Dr. Bill Pennell: My Background and the Early Years of Salmon Farming in BC:

I arrived on the West Coast in the mid-seventies knowing little about local oceanography or fisheries despite my degree in biological oceanography from the East Coast. As a greenhorn I had much to learn and when the Nimpkish Indian Band (now Namgis First Nations) hired me to join a team of biologists and band members to work on a variety of salmon and shellfish topics, I was thrown off the far end of the dock into deep waters.  I had to catch up quickly, but fortunately my new colleagues were seasoned West Coasters ever ready to help the greenhorn. One of our first tasks was to develop a salmon farm, which would be one of the dozen or so on the BC coast at this time.

The Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) donated eyed Coho salmon eggs, which we incubated in an old seaplane hanger where we also had set up a large vinyl swimming pool for rearing the fry.  We made our own fish food, a moist diet made from herring donated by the Nimpkish fishermen mixed in a giant hamburger machine, some binder and vitamin powder mixed in. Fresh water came from a well, clean and warm enough to accelerate the Coho fry to smolts by spring (normally Coho require a full year of fresh water rearing). We had what appeared to be silvery smolts ready for the ocean, but in fact few were. No-one knew then that Coho required certain temperature and photoperiod regimes to become true smolts in less than a year: most of ours were pseudo-smolts and did not prosper when introduced to the salt chuck. We built net pens from old boom sticks and hand-sewn netting. Bacterial kidney disease arrived, many fish died, and many others escaped our primitive nets when driftwood logs tore into them.

We in Alert Bay were not much different than the other dozen or so pioneers attempting to grow Coho salmon to a “pan size”, ca 12 inches in length.  The pioneers were mostly an odd bunch of folks, unreconstructed individualists, who had moved into the bays and inlets along the South Coast and were looking for something to do. The marijuana industry had not arrived, so why not grow salmon? DFO found this at best a pipe dream and at worse an irritant. They were certain that salmon farming could never amount to anything, but they humored us with surplus Coho eggs from their hatcheries and the Province gave us hastily drawn up permits.

Meanwhile at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, researchers led by Dr. Roly Brett were doing ground-breaking work on the nutrition and growth dynamics of Pacific salmon, and they were visited by Norwegian scientists with a serious interest in salmon farming. The B.C. information, as well as results from research in Washington State, was taken back to Norway and applied to Atlantic salmon where trials were already well underway.  By the early 1980’s Norway had a significant industry rearing Atlantic salmon to nearly full size while we in B.C. snoozed and struggled with our dying pan-sized Coho.

I worked in Alert Bay for three wonderful years and then moved south to Nanaimo to Malaspina College where a new program was to open: Fish Culture Technology, which later became the Fisheries and Aquaculture Program of Vancouver Island University.   I taught here for 25 years, spending one sabbatical year as the Director of Research for the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association (BCSFA). After retirement I stayed on at VIU helping to develop research infrastructure and the Institute for Coastal Research. I am now well retired devoting my time to writing and photography. I present this biographical information because salmon farming in BC is so very controversial – the reader needs to know of my long association with this industry almost from its very beginnings.

A Norwegian Influence For Expansion

In the mid 1980’s something very dramatic happened on the BC coast; a Norwegian economic developer hired by the town of Sechelt, Odvin Vido, took a plane-load of influential people from B.C. to Norway to see the now thriving Atlantic salmon farming industry. These people returned excited by the prospect that this could happen in B.C. What came next was a gold rush of people starting small salmon farms around the Salish Sea, especially on the Sunshine Coast, and on the west coast of Vancouver Island.   In my new role as a teacher of salmon culture technology, I was besieged by earnest people asking how to get into the game. They had their life savings, and those of their parents and parents-in-law, and were ready to find a lease and begin. I tried to dissuade them – way too risky and too soon. We still did not know enough. To no avail. Most of them plunged ahead and to financial ruin.

By 1987 there were over one-hundred small farms in BC all battling BKD, vibrio, harmful algae, seal predation, and all losing their shirts. DFO was pressured into providing Chinook salmon eggs because this species might grow larger, but Chinook proved difficult in other ways. Larger companies were formed and bought up the small bankrupt farms, built large hatcheries, and eventually brought in Atlantic salmon – innately easier to rear in captivity and bringing a higher price.   It soon became clear that the warm water sites along the Sunshine Coast were mainly unsuitable for cold water salmon. Agamemnon Channel, where many early farms were located, became known as Armageddon Pass due to the dying salmon and failing farms. A wry joke. New sites were badly needed.

