Outdoor gear, food retailer Patagonia harshly criticizes aquaculture, hatcheries in "Artifishal"

Published on
May 17, 2019

“Artifishal,” a feature-length documentary released in April, presents a passionate case against fish hatcheries and net-pen aquaculture.

The documentary was financed and produced by Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear company based in Ventura, California, U.S.A. The company has direct ties into the seafood industry through its Patagonia Provisions subsidiary, which sells sockeye salmon jerky, ready-to-eat smoked pink salmon pouch meals, and smoked mussels.

Patagonia’s tagline, which it uses in its marketing materials related to the film, is “We’re in business to save our home planet.” Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard, listed as the executive producer of Artifishal, claimed in a press release announcing the film that salmon hatcheries and aquaculture net pens are doing irreversible damage to wild salmon populations.

“Humans have always thought of themselves as superior to nature and it’s got us into a lot of trouble. We think we can control nature; we can’t,” Chouinard said. “If we value wild salmon, we need to do something now. A life without wild nature and a life without these great, iconic species is an impoverished life. If we lose all wild species, we’re going to lose ourselves.”

The movie looks at hatcheries in California and Montana, net-pen salmon farming in Norway, Chile, and North America, including an investigation into the collapse of a net pen in Puget Sound operated by Cooke Aquaculture.

“We witness the conditions of factory fish farms as well as the genetically inferior, dumbed-down salmon they churn out,” the press release for the film explained. “The film explores the repercussions of a wrecked net pen and the underwater destruction and disease caused by an open-water fish farm. And after the largest dam removal project in the United States, we watch government waste in action: USD 320 million [EUR 285.7 million] on hatcheries after wild fish had been restored in their natural habitat. But the film also gives us hope and reminds us of nature’s resilience. In examples in Montana and Washington, after hatcheries were shut down, wild fish rebound. It traces the impact of fish hatcheries and farms and the extraordinary amount of American tax dollars wasted on an industry that hinders wild fish recovery, pollutes our rivers, and contributes to the problem it claims to solve.”

In an interview with SeafoodSource, Artifishal producer and Patagonia fly-fishing ambassador Dylan Tomine said the company’s official position is that it does not support most forms of aquaculture, and that it also opposes fish hatcheries and their subsidization by the U.S. and state governments.

“It’s not about conservation for conservation’s sake. We’re a company of fish catchers, eaters, and lovers,” Tomine said. “We’re not doing this to put people out of business or cause harm that to companies provide jobs, it’s just that all the research we’ve done has found that the only real option for a future with cold-water fish in it is that we have to bet on wild stocks, rather than human-produced [fish].”

A main objective of the film, besides raising awareness of the purported damage being done by hatcheries and net pens, is to “start a conversation within the industry itself” about its practices, Tomine said.

“The goal is to have sustainable, healthy, abundant, thriving stocks of wild fish. Eliminating hatcheries would create great savings to the taxpayers and save billions of dollars, while eliminating a system that is leading to species extinction,” he said.  “I’d rather have lots of fish and not waste that money, and the fact is we can have both. By eliminating hatcheries and net-pen aquaculture, we will have a sustainable self-perpetuating run of fish we can all benefit from.”

Tomine said Patagonia’s own seafood sourcing policy, which was created when Patagonia Provisions began selling salmon in 2012, relies on an advisory committee – composed primarily of biologists and other scientists working in the field – which meets once every two years to determine company standards on what it will buy and sell.

“We invite different conservation organizations and scientists, and together, we look at the sustainability of wild [salmon] runs, which changes year to year. We look at which locations have higher abundance … It’s not a static document that we produce; we wanted to be flexible and source from where it was most appropriate and responsible to at any given time,” Tomine said. “Everything that Provisions sells, fundamentally, is based on its sourcing story. We don’t want to bring a product to market unless we can have a positive impact with it.”

Being a participant in the seafood industry makes the company “a better advocate for sustainable seafood,” part of the reason why the company supported the making of Artifishal, Tomine said. He said Patagonia leads by example, claiming it is the only industry entity to work directly with fish and water conservation organizations on sustainability initiatives.

