When Robert Burns wrote To a Louse in 1785, the rivers of Scotland - and those of much of Europe - supported healthy populations of wild salmon. Generations of overfishing and habitat destruction in the fjords and firths effectively dug a mass grave for the wild fish; the disease, pollution and parasites that arrived with industrial salmon farms spread the final layer of quicklime on their corpses. In the Atlantic, wild salmon are now considered commercially extinct.
The salmon of the Pacific still stand a chance. Yet when Irish and Scottish scientists and fisheries managers came to B.C. last year to testify before the province's Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture about how sea lice had killed off their native salmon and sea trout populations, they were shocked. Why, they wondered, would Canadians risk endangering one of the planet's last great salmon populations to profit a few Norwegian companies?
I have been wondering the same thing myself. The great mystery is what we as Canadians stand to gain from salmon farming. Of the 149 sites in B.C., 130 are fully owned by Norwegian companies, while only 11 are wholly Canadian-owned. The profits go to bank accounts in Oslo, licensing fees are laughably low and companies are allowed to continue operating farms even after their leases have expired. Local employment is minimal and rarely long-term - as I witnessed on my visit to several farms, the staff is mostly college-aged - and as the industry becomes increasingly automated, the ratio of jobs to kilograms of fillet produced constantly decreases.
The province's marine sports fishery, which one day may disappear because of sea lice, employs 4,200 and brings $158-million of revenue to the province. Salmon farming provides only 1,800 full-time jobs and, according to B.C.'s Ministry of Environment, contributes just $61-million to the gross domestic product.
As Canadians, citizens of a country that once had a worldwide reputation for its forward-thinking environmental policies, we should be mortified by our elected officials' shortsightedness. (This month, the B.C. government announced a moratorium on new permits north of Klemtu - a village 275 kilometres south of the border with Alaska. Meanwhile, they quietly approved two new farm permits on the south coast.)
Like the most parochial banana republic of old, we've leased out our natural riches to a handful of distant head offices. They reap the profits, and we pay the environmental price - in the form of ever lousier and increasingly scarcer wild salmon.
Given the inaction of our politicians, perhaps our only hope is to implore the heavens - as Burns once did upon espying another species of louse - to grant us a modicum of shame about our chronic obliviousness: " O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us,/ To see oursels as others see us!"
Taras Grescoe is the author of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, which will be published by HarperCollins next Saturday. He lives in Montreal.
Terry Glavin reviews Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder today (Sat.) in Books.
Heather Sokoloff talks to Taras Grescoe about eating like a bottom-feeder and liking it. In Globe Life on Wednesday.
By the numbers
Number of salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago.
Percentage of 3.6 million pink salmon that failed to return in 2002.
Percentage per generation of wild salmon and sea trout that fail to survive because of disease and parasites spread by farmed salmon, according to a study from Dalhousie University.
Number of salmon farm sites in British Columbia fully owned by Norwegian companies.
Number of salmon farm sites
fully or partly owned by Canadian companies.
Number of people employed by B.C.'s marine sports fishery, which contributes $158-million to the province's gross domestic product annually.
Number of people employed by the salmon farming industry, which brings in $61-million annually.