One of Greenpeace's main campaign ships, a former sealing vessel called the Arctic Sunrise, was sailing today into a confrontation with fish farms off the West Coast.
The 50-metre, 949-tonne vessel, which carries a helicopter on its rear deck, has chased pirate fishing boats around the Pacific and battled Japanese whaling ships off Antarctica. Now it is headed for some of the 80 floating sea pens dotting the Broughton Archipelago between the British Columbia mainland and the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
Catherine Stewart, a West Coast director for Greenpeace, said the Arctic Sunrise will be joined by a flotilla of sports, commercial and native fishing boats in a floating, anti-fish-farm jamboree.
"We've heard boats are coming from all over Vancouver Island," she said yesterday evening. "But we won't know until they show up. It could be anywhere from three to 100 boats."
Ms. Stewart said the flotilla will anchor near farms and unfurl a floating banner that says: "Keep it wild. No fish farms." But there won't be any attempt to interfere with the operations of the farms, which mostly raise Atlantic salmon.
"No occupation. No blockade," Ms. Stewart said. "It's a flotilla to make our position known. We are concerned about fish farms moving continually north, and we are concerned about the growing problem of sea lice."
She said the fish farming industry threatens wild Pacific salmon by spreading diseases and causing sea lice epidemics. Sea lice occur naturally, but in the Broughton Archipelago, concerns have been raised that the parasites are flourishing in the tightly packed sea cages and spreading to wild salmon.
Federal scientists are investigating complaints about sea lice but have not come to any conclusions.
"There's opposition to fish farms all over North America," Ms. Stewart said. "We want this industry cleaned up. . . . "
Among those joining the flotilla are members of the Klawock Fisheries Co-operative, a native group from Alaska.
Webster Demmert, a spokesman for the Klawock tribe, said he joined in because of fears B.C. fish farms could spread diseases and sea lice to wild stocks in Alaska, where salmon farming is banned.
"My worst fear is that they would get to expand fish farms in Canada so that they are close to our borders. The closer and closer they get, the more problems we'll see."
Mr. Demmert said the Alaska Panhandle is a pristine area with healthy, wild salmon runs and he wants to keep it that way.
But Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said the protest is misguided and unfair.
"We're trying to stay focused on doing fish farming in an environmental way and doing good science," she said. "We should be trying to find ways to work towards solutions rather than this ongoing negative activity."
The fish farming industry has been under steady attack from environmentalists for years on the West Coast, particularly since 2002, when the B.C. government removed a moratorium limiting expansion of the industry.
Just this week, celebrity chefs from Toronto and New York visited the West Coast to express their concerns about farmed salmon, and many Vancouver restaurants are refusing to serve the fish.
Ms. Walling said the industry isn't getting a fair shake from environmentalists. "It's more complicated than it appears and that's the big challenge we face -- to explain it to the public and offset these photo opportunities."