“Now we have skin in the game and can work from the inside to make a more sustainable industry,” he said. 

Tomine draws a direct correlation between the release of an estimated five billion hatchery-grown salmon in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska and diminishing returns of wild salmon to coastal rivers to spawn.

“The releases by not just the United States, but also Japan, Russia, and South Korea are exceeding the carrying capacity of the North Pacific,” he said. “That should be a real concern to commercial fishermen in places even where they don’t have hatcheries systems.”

Tomine also calls out what he deems is a lack of regulation of the U.S. aquaculture industry.

“There is almost no state oversight of net-pen salmon farms, and in some cases, states have been complicit in propagating net-pen aquaculture, as happened in Washington state…Due to political pressure, the state was mandated to assist with the promotion of salmon farms,” he said. “You can draw a line from that position to what happened with the collapse of the Cooke Aquaculture net-pen that resulted in the escape of hundreds of thousands of salmon.”

As net-pen aquaculture exists today, Tomine said Patagonia could not support it, and is unlikely to in the future.

“We are firmly against open-water net-pen salmon farms. They’re breeding grounds for disease, which can and does spread to wild salmon. The negative impact they have on the marine environment is pretty clear,” he said. “If there were some way to miraculously control sea lice without the use of pesticides or pharmaceuticals, and if there was some was to better mitigate the huge amounts of fecal waste these farms create, we would consider [changing our position. But those problems are not things that are solvable to a large extent right now.”

Patagonia is more open to the concept of closed-containment systems, Tomine said.

“We are open to the possibility of closed-containment, dry-land farming as it becomes more financially and commercial viable. But we don’t believe it’s there yet. We’re not saying it can’t work – there are potential solutions out there – and we review them on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “So, we’re not necessarily 100 percent against salmon farming. What we’re against is anything that harms wild fish and pollutes the marine environment for the profit of few.”

Tomine acknowledged Patagonia’s own contribution to marine pollution through the release of large amounts of microfibers when the clothing it produces are washed. Those microfibers are turning up in the stomachs of marine organisms, including products made from wild fish that Patagonia itself sells. Tomine said Patagonia hadn’t considered making a documentary on the microplastics issue the way it had with hatcheries, aquaculture, and the impact of dams, which it covered in a separate documentary, “DamNation.” 

“Our business is about responsibility and self-examination. We are investing a lot of time effort and money into finding out what the issues around microplastics are,” he said. “We don’t claim to get everything right all the time. We do claim to be changing and progressing as time goes on.”

Tomine pointed to the company’s evolution in its sourcing and use of cotton as an example of how the company is willing to change its practices.

“We didn’t realize the harm conventional cotton was causing to the environment. As we learned, we really changed how we did things,” he said. “The situation on microplastics is that we’re currently spending a lot of effort to solve it, the way we did with cotton. We learn, improve, and change, that’s our position. We do not claim to have everything right all the time, but we do push forward with the aim of always trying to do better.”

In response to the release of Artifishal, a coalition of aquaculture companies, led by San Francisco, California, U.S.A.-based CleanFish, an aquaculture products marketing company. It created a hashtag, #benefishal, that has been used widely on social media by other companies supporting the campaign.

“Most of us in the industry know how incredibly sustainable aquaculture can be, and lament to each other how the 'wild=good, farmed=bad' narrative continues even after so much evidence to the contrary," CleanFish Marketing and Communications Director Alisha Lumea said in a statement.

CleanFish, joined by the Global Aquaculture Alliance, among others, launched the campaign to fight negative perceptions of aquaculture propagated by Artifishal.

“Despite dramatic advances in the sustainability of aquaculture, new certifications, and standards, and recognition with improved ratings for farmed fish by groups like Seafood Watch, public perception lags behind the science,” the groups said. “When aquaculture is compared to land-based animal farming in particular, the environmental benefits of farming seafood, from water use to carbon footprint, are especially impressive.”

"If we who know aquaculture best won't speak up in its defense, we'll never realize its potential," Lumea added.

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