Op-Ed: Caution needed regarding upgraded Seafood Watch ranking of B.C. farmed salmon

By

SeaChoice Steering Committee

Published on
October 3, 2017

Founded in 2006, the Canadian nonprofit SeaChoice is a partnership between the David Suzuki Foundation, the Ecology Action Centre, and the Living Oceans Society. It calls itself a “sustainable seafood watchdog” and its goals include improving seafood-labeling regulations, eco-certification standards, fisheries and aquaculture management, and making information more transparent throughout the supply chain.

Last week, the U.S.-based Seafood Watch upgraded its ranking of B.C. open-net farmed salmon to a “Good Alternative.” The Canadian-based SeaChoice responded by rejecting the ranking, and with good reasons.

Seafood Watch (SFW) cites “insufficient evidence” that disease and sea lice transmission from farmed salmon to wild salmon is having population-level impacts, yet peer-reviewed science published between the 2014 and 2017 SFW assessments indicates serious concerns remain. 

Lice loads were found to be elevated near farms with ineffective sea lice management, with analyses based on 15 years of field work estimating a 23 percent loss to the Broughton Archipelago pink salmon population. A Salmon Health Initiative paper confirmed that heart and skeletal muscle inflammation occurs in B.C. and appears correlated with piscine reovirus. PRV has been found in B.C. wild salmon. Further study is needed to understand the role salmon farming plays as a disease and pathogen conduit to wild salmon.

A review just published by Simon Fraser University and led by biologist Michael Price found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s wild salmon monitoring is woefully insufficient and that the conservation health of about half of B.C.’s wild salmon populations is unknown. We’re still missing the most basic data. 

SFW acknowledges that uncertainty and science gaps remain (“Importantly, there is also no evidence that there is no impact.”).  Still, the assessment failed to take a precautionary approach in that it granted the industry an improved ranking without any conclusive evidence absolving it of a role in disease and parasite transmission.  Regrettably, it may be B.C.’s wild salmon that pay the price.  

Meanwhile, the industry has indicated this ranking may not only boost its sales, but will hopefully lead to more farming locations and an increase in production. Any expansion to this industry without the conclusive scientific evidence of no impact to wild salmon populations would be irresponsible. Likewise, the Canadian government needs to respect the Cohen Commission recommendations that salmon farms should be removed from wild salmon migration routes, if the science shows the disease risk to be more than minimal. Science foremost should advise government policy, not the lack thereof. 

SeaChoice member groups have and will continue to actively engage with several industry and government forums and committees, both aquaculture and fisheries, seeking science-based solutions. We have consistently asked for increased public transparency from the salmon farming industry, particularly on fish health, in order to address the lingering uncertainty and inform public policy. To date, the industry has refused. 

Until it can be proven that salmon farms are not contributing to the decline of B.C.’s iconic wild salmon, we believe the burden of proof should be on industry - not wild salmon. 

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