Friday, September 01, 2017

Farms and Mines and Salmon

Sandwiched between the eclipse and Hurricane Harvey, an environmental disaster of potentially devastating proportions occured just north of us in the Puget Sound. Up to 300,000 farmed Atlantic salmon were dumped into the Sound when their pens collapsed for as-yet-undetermined reasons. My friend Cynthia Nims, an expert on fish and the fishing industry, posted the following on her blog, Mon Appétit.

It’s been a big week for salmon, at least here in the Seattle area, with two sizeable stories in play. One new, one older but with a new timeliness.

Three king salmon on left, farmed Atlantic salmon on right. The farmed fish show signs of yellow mouth disease, a bacterial infection.

The new news was the terrible failure of farmed salmon pens near the San Juan Islands. I’ll admit to not having been aware of how many salmon farms operate in the Puget Sound area, so along with the massive dump of Atlantic salmon into the native habitat of wild salmon comes the wake-up call about how much more potential impact could come from other active farms. No limit of controversy looms in the days following the incident Sunday, with contrary perspectives on to what degree extreme eclipse-related tidal activity was at fault (and why those high tides proved surprising), on how much impact those nonnative salmon will have on native populations, on the likelihood of them perishing before they get very far into regional river systems.

[Update: In an article posted on Sept. 1 by KUOW in Seattle, reporter John Ryan reveals that "Cooke Aquaculture and state officials knew at least six months ago that the floating salmon farm that collapsed in August was 'nearing the end of serviceable life,' with accelerating corrosion eating away at its hinges and steel structure. Even so, they agreed to fill the damaged structure with a full load of 3.1 million pounds of Atlantic salmon in an area regularly swept by strong currents."]

Kurt Beardslee of the Wild Fish Conservancy and Bill McMillan testing for diseases on spilled Atlantic salmon.

One article I read earlier this week suggested the Atlantics would be as likely to survive out of their controlled farm environment as a dairy cow released into the Serengeti. But an article Friday noted that Lummi Tribe fishers have caught Atlantics in the Skagit River and the latest piece I read this morning says that Makah Nation fishers have netted Atlantics on the Seiku River near Neah Bay, suggesting their ability to survive may have been underestimated. Having spent time on Lummi Island with salmon-fisher Riley Starks—including a visit to the Lummi Island Wild reef-netting operation he’s part of—it’s been particularly heartbreaking to hear the extraordinary challenge the fish dump has been in that region.

[Update: The KUOW article mentioned above reports that as of Sept. 1, the Atlantic salmon have been found "throughout Puget Sound and into Canadian waters. Some have swum up to 150 miles away, into the Pacific Ocean off the outer coast of Vancouver Island." Top photo shows Lummi Nation fishers Jay Julius and Steven Solomon working in Deepwater Bay at Cypress Island to rid Salish Sea waters of spilled Atlantic salmon.]

Many times this week I’ve had flashbacks to a conversation I had with the manager of a salmon processor up on Alaska’s Kodiak Island the summer of 1997. He was lamenting the rapid growth of salmon farming and its effect on overall market price for salmon, even prized wild salmon. I recall saying something to the effect of “farmed salmon are clearly here to stay, can’t fight that wave of production, but we can make a point of celebrating the value and appeal of wild salmon as a premium product.” I was editor at Simply Seafood magazine during much of the 1990s, a time when farmed fish was a big and relatively new topic. Farmed salmon, and other fish, may be anathema to those of us who–for ecological or gastronomic reasons, if not both–will always choose wild, but they have become mainstream fare for much of the population. I’ve always considered that wild salmon stands out against farmed salmon the way a gorgeous piece of artisan cheese stands out next to a piece of commercial cheddar. They’re just entirely different products.

Farming fish in the same waters that are home to their wild counterparts never seemed like a good idea to me. Land-based closed systems of course require more work to establish than dropping pens into existing natural habitat. But they alleviate the potential issues that come with dropping pens into wild habitat, which introduces a hyper-concentrated population where impact (feces, excess feed, potential for disease) surely can’t be fully benign–even when everything goes as planned. Trying to stop fish farming is unrealistic and not the answer, the potential for healthy protein this aquaculture provides is important for feeding the planet. Taking those farms to parts of the world where the production of healthful protein would be most beneficial–and the farming operation itself an economic benefit to the region–always made the most sense to me. We should not be farming salmon in the land of wild salmon. The concept’s not bad, but the location certainly is.

On the old-but-new salmon news front, I joined a few dozen from the restaurant industry at Hot Stove Society downtown Seattle on Wednesday for updates on what’s going on with the Pebble Mine project that is being proposed for Southwest Alaska. We’d all been hearing quite a lot in recent years about the Pebble Mine, which is in the vicinity of Bristol Bay. The potential value of the copper and gold that could be pulled from the earth there is mind boggling (I’ve read in the hundreds of