Washington State Makes Waves with Fish Farm Ban

The best salmon I ever had in my life was wild pacific at this beautiful restaurant in Revelstoke, B.C. It was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Quick side note here: it also happened to be one of the worst dining experiences of all time. My husband and I commonly refer to it as “that night in Revelstoke” because while eating the best salmon of our lives, our son, who was 18-months-old at the time, had a meltdown of epic proportions. It was bad; like ‘never-allowed-back-to-Revelstoke’ bad. It wasn’t long before the waitress offered to throw my piece of fish into a doggy bag. Anyway, I digress. The point is, despite the temper tantrum, the wild Pacific salmon was the best.

Unfortunately, the species is actually in danger. A 2017 report from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada says the sockeye population is near extinction. Last summer’s Fraser River sockeye runs saw the lowest returns ever. One of the main culprits is suspected to be Atlantic salmon fish farms. In fact, Washington state has just recently moved to ban the farms, and conservationists across the border are pressuring the British Columbian government to do the same. The proposed ban comes after an environmental disaster last August at a fish farm near Seattle. High tides caused severe damage to the net pens, setting free tens of thousands of farmed fish into the Pacific Ocean. Farmed Atlantic salmon carry parasites and viruses, diseases that wild Pacific salmon simply cannot handle. If the bill proposed by Washington state Senate is approved, the fish farms will be completely phased out by 2025.

The farm collapse in Washington state has led to fears of similar disasters happening elsewhere, especially in B.C., which is home to more than 100 fish farms. But the B.C. Salmon Farmer’s Association told Global News those concerns are overblown. It says farmers there have made millions of dollars of investments in technology and equipment that have reduced the risk of the fish escaping. In fact, less than 100 farmed fish are said to escape in B.C. every year. The farms are also subject to third-party inspections. But it’s about more than the risk of collapse, conservationists say. It’s also about ‘bloody water.’

It sounds horrifying, doesn’t it? A diver captured a video and took samples of what some fish farms are pumping into the Pacific. Earlier this month, scientists with the B.C. government confirmed the worst: the bloody clouds gushing from the pipe near Campbell River contained a highly contagious virus called piscine reovirus (PRV). It’s still unclear how PRV affects wild salmon; more testing is required. But a study found rates of PRV rose from five to 40 percent in wild salmon migrating past the farms. It’s worth noting the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has also done some research and found no link between PRV and fish deaths. Still, with millions of them swimming through the clouds on their way to the open ocean, is it worth risking their health?

Fish farm opponents in western Canada say no, and that movement is needed to boost the wild salmon populations. One important fact that can’t be overlooked, though, is the negative impact such a ban would have on the economy. Global News reports that the farms in B.C. employ 6,600 people, and contribute about $1.5 billion to the economy. So, how about a fair compromise? Some experts in B.C. have suggested forcing the industry to evolve to a land-based containment system or an aquaponics set up, like they’ve done in Mississauga, ON. This way, fish farms can stay alive, and so can the wild Pacific salmon populations. Yes, there will likely be an added expense for both the producers and consumers of farmed fish. But when you’re trying to save both a species and an industry at the same time, nothing is going to come easy.

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.