The Province of B.C. was then in charge of salmon farming. At that time DFO had to administer the Fisheries Act, but not sites, licenses, or other permits; this has recently changed.  In the early 1990’s the Van Der Zalm and later B.C. governments opened new regions to the industry including the Broughton Archipelago near Alert Bay and Port McNeil, and the Discovery Islands east of Campbell River, both regions where cool marine water could be found all year round. The new industry was essentially given Carte blanche to choose sites and move in.  There was no substantial consultation with First Nations or other coastal communities. I will come back to this, because I believe it to be one of the reasons why the industry is facing political challenges today.

Back to 1987 when I took up a year of residence in Vancouver working for the BCSFA. It was by now abundantly clear that there was a very strong and active opposition to salmon farming. One of my first assignments was to attend a town hall meeting in Sechelt. It was held in a local high school gymnasium, and I naively expected a civilized information-sharing event. Not so!  I was yelled at from the audience, insulted on stage by a local politician, and generally treated like a pariah. This was an entirely new experience for me. On the positive side, I was later taken to Norway to see a maturing industry. What a difference.

To this day I find it difficult to understand how such a small, embryonic undertaking caused so much opposition as did salmon farming in these early days. The commercial wild salmon harvesters saw it as a threat, and in 1987 prices of all salmon dropped about 20%, a function of supply and demand in an international commodity.  Salmon farming in Norway was blamed although the build-up of giant hatcheries in Alaska must have contributed to the supply. The wild salmon harvesters organized an effective opposition and were soon joined by environmental groups including the David Suzuki Foundation and others.

I don’t think that anyone then predicted how large and successful salmon farming would become, both here in B.C. and around the world – we have all heard the local industry figures: around 6000 jobs and 1.5 billion dollars annually.  The job number includes all work associated with salmon farming – growing the fish, running the hatcheries, making fish food, net making, harvesting, processing, sales and distribution – everything. In Norway, which produces about 50% of the world’s farmed salmon, the export value of salmon is about $10 billion Canadian dollars annually.  Around 15,000 jobs are created just for the growing, hatchery operation and fish food manufacture. We could probably double this figure if we were to include all of the related economic activity. The population of Norway is about 5.3 million. Of BC, 4.8 million. The length of coastlines of the two countries is large, Norway having the longer coastline.

One can see from the above figures that BC has a lot of unrealized potential for salmon farming and aquaculture in general.   Opponents of salmon farming will find this alarming. Proponents see it as an invitation to expand. In Norway salmon farming received very significant government support, because wild fisheries were in decline and small coastal communities were shrinking due to lack of viable income. The Cold War was still on, and Norway also wished to have its coast inhabited for strategic reasons. Thus Norwegian salmon farming was seen as a socially relevant industry, a complement to the wild fishery. In B.C. it has been quite the opposite – salmon farming lives amidst near-violent controversy, and this controversy is expensive for the companies and emotionally draining for the workers. However one wonders if the constant pressure from environmental groups has hastened the evolution of the farms to become ever more sustainable or whether this would have happened in any case.

Industry Problems in the Early Days

In the early days of salmon farming, methodologies were often crude. It did not matter too much then since the industry was tiny – small net pens, small farms and few of them. The workers were largely untrained and the technology undeveloped. I recall one of my students telling me of rampant drug abuse on the farm where he worked.  When the area manager was due for an inspection, everyone straightened up, and the farm looked well run. Fish didn’t fare well at such a farm. Management across the industry realized that getting feed to the fish was limiting production – the early farms fed their fish by hand and lazy workers found it easy to shirk this arm-tiring job. In one larger company, management decided to give a bonus for the amount fed – the more feed pellets delivered to the fish, the higher the pay. This company eventually went bankrupt, and later, divers found great piles of 50 pound feed sacks on the bottom beneath the farm site. Unopened.

One of my favourite classes during my teaching years was with future fisheries, parks, and conservation officers. These were men and women mostly in their 20’s. They knew what they wanted from their program and were hard- working and mature. Most of them would one day be packing firearms. It was felt that they should know something about aquaculture since this was a growing industry, but a very controversial one, so I was asked to create a course for them.  I explained that they should not trust me because of my association with the industry and that they would have to be careful trusting anyone. Then I set them up in groups of four and gave each an assignment to determine as far as possible the realities of the main controversies, for example, benthic alteration, Atlantic salmon escapes and colonization, disease on farms, and others. They did a superb job, far better and more objective than any of the media of that time.  One group went out to Alberni Inlet to the site of an early farm, now long gone, and did a dive They brought back photos of all manner of trash that had been thrown off the farm – lawn chairs, scrap metal, bottles and more. They were quite indignant about this. Another group investigated seal predation on farms and began their Power Point presentation with a picture of David Suzuki in cross hairs of a rifle scope. The caption read: “Salmon Farming’s Biggest Predator”. These students were not without humour.  

Despite these problems, most of the early farms were well run by serious and hard working owners.  But it was a hard slog for most of them, simply because they had poor sites, and were using a very undeveloped technology.  Mortalities could be as high as 50% from smolt to harvest, and some farms were wiped out entirely by harmful plankton blooms. There were few vaccines, and the Pacific salmon (Coho and Chinook) presented special challenges.

When the farms first came to the Broughton’s in the early 1990’s, there were two main companies. I will call then X and Y. X was progressive and attempted to be a good community member – they slowed their boats when passing another boat, used the VHF appropriately, and supported the local school and water taxi.  Despite the lack of prior consultation with communities, they were good ambassadors for the industry. Company Y was pretty much the opposite. They did not slow their boats, used foul language on the radio phone.  They were arrogant and had some very poor farming practices. On one memorable occasion they stretched a rope across a narrow pass with no flagging and nearly decapitated a prominent mainland citizen. Time passed and these two companies acquired other companies and grew. Their names changed, but memories in the Mainland inlets are long, and to this day the two companies are seen differently by local people.

Modern Salmon Farms Operate Much Differently

The industry is now dominated by a few very large companies, multinationals, and a very small number of family farms.  Of those original dozen pioneers, only one remains, still farming Coho and chinook in a distant, hidden inlet. Well over 90% of B.C.’s production is Atlantic salmon.  The multinational structure of the industry attracts criticism with notions of wealthy 1% CEO’s in distant lands claiming the profits, but anyone can become a shareholder, and most of the complex products we use today are made by multinationals or complexes of large companies – e.g. automobiles, computers, cameras, cosmetics, medical drugs.   In the 1970’s my Alert Bay colleagues and I daydreamed of small net pen flotillas scattered throughout the mainland run co-op style by First Nations and other residents. A communal feed barge would deliver fish food and harvesting and marketing would also be done by the co-op. Well, it happened but very differently.

Several trends have been developing over the last two decades.  The farms are large and hold as many as 800,000 fish. Improved feeds have led to higher digestibility and better growth and health. Typically one kilogram of dry food produces nearly one kg of fish in the round. Automated feeding systems result in less feed being wasted, and vaccines have been created to reduce losses by diseases.  Survival from smolt to harvest is usually above 90%. The carbon footprint for salmon farming is far lower than that for chicken or other terrestrial animals. Each large company has its own veterinarian and fish health technicians, and laboratories. The fish are sampled frequently. Few antibiotics are used, and the resulting flesh compares nicely with that of wild salmon in terms of unsaturated fats and protein quality.  The taste is excellent. There are no impurities or toxins in these fish. This of course is not what one may read on Facebook or in op-eds in other media.

Salmon farms are all now heading to various levels of eco-certification. The certification schemes vary in their rigor, but the good ones include the ecological footprint of the operation (carbon emitted, recycling) and fish welfare. The crew members must also have good working conditions – safe, well- paid, benefits – and the possibility of career paths to advancement. Before a new worker can set foot on a farm many courses must be taken ranging from first aid, safely, equipment operation, and even public relations.  No more careless words on the radio.

The Issues With Land Based Salmon Farms

I must say something about on-land salmon farms.  Many environmentalists insist that salmon farms would be OK if only they would move to tanks on land using RAS technology – Recirculating Aquaculture Systems.  This technology re-uses rearing water filtering out solid waste and detoxifying ammonia, the main dissolved excretory product of fish. These systems have been evolving for over three decades and are reaching very high levels of performance. However they are very expensive to build and to operate.  In a floating salmon farm, the tide takes away toxic by-products, but in the RAS model, pumps are used to move water and to heat or cool if necessary. Various estimates suggest 5 – 7 times more expense to raise a market salmon with RAS than in the ocean. The carbon footprint is also very much higher.  To be sure there are no toxic algae events to worry about and no intrusions of low dissolved oxygen water masses to stress fish. No escapes or other marine disasters. There is one RAS facility in BC – on Vancouver Island, but it has recently shut down and is looking for investors. In other words although fish were produced and sold, and sold with a slight boost in price, the facility could not make money. To make matters worse much of the ten million dollars invested was donated by foundations and BC tax payers and the land was free.  Many years ago another such facility was built near Nanaimo. It perished very early on.

Technology move quickly and may develop exponentially.  It is possible that RAS will emerge as a reasonable and economic way to grow salmon. There are many sturgeon farms on land world wide, but these sell very expensive sturgeon meat and the ultimate luxury food, Caviar.  Salmon is a commodity and does not bring a very high price. If the technology improves enough to make RAS the way of the future even for commodities, then it is likely that the industry would move nearer to its markets, e.g. near the large cities in the USA and Europe, and the BC coast would lose one more industry. Interestingly the private salmon hatcheries are state -of- the art RAS, but they are producing small fish with a per kg value ten to twenty times that of the mature market fish.

I think that we should keep an open mind about this issue and look at it objectively from many points of view.  There will be many experiments over the coming years, but we are not there yet.

The Coastal Perspective

When one is on the water, one sees a farm here and there, well separated. There are yellow steel buoys marking the lease boundaries, low lying cages, and one or two green floating houses – one for the crew and one to store feed and the feeding systems.  Here and there are a few fishing or eco-tourism lodges and in backwaters, float houses of the mainlanders. Only a few remote First Nations villages are still inhabited, most having been long abandoned for many reasons including the residential school system and government pressures.

If we look back 400 years, the coast was very densely populated by First Nations. After European contact, diseases reduced these populations dramatically, and there were other pressures put upon them.  By the late 19th century the coast became a busy place once again, this time populated by loggers, miners, small farms, salmon canneries, and sawmills.  But by the end of the two world wars, the coast had to a large extent emptied again. Forestry hires only a fraction of the people it once did.  Commercial fishing based in small communities, especially those of First Nations, has all but dried up, much of what is left owned by a few of large companies based in Vancouver.  The canneries are all gone. Many environmentalists would like to see the coast unblemished by human activity, especially by those floating fish farms, but there is something to be gained by having vibrant coastal communities whose inhabitants have a vested interest in coastal health.  And who have ways and means to make a living.

It is important to say something more about First Nations people, many of whom are opposed to salmon farming.  In the 1970’s when I arrived in Alert Bay, the Nimpkish and many other bands were well engaged in what was then called Land Claims, now Treaty Negotiations.   The goals are the same – to reclaim land and resources unjustly taken from them over the last 150 years. All along the coast we see white shell midden beaches, clam gardens, canoe landing grooves.  Clearly this was traditional territory, and when a new industry comes into it without consultation – without invitation – resentment could well be the result. The industry will have to come to terms with First Nations if it is to prosper.  Some of this has happened or is beginning.

The above may supply some background and context.  But why is the opposition so fierce and unrelenting? The industry has grown, but it is not dominating the coast. It has improved dramatically in every way and will continue to do so. It is often pointed out that salmon farming is one of the most tightly regulated agricultural systems anywhere.  And yet many people, including a number of my friends, are firmly opposed. Few of these people have ever been on a salmon farm, few of them have ever read scientific papers on the topic, and yet they feel strongly that this industry should not exist on the BC coast. These are intelligent citizens, well educated. All these people feel that the environment is important and many have taken measures to reduce their own ecological footprints. For example some have reduced meat-eating, have chosen locally grown foods, have bought electric vehicles, installed LED lights, and purchase carbon offsets when they fly around the world for business or pleasure. In a general way, their unspoken idea of the Environment is a pristine world with minimal human intervention.  They tend to vote left of centre.

I am not being critical of these people. I tend to agree with them on many topics, but I wonder how they came by their very strong opinions.  If asked directly most will say that they have read about it and that science reinforces their view. Both sides of the controversy bring their own science to bear, but this seems not to change opinions.   One wonders how this can be since science is supposed to be objective.

Science and the Dilemma of the Lay Person

Science is a relatively recent institution for humans.  Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens writes that the scientific revolution beginning about 500 years ago was characterized by an acknowledgment that we do not know everything, but that we can discover what we do not know if we go about it in a disciplined and objective manner.  Francis Bacon said much the same thing. Over time most scientific concepts are modified or even rejected in favour of better ones. Julian Huxley said something like this: A scientific idea begins as a heresy, becomes dogma and then is thrown out as a myth. Such is scientific progress and it can be messy.  Truth is a moving target. Science and technology can produce vaccines, computers, space ships, and robots, but apparently it cannot resolve such a relatively simple proposition as the claim that salmon farming is or is not a suitable economic activity for the BC coast.   

Scientific knowledge evolves with the publication of papers in peer-reviewed journals.   If the laboratory work or field studies appear to have been well done, a paper will be published. Then other scientists may repeat the studies and if they get similar results, the conclusions will become accepted as reasonable.  However it does not always go smoothly, and debates can become intense. Most scientists believe that eventually something like the truth will emerge, then we can move on to other topics. However when there is a background of controversy, for example political or environmental, the scientists themselves may lose objectivity.  I once had a contract to interview B.C. scientists on the sea lice–salmon farm issue to determine the most important areas of needed research. The idea was to determine priorities and not waste public money on trivial topics. Many of the 40 or so people that my colleague and I interviewed were polite, knowledgeable, and sincere, but quite a few were caustic and so critical of each other that had I published their words, there would have been court cases.

In the long term, science carries on until new information challenges current thinking. Then there can be a paradigm change. The Copernican revolution, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and quantum physics are examples- not without controversy at the times of their formulation They eventually became examples of legitimate scientific progress.  In the 1950’s the scientist in white lab coat was an authority figure and generally believed. This is far less true today. We have been exposed to many controversies and have seen what appeared to be sound science debunked. How do we in the public decide who is right?

This is an essential question.  Most responsible people would like to base their decisions and opinions on something solid – sound logic and evidence.  But science as a major vehicle for creating evidence is hard for the lay person to understand. Scientists themselves are so specialized that science outside their narrow cones of work may be quite difficult for them to interpret.  In other words we are all to some degree lay people – scientists, doctors, loggers, and lawyers. I have seen highly accomplished scientists within a prescribed field step outside their specialty with unwarranted confidence and say truly silly things.  We need generalists who can speak to us about a broad range of topics, but then there is the issue of trust.

Thus how do I as a citizen decide whether climate change is real and mainly caused by humans or not?  If 98% of the highly specialized scientists (climatologists, oceanographers, ecologists, modelers, and others) say that this is so, I might be smart to believe them.  These are the experts and they almost all agree. But what if only 50% of them agreed? Then I would have a problem. I might choose the scientists that I liked and go with them, but are these just the most persuasive scientists?  The ones in the public eye?

People may have other reasons for choosing their beliefs. Our species survived for hundreds of thousands of years without science, so there must be other ways to form beliefs, ways that once conferred survival. Perhaps if we hear things over and over on various media, we come to accept them. Perhaps if our ancestors heard that there are lions “over there” and heard this often, we should just accept this and stay away.  Of course there was the boy who cried “Wolf”.

Or as has also been suggested, most of us belong to groups – virtual or actual.   This would go back to small groups of foragers before the advent of agriculture and had immense survival value.   We would have shared the views of our group or else have had to leave the group. Today we still want to belong to various groups, which we like for many reasons, and we tend to accept our group’s beliefs.  Accepting beliefs may still have survival value in confusing times by reducing mental stress.

An Industry Under Pressure & Threat

The current salmon farming industry feels under threat. Both the NDP and Green Parties of B.C. have made strong statements that they are opposed to this industry. Lana Popham, now the Minister of Agriculture, stated during her election campaign in Campbell River that she would get rid of salmon farms if elected.  Would this coalition government limit salmon farming or even phase it out despite of the economic benefits it brings to the coast and province? I do not know, but there should be a better way to come to an understanding of the many opposed viewpoints on this issue than the harsh disputes we see now.

One possibility could be the creation of a respectful space – real or virtual – with clear rules of engagement.  In such spaces the issues could be discussed, and people could come to understand each other’s points of view. I understand that this is a large field of social sciences study and experiment, and that it has not always worked well.  If both sides are deeply entrenched (and humorless), it probably has little chance. But I would be inclined to try it. There may be a large number of middle-ground people willing to explore the issue.

If any reader has come this far in my essay, they will know roughly where I stand regarding aquaculture and salmon farming.   I think that it is a good, sustainable industry, one that brings work to the BC coast where options have diminished. The industry has also shown itself to be on a trajectory of ever better environmental practices.  It can be seen as complementary to the wild fishery rather than a threat or rival to it. But I have a caveat. The industry needs to be closely monitored and mistakes or errors quickly corrected. Rules must be enforced. DFO now has most of this responsibility, and they are likely still getting up to speed with this portfolio.  The industry will continue to improve both economically and environmentally, but government needs to over-see its development carefully.

Bill Pennell is a founder of Vancouver Island University’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Program. He has a BA from Bowdoin College and a PhD from McGill University.