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An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. on Oct. 31, 2018.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz are award-winning journalists and co-authors of Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favourite Fish.

Salmon is the most popular fish in Canada, central to our diet and culture since the time of the first Indigenous peoples. Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab found that almost eight out of 10 Canadians eat salmon, with almost 10 per cent of those eating it at least once a week. We’re told it’s good for us, too: Doctors recommend salmon for its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other benefits, and the salmon farming industry boasts that its fish are raised naturally and sustainably.

But the reality is disturbingly different.

We stumbled upon that reality in January, 2020, when we attended a public meeting near our home in Nova Scotia. At that crowded event, we heard experts, fishermen and neighbours voice concerns about plans to locate as many as 20 salmon farms along our stretch of coastline. We decided to look into the issue.

In recent decades, wild Atlantic and Pacific salmon have almost disappeared from Canada’s rivers and oceans – victims of habitat destruction, overfishing and climate change. In their place have come farm-raised Atlantic salmon, which now account for as much as 90 per cent of the world’s salmon consumption. Canada’s iconic fish has become an industrial commodity, like feedlot cattle and factory chickens.

Salmon farming is now a global business worth US$20-billion a year and dominated by a few multinational companies, including Cooke Aquaculture in New Brunswick. These intensive operations condemn salmon to spending their adult lives caged in floating feedlots called open-net-pen salmon farms. Such farms sit primarily along the coasts of Norway, Chile, Scotland and Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific shores, often along wild salmon migration routes.

What often happens beneath the waterline in these fish cages is shocking. A single farm can contain a million fish, jammed into a dozen cages made of plastic netting, suspended by flotation devices and anchored to the seabed. The fish are fed pellets of ground fish meal, poultry by-products such as feathers and feet, and vegetable ingredients. The feed is laced with pesticides and antibiotics to fight the twin plagues of parasites and viruses.

They pose threats to the environment and human health. Excrement, excess feed and chemical residue fall to the seabed, creating toxic zones that can kill or drive away lobsters, scallops and other marine life. One photo from beneath a farm in Nova Scotia shows a yardstick embedded to the 32-inch mark in the noxious stew.

The farms are also vectors for pathogens and parasites that can spread to wild salmon, a particular threat to vulnerable smolts. The same diseases and parasites kill tens of millions of farmed fish every year – the mortality rate is estimated at 15 per cent, far exceeding the 3.3 per cent for cattle and 5 per cent for chickens. A single die-off at farms in Newfoundland owned by Norway’s Mowi ASA killed 2.6 million salmon in 2019, and more farmed fish died in cages than were harvested in the province that year.

Finally, farmed salmon flesh contains pesticide and antibiotic residues. This creates risks for consumers, particularly infants, children and pregnant women. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s respected Seafood Watch advises consumers to avoid farmed Atlantic salmon from British Columbia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland because of excessive chemical use and disease.

These dangers have long been debated by researchers, as the science does evolve over time. But all the while, consumers have been left in the dark. Government dereliction of duty means labels have been rendered meaningless, often failing to even identify the salmon as farmed, let alone provide information about possible chemical and antibiotic contamination.

“It is confusing, and I suspect there is willful confusion out there,” said physician Leonardo Trasande, an internationally renowned leader in identifying the consequences of environmental toxins on children. “We know that every fish is a trade-off between omega-3 and toxic content like PCBs. From the perspective of salmon in general, the balance favours consumption of that fish. Now the challenge here is that I can’t tell which salmon is farmed the right way or the wrong way.”

Three years ago, Ottawa promised to develop a traceability program for seafood sold in Canada, to protect consumers from deception. But little concrete action has been taken since then. Watchdogs SeaChoice and Living Oceans Society responded by organizing a coalition of 26 grocery chains, seafood industry representatives and researchers to urge the government to fulfill its pledge to mandate honest labelling by tracing seafood from boat to plate.

There is good news on two fronts. On June 22, the federal government pledged to develop a plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farms in British Columbia within two years. It also refused to renew the licences of 19 farms deemed a threat to Pacific salmon in the Discovery Islands archipelago between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Ottawa is able to do this because it has jurisdiction over B.C.’s waters after a lawsuit a decade ago; unfortunately, the decision is unlikely to have any effect in the Maritimes, where the provinces retain control.

Elsewhere, in the private sector, a promising new technology – recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), which utilize large tanks on land – can be used to raise salmon without chemicals, protecting the environment, wild salmon and consumers. Canada is at the forefront of this innovation.

These systems mimic nature. Young salmon start life in freshwater tanks before being moved to saltwater tanks, where they grow to market size. Ultraviolet lights and biofilters remove contaminants and solid waste from the water, which is then recycled. The solid waste is used as fertilizer or burned to generate electricity. The closed systems eliminate the need for chemicals and antibiotics and ensure the farmed salmon never touch the ocean.

Sustainable Blue and Cape d’Or Salmon now operate two RAS plants near the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. Both brands are available in the Maritimes, and Sustainable Blue recently went on sale in Ontario and Quebec. In British Columbia, the ‘Namgis First Nation raises Atlantic salmon on Vancouver Island and sells it at grocery stores in B.C. and through distributors elsewhere.

This technology is also popping up in unusual places. The world’s largest RAS plant is Atlantic Sapphire, about 60 kilometres south of Miami; others are in the United Arab Emirates, Tasmania and Japan. Superior Fresh, in Wisconsin, has incorporated hydroponically grown greens with its salmon farm by relying only on freshwater.

RAS-raised fish tend to be more expensive. The systems require land, buildings and waste treatment – capital costs that are largely absent with freeloading ocean-based farms. Costs are coming down, however, as projects scale up and technological challenges are solved, and if they continue to do so, this new method could disrupt and clean up the industry.

After all, consumers want a safer choice. Recent market research found that 86 per cent of Canadians want to know that their seafood is healthy and environmentally friendly. Educated consumers are critical to protecting our planet and our people. Government, then, must ensure that the seafood we eat is safe by taking action on deceptive advertising and by introducing transparency measures. Canadians, and salmon too, deserve as much.

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