That bright pink fish became a centerpiece of our diet, its health benefits aggressively promoted, its resultant appeal so great that it even gave its name to a trendy color. You know what they say about All Good Things, and so it is with our favorite seafood. Turns out not only that farmed salmon is bad for you, it also is raised in such a horrific manner that the die-off rate is spectacular – and it’s also killing wild salmon.
Salmon Wars, The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish (Henry Holt and Co., New York, New York 2022) by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, is an unsparing study of a brutal industry. How valid are their research and conclusions? Sebastian Belle, president of the National Aquaculture Association, an industry advocacy group, took umbrage at an excerpt of Salmon Wars that was printed in Time magazine. Without bothering to read the book itself, he wrote to the magazine’s editor in protest.
“There is a war being waged against science by activists that would prefer decisions be based on politics, anecdotes and shameless misrepresentations,” he insisted, “and the authors deliver on this approach by basing their arguments on false factoids pulled from the news or discredited old studies in place of real facts.” This appears in an article on the website globalseafood.org.
False factoids pulled from the news? Discredited old studies? Hardly. The book reflects the top-flight credentials of the husband-and-wife authors, whose journalist credentials include work for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Salmon Wars is a methodical study, well-researched and footnoted to a fare-thee-well. Its unpleasant conclusion is revealed at the start; what’s left is a lengthy journey to amass facts in the face of considerable industry opposition.
What’s at issue here is the practice of profitable salmon farming, which requires many thousands of fish to mature in pens in the cold waters of the northern hemisphere. Commercial salmon farming probably started in Norway when Thor Mowinckel started Saga Seafood in 1971, going on to produce half the farmed salmon sold in that country. Saga acquired other fish farms and became Hydro Seafood, based in Bergen. With growth came trouble, and by 1987 it was evident that the pens were attracting sea lice. They’re merely a nuisance to fast-moving fish, but when salmon is in a pen, the lice will eat them alive. Hydro and other fish farmers tried to mitigate the problem by moving the pens farther offshore. It didn’t work.
But the demand for salmon continued to rise as its health benefits were touted, so the industry grew. Canada became another center of commercial salmon farming, even as the large companies pursuing that profitable industry gobbled up smaller ones and concentrated their profits. Profits that redounded to Canada as well – certainly that’s the country that has been the most aggressive in flouting or simply not passing sound health regulations.
By 2009, Canada’s lobster industry had been drastically affected by salmon-treatment poisons, with a spectacular die-off that only exacerbated long-simmering tensions between salmon farmers and lobster fishermen. It turned out that Cooke Aquaculture, one of world’s largest salmon-farming industries, had been applying the pesticide cypermethrin, a neurotoxin banned from Canada’s waters since 1998. Although company owner Glenn Cooke and two of his employees were arrested and charged, a plea deal required the company to pay a $500,000 fine, “only a fraction of the $19 million in potential penalties it faced. As part of the plea bargain, the criminal charges against Glenn Cooke and his colleagues were withdrawn.”
And so it goes throughout this saga. With so much profit at stake, every country that hosts salmon farming – principally Norway, Canada, Chile, and the U.S. – makes sure that the industry remains virtually unregulated and that dissenting voices are silenced. If you’re a university researcher who publishes findings that go against the preferred narrative, you’ll end up muzzled – or out of a job. “Kristi Miller-Saunders has a doctorate in biological science and has been head of molecular genetics at the DFO lab in Nanaimo since 2004.” That’s Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “Her lab examined genetic data stored in salmon immune systems, searching for tiny changes at the cellular level that are clues to fish health.”
She found them, and published her findings in the January 2011 issue of Science. And the DFO was fine with this – at first. But just before the article was due to go online, the DFO not only removed its name from a joint press release with Miller-Saunders, but also refused to let her speak to the press “because her article was considered a bad-news story.” Journalist Margaret Munro did some digging and discovered that gag order came from the Privy Council Office in Ottawa, which is the advisory office to Canada’s Prime Minister.
Worse consequences were suffered by Fred Kibenge, whose lab at the University of Prince Edward Island had identified an outbreak of the infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus in southern Chile in 2007 as the result of salmon eggs shipped from Norway, leading to some two billion dollars in losses. In 2011, when ISA was suspected as the cause of die-offs near British Columbia, samples were sent to Kibenge’s lab (one of only two certified by the World Organization for Animal Health). ISA was found, and was found again in the same salmon population by a lab in Bergen, Norway. Not so, insisted the DFO and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). They had Kibenge’s samples retested at a government lab in New Brunswick. Not surprisingly, no ISA evidence was found.
One of CFIA’s senior managers declared, during an inquiry, “Let’s say we do find ISA in B.C. and markets are closed, then there will be no trade.” In other words, this admission “demonstrated the triumph of economics and politics over protecting the environment” as far as the federal government was concerned. Despite the inquiry’s many recommendations for improving salmon health, which included the shutting down of the worst-offending of the farms, the DFO rejected them. And the CFIA went on to strip Kibenge’s lab of its certification. He politely declined to be interviewed for the book.
The issues presented in this book unroll with surprising calm, given the high emotion that informs many of the proceedings described therein. There are the stories of pollution, in which careless salmon farms litter the once-pristine beaches with their detritus, and the fact that fish populations everywhere are declining at a dizzying rate. And then once we enter into the legislative realm of the saga, learning how all of the countries with major salmon-farming revenue have refused to consider the health of the fish or those who consume them – never mind the amount of money poured into disinformation – it would seem that the story is finished. But we’re only halfway through the book.
There are environmental disasters like the 2017 collapse of one of the Cooke Aquaculture’s salmon farms in Puget Sound, which suffered a domino-fall collapse and released not only hundreds of thousands of lice-infected fish but also a storehouse of chemicals and equipment. Glenn Cooke nonsensically blamed it on a solar eclipse, claiming the phenomenon had raised the tides too high. What was revealed as investigators examined the site was a farm too poorly maintained to survive in water of any depth. The Washington State Department of Ecology found Cooke negligent and fined him $332,000, also canceling his lease in Puget Sound and other locations on the state’s coastline. The company’s response, in classic corporate PR mode, insisted that the state agency had “shut [the company] out of this investigation,” with the result that “investigators with limited experience” had produced “an inaccurate or misleading document that appears intended … to put Cooke out of business in Washington State.”
The result of this investigation galvanized opponents throughout the area, resulting in the introduction of legislation to phase out open-net salmon farming in the state completely by 2025. Cooke put up a fight, spending over $300,000 in the process, but the bill became law in 2018. A similar push in British Columbia didn’t fare as well, although a ban on open-net farms around Vancouver’s Discovery Islands went into effect in 2020 after the expected battles.
And a Federal case against Cooke continued, turning part of this book into a legal procedural saga. It’s almost wearying, the relentlessness of Cooke and similar mega-fisheries to pursue their profits at the expense of people and our planet, yet it’s all-too-unsurprising.
If there’s hope, it lies in the smaller producers who are discovering ways to farm salmon that are healthy for all concerned – and, of course, more expensive, meaning potentially less profitable. But the possibility is there. All that’s needed is the same sort of regulatory backing that gave us seatbelts and continues to try to take away tobacco. And that’s where the end of the story waits for now.
(B. A. Nilsson, 1/5/22)