A Gift from the Sea

salmon and sea lice

Tuesday January 26th was an important day for the long-term survival of wild salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

Target announced the removal all fresh, frozen and smoked farmed salmon from their 1744 stores nation wide. Target called the decision an “important step” to ensure that the salmon it sells is from a sustainable, environmentally friendly source.

“Target strives to be a responsible steward of the environment, while also providing our guests with the highest-quality food choices,” said Greg Duppler, Target’s senior VP of merchandising. “Our guests now have an array of sustainable seafood choices at great prices.”

Alexandra MortonMuch of the farmed salmon consumed in California comes from British Colombia. And as we learned while filming ‘Call of the Killer Whale’ in British Colombia, salmon farms have had a tremendous impact on the survival of wild salmon, affecting entire ecosystems and human communities.

The biological clock of the Pacific Northwest is set to the rhythm of the ebb and flow of five different species of Pacific salmon: Chinook, Chum, Coho, Sockeye, and Pink. As adults, salmon travel upstream from the open ocean to coastal rivers and streams in preparation to spawn. The shallows of the shaded coastal rivers and streams are perfect refuge for the eggs and developing young. It is here where the adults perform the last, and most important task of their lives just before they die--releasing eggs and sperm to create the next generation and ensure the continuity and genetic diversity of salmon. Later, after this next generation develops into tiny salmon or smolt, they swim downstream and into the open ocean, where some species may spend up to six years feeding in deeper oceanic waters. The adult salmon leave another gift: the nutrients from their bodies fertilize the river bushes and trees, recycling dead salmon back into the living system; there is no waste in nature. This gift directly connects the land to the sea.

Killer WhaleThe journey of salmon is an ancient migration that supports a complex web of life. In British Colombia two populations of resident killer whales arrive annually like clockwork in the inlet passages, following the runs of adult salmon as they travel to the river mouths and upstream. On land, black and brown bears will travel hundreds of miles to greet the salmon at their final resting place. Unfortunately, in the last century, and especially in the last two decades, this biological clock has changed, with ramifications that ripple through entire ecosystems and place economic hardship on coastal human communities.

Why the wild salmon populations are in decline is a complex issue with many impacts overlapping, including direct impacts from over harvesting and environmental degradation, to more complex changes in oceanographic conditions, to climate change on a global scale. But one local culprit, open-net salmon farms, is an impact that can be easily fixed; remove open-net salmon farms from the migration routes of wild salmon.

The second victory for the wild salmon runs in British Colombia came when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled to put a hold on new fish farm licenses until Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) develop new regulations for aquaculture in B.C.

Alexandra Morton, biologist with the Raincoast Research Society and featured in our film “Call of the Killer Whale,” has been warning the Canadian government of the potential collapse of different salmon runs due to sea lice infestations from open-net, farmed Atlantic salmon throughout the Broughton Archipelago, B.C.

“While I am truly sorry that jobs will be lost in ocean fish farming, bear in mind the industry is in deep trouble with mother nature herself in the fish farming strongholds of Chile and Norway,” adds Alexandra Morton. “Trying to hold this nomadic fish in pens is never going to work, because it causes epidemics, unnatural sea lice infestations and drug resistance. Salmon farming is not sustainable and ultimately we are better served by our wild fish.”

We are experiencing the consequences of not placing priority on the protection of this valuable ocean resource.   It takes great courage to act in the interest of the environment over commerce, but the protection of our wild salmon is now an economic issue.   It is affecting peoples’ lives in addition to the balance of the ecosystem. We cannot afford to delay taking action any longer; we just hope it is not too late.

Both Target and the British Colombia Supreme Court took giant steps in ensuring wild salmon continue to be a ‘gift from the sea’ for all species intricately linked to the web of life.

Warm regards,

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First Photo: Sea lice naturally occur on wild adult salmon but die as soon as the adult salmon swim up stream into fresh water. Adult salmon have a natural defense against these parasites--scales--and therefore the lice are ineffective. Unfortunately, salmon farms are breeding grounds for billions of sea lice that are easily transferred to the vulnerable young salmon smolt as they migrate out from the rivers and pass the farms on their way to the open ocean.  Since many of these juvenile salmon do not have scales yet, they do not survive the sea lice infestation from the farms. This smolt is too small for sea lice; it most likely will not survive. ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Second Photo: Jean-Michel joins Alexandra Morton, biologist with Raincoast Research Society, in the Broughton Archipelago where she has been conducing research on the interaction between farmed salmon, wild salmon and sea lice for years. She was one of the first to document sea lice from salmon farms as one of the most significant threats facing wild salmon in British Columbia. ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Third Photo: Blackney (A38) , a male killer whale, is part of the  A30 matriline of the northern resident killer whales.  Killer whales are one of the many species of wildlife that depend on a healthy, productive, annual salmon run in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.