Mass murders, mutations, poisons and disease-ridden guts sound like the makings of a perfect Halloween thriller. Unfortunately, these are the consequences of Canada’s open net-pen salmon farming industry, and it's spooking the heck out of anyone with an interest in maintaining some level of ecosystem health along our coasts. Industry victims are growing almost daily. If you care about wild salmon, orcas, eagles, bears, herring, and/or the livelihoods of our coastal peoples, then read on and get ready to turn your horror into a call for action.

Perusing my google alerts for 'farmed salmon', thinking it can't get any more grim and, guess what, it did. The latest piecce of devastating news? The Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) virus has shown up in wild juvenile sockeye salmon in British Columbia’s River’s Inlet, and coho, Chinook and chum salmon in the mighty Fraser River system. Never before found in the Pacific Northwest, the flu-like virus in question that causes lethargy, anorexia, anemia and often death, was determined to be a European strain, pointing fingers back to the salmon farms full of Atlantic salmon owned, and stocked, by Norwegian companies. What exactly this means for the future of wild salmon in B.C., no one knows.

The virus was first detected in Norwegian salmon farms in the early 1980s, and has since been found, and remains an issue, in major factory salmon farming countries around the globe. To put the gravity of the B.C. finding into perspective, once this virus is present, it can wreak havoc. Canada’s east coast salmon farming industry is no stranger to ISA and between 1997 and 2005, about 7.5 million fish were killed in New Brunswick farms to control outbreaks. However, despite mass culling and the organization of farms into bay management areas used to separate fish of different ages (in an attempt to decrease transmission rates), outbreaks have continued.

The most severe recorded outbreak and loss from ISA occurred in 2007 in Chile when the virus wiped out 70% of farmed salmon. Just last week a new, tougher strain was detected in various cages of a farm in Chile owned by Canada’s Cooke Aquaculture - the largest salmon farming company in N. America and the major player on Canada's east coast. The implications of this outbreak are not yet known.

Note: Cooke is the same company that produces WiseSource salmon sold in Canadian supermarkets – a greenwash, marketing ploy that you really shouldn’t buy (literally or figuratively). It’s basically a very minor step up from the usual total farmed salmon horror show, with all the same potential problems. But I digress, for some additional thoughts on WiseSource salmon click here.

The potential nightmarish consequences of a widespread ISA outbreak in B.C. is merely a drop in a bucket of morts- a term used by the aquaculture industry to describe the fish that die and fall to the bottom of the net cages. The most concerning cause of these deaths is disease and what the implications are for the surrounding ecosystem. During the ‘Aquaculture’ and ‘Disease’ evidentiary hearings of the Cohen Commission – a federal inquiry into the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River sockeye salmon – I learned more than I wanted to know about the number of diseases posing threats to our wild fish stocks. One incidence in particular peaked my interest due to the location of the farms’ – the beautiful waters of the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

I had been following wild salmon warrior, Alexandra Morton’s, blogs on disease outbreaks for some time, but the thought of an outbreak in a Reserve prompted me to take a trip to Tofino with our boat crew. We set out to scope out and document where the farms in question are located, and to send a message to the industry that we’re all watching and we won’t let the lifeblood of our coast and those that rely on it, to suffer when there are greener and healthier options for Canadians. Our message was simple: Keep it wild, salmon farms out.

Our journey through the islands was magical, and showed us how wild this area truly is. Seals, deer, eagles, jumping fish, wolf dens, bear tracks and various other creatures and lush vegetation helped to remind us what we stand to lose, and it goes so far beyond our wild salmon stocks. It’s entire ocean food webs.

The reality is that since inception, the salmon farming industry in Canada has transformed benthic (sea floor) ecosystems and created dead-zones on the east coast due to nutrient pollution; released into the marine environment species not native to the region in B.C. and unnatural native species into wild Atlantic salmon habitat on the east coast to compete with wild stocks that have all but disappeared; polluted beaches on both coasts; poisoned lobster in their critical habitat and who knows what else in the Bay of Fundy; lead to the death of marine mammals, seabirds and other species; released toxic chemicals into an already stressed marine environment; caused wild juveniles to catch and die from sea lice; displaced marine species from their habitat; gobbled up countless thousands of tonnes of wild fish, often taken from lesser developed regions in need of the source of protein, to create a source of protein that has been shown to be ridden with cancer-causing chemicals……..and then the threat of frankenfish...Like I said, it’s a nightmare.

About a week after the aquaculture hearings wrapped up, as if the industry could actually take another blow, news from both coasts sounded the alarms once again. In B.C., Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) released the number of marine mammals that had been shot or drowned at BC salmon farms, many of which had been killed in the Clayoquot Sound Reserve. Between 1989 and 2000, it was reported that 6,243 seals and sea lions were killed. Thirty-seven harbour seals, 141 California sea lions and two Steller sea lions were killed during only the first three months of 2011.

And on the east coast? Reports that farmed salmon escapes have been entering the Magaguadavic River in southwest New Brunswick and the Dennys River in Maine coincided with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) releasing its final report reaffirming previous findings that five Atlantic salmon populations are considered endangered, one is threatened, four are special concern, one is extinct, four are not at risk, and one is data deficient. The potential interbreeding of escaped and wild salmon is a huge threat to the survival of wild stocks. The COSEWIC report noted that: "..growth of the Canadian aquaculture industry has coincided with severe decline in wild populations in the nearby rivers in the Bay of Fundy," and "Even small percentages of escaped farmed salmon have the potential to negatively affect resident populations, either through demographic or genetic changes…There have been many reviews and studies showing that the presence of farmed salmon results in reduced survival and fitness of wild Atlantic salmon." And this scary fact: "In North America, farm-origin salmon have been reported in 87% of the rivers investigated within 300 km of aquaculture sites."

Our oceans are in crisis and with all that’s so clearly wrong with the practice of farming salmon in net-pens, it’s no shocker that farmed salmon is found on Greenpeace’s Redlist. We’re urging supermarkets to remove it from sale and consumers to avoid buying it. Momentum is building and retailers across the border and here in Canada are starting to realize that this product undermines their attempts to green their seafood sections. If ever there wase a time to take a stand against net-pen farmed salmon, it’s now. Urge your local supermarket to rid this product from their shelves and contact your MP and urge them to support MP’s pushing for positive change. The federal government needs to stop helping the industry try to pull the wool over our eyes and actually, here’s a thought, PROTECT OUR OCEAN WILDLIFE!

There are lots of organizations and passionate people working diligently to protect our wild stocks and get salmon farms out of our marine environments. Information about a few coalitions and community groups with active orgs or people on both coasts can be found at:

Atlantic Coalition of Aquaculture Reform
Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform
Fraser Riverkeepers
Friends of Clayoquot Sound
Salmon Are Sacred