farmed salmon. This is significantly less than the two meals per week of most species of wild caught salmon that is recommended that we limit ourselves to consuming. Chinook salmon falls in between, and it is suggested that we eat just one meal a week of Chinook. (Please see the chart here for more information).

Ironically, the farmed salmon get the toxins from the pelleted food they are given – at least 14 different toxic substances, including PCBs, that correlate with those found in the fish.

And because the salmon are crammed together in artificial net pens, the fish farmers give them antibiotics and medications to control disease and parasites. Unfortunately, both the infected salmon and the parasites escape the pens and infect wild salmon…but not before the drugs are allowed to permeate the environment. According to Ford and Meyers, “wild populations suffer a reduction in survival or abundance of more than 50% when associated with farmed salmon”.

One of the drugs given to control the lice that kill and cripple young salmon is Ivermectin, commonly present in the paste de-wormers that most horse owners give to their horses. The David Suzuki Organization reports that this chemical is present in the sediment under the sea pens in a concentration that is more than 30 times the amount given to a horse. It is enough to cause a toxic reaction and possibly death in horses, cattle, and some breeds of dogs. It takes 90 to 240 days for half of it to decompose in the sediment.

And it is deadly to the animals that live on the seabed. Everything from small crustaceans (including young lobsters) to large polychete worms are affected.

As cetacean biologists we face many problems associated with restoring the orca population to health that are complicated and long range – but this is not one of them. Cleaning up and dismantling the fish farms is a relatively easy fix.

Lice on salmon fry (Creative Commons Photo)

In the meantime, to protect your own health, be sure to ask at the market and restaurants where the salmon you purchase originates, and if it is not wild-caught, send it back.

How Responsive Are Our Leaders?

We are all used to waiting, it is one of the first things we learn in kindergarten. We wait in line for movies or concerts. We wait for planes and buses. We take numbers and wait interminably for driver’s licenses, and try to not go postal each time we go to the post office.
So I expected to have to wait to hear back from our senators when I emailed them – after all they are busy people with complicated agendas. But I also expected to get at least a robo-reply, some automated response to the emails similar to the ‘away messages’ we have on our own email accounts. Anything that would at least acknowledge receipt of the requests.
The requests were fairly simple – I asked for information on the captive orca Lolita, and for the Senators’ opinions on the proposed vessel regulations (see previous posts).

Creative Commons Photo

I sent emails to Senator Cantwell on these dates: Aug 12th, Aug 19th, Aug 28th, and Sept 9th – and have yet to hear anything back at all. Zero, zip, nada.
Senator Murray’s office was better – an aid called after a few weeks, explained the delay in response, and opened the lines of communication. But still – no written replies and no response to the questions.

The cart reads “Go ahead and push me” Creative Commons Photo

It is no wonder that change happens so slowly, even when a community is as united as ours is in wanting to restore our inland waterways to health. We all want clean and abundant salmon for ourselves and for the orcas.
Most of us want to see the orca “Lolita” returned to her family, or at least properly cared for. This whale lives without companions of her own species in a small and substandard tank, and was exempted from the protection offered the rest of the southern resident orcas. The government is asking us to agree to some significant measures in order to protect the remaining whales, yet seems to have turned its back on one of the few orcas left in this population. It is illogical, and we deserve to know how to remedy the situation, and to learn the opinions of Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell.
We are willing to make changes, we just need our leaders to help. I am not going to stop asking our leaders for information and leadership, nor should you.


The Proposed Seasonal Orca Whale “No-Go” Zone…A Clean and Relatively Quiet Place

The area along the west side of San Juan Island that is being considered as a seasonal sanctuary for the Southern Resident Killer Whales is located in the Salish Sea, an extensive inland water area that extends from the Strait of Georgia in Canada to the southern reaches of Puget Sound.

Although many of us who live in this region tend to regard all of the Washington portion of these waters to be part of Puget Sound, this is a misconception – the water around the San Juan Islands comes directly from the ocean, and is not part of Puget Sound at all.

These map sections, produced and shared by Stefan Freelan (The Salish Sea Map, Stefan Freelan, WWU, 2009″) show that the San Juan Basin (above the Strait of Juan de Fuca) is in an area of wide, deep, quickly flushing channels. Puget Sound, on the other hand, is composed of comparatively narrow, meandering waterways.

Because fresh ocean water moves quickly through Haro Strait (the channel along the west side of San Juan Island), it is relatively free of pollution. The Washington State Department of Ecology found that “The San Juan basin marine waters are typically of high water quality. These marine waters are rated class AA(WAC,1992)

Haro Strait is a wide and deep channel.
Puget Sound is a narrow fjord characterized by many estuarine inputs.

The Department of Ecology paper goes on to state ” EPA assessed the potential for toxics-related problems in 12 marine areas in the San Juans by reviewing information on sources, sediment contamination, and toxicity indices … except for West sound, Orcas Island, all sites were ranked as having a low potential for toxics problems.” In other words, not only is the water clean, it is unlikely that there is even potential for this to change in the future.

The marine life in the San Juan Island basin is rich and varied, and I discovered that there is a sanctuary set aside to protect some underwater invertebrates that overlaps the proposed orca No-Go zone at the southern end. In this flourishing environment, the orcas are often seen swimming past Pile Point, Kanaka Bay, False Bay, and farther south before turning and heading back north again.

Nautical chart False Bay, Kanaka Bay

The National Marine Fisheries folks seem to have chosen very wisely when they selected this healthy, vibrant, and flourishing area as a seasonal refuge for the whales. A nice place to call home.

How Are We Likely to be Impacted by the Proposed Killer Whale Vessel Regulations?

We are being asked to give the local population of orcas a lot more room – room to forage for fish, to swim and interact with each other, to be free of our close proximity –the equivalent of two football fields length (200 yards) of room – and it is hard to imagine. We are accustomed to being able to see the whales at a much closer distance, and at times to see them swim around and under our boats – so these proposed regulations seem like a big change.

Yet, almost anywhere else where we go to view nature in the wild we expect to have to maintain our distance. Through experience, we know that most wild animals will not allow us to get too close to them. Moreover, the times when they do allow us to get close, most likely the animals are keeping a careful eye on us – and so we are no longer observing their natural behavior and learning what it is that makes them fit so uniquely in the world.

We offer protection for wildlife – we set aside tracts of land, and where necessary we build bridges, tunnels, or fish ladders to help animals navigate the structures that impede their ability to survive. And we compensate for the difficulties of wildlife viewing – we tryPicture to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible while enhancing our ability to see them through the use of powerful binoculars and spotting scopes.

And although we may feel inconvenienced by having to set aside a seasonal refuge for the orcas and by the increased viewing distance, they do deserve the protection that we grant to other species.

A positive aspect to this is that our whale watching adventures can be enhanced because we will more fully appreciate how the whales behave when not surrounded by our boats. In addition, the creation of a seasonal refuge will impact other species – we may find that marine mammals (such as Harbor porpoises) and seabirds will also use the area more fully, and our whale watching trips will be further enriched.

On the downside, I feel that the proposed regulations have been painted with too broad a brush and hopefully some adjustments can be made before being adopted. Although I understand the logic behind the decisions to apply the rules equally to power boats and kayaks, for example, I think this penalizes those people who wish to find alternatives, and discourages innovation. The blanket rules provide no incentives for responsible viewing nor do they provide a way to enforce the regulations that I was able to see. And I am perplexed by the fact that the refuge as planned does not include the preferred rest areas of the orcas, as defined by NMFS in their documents.

This chart illustrates which vessels approach too closely to the whales (NOAA)

With neither carrots (incentives for responsibility) nor sticks (enforcement), we could very well wind up with a situation in which the only people approaching the whales are those in private boats with loud engines – a group that is already acknowledged to be the worst offenders, and these things will have to be addressed.

Please do contact NMFS with your thoughts and concerns, and plan to attend the public meetings if possible.

The government is considering enacting the following regulations in order to enhance the recovery of our locally endangered population of orcas (please see previous posts for details):

Most boats will be required to stay 200 yards away from of any killer whales in the inland waters of Washington.

A restricted zone along the west coast of San Juan Island extending a half a mile out will be established in which most boats will be prohibited from entering between May 1st and September 30th, starting in 2010.

Intercepting the path of any killer whale in inland waters of Washington will be prohibited.

The Proposed Killer Whale Vessel Guidelines – The ‘What’ and ‘When’

The following information was taken from the original document (listed here)

Description and Scope of the Proposed Action

“NMFS is proposing to adopt regulations that would prohibit motorized, non-motorized, and self-propelled vessels in navigable inland waters of Washington from:

• Causing a vessel to approach within 200 yards of any killer whale
• Entering a restricted zone along the west coast of San Juan Island during a specified season- May 1st to September 30th, starting in 2010
• Intercepting the path of any killer whale in inland waters of Washington”

Chart comparing the proposed regulations (highlighted) with other options that were under consideration.

Exceptions to the regulations

“1. The regulations would not apply to Federal, state, and local government vessels operating in the course of official duty.

2. The regulations would not apply to vessels participating in the U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian Coast Guard Co-operative Vessel Tracking System and operating within the defined Traffic Separation Scheme shipping lanes.

3. The regulations would not apply to activities, such as scientific research, authorized under permit by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

4. The regulations would not apply to treaty Indian fishing vessels lawfully engaged in actively setting, retrieving, or closely tending fishing gear.

5. The regulations would not apply to vessel operations necessary to avoid an imminent and serious threat to a person or vessel.

6. The no-go zone regulation would not apply to privately owned vessels that transit the no-go zone for the sole purpose of gaining access to privately owned shoreline property located immediately adjacent to the no-go zone.”

Who will be affected, and how will these regulations be enforced? The next posts will discuss the impacts of the proposed orca/vessel regulations on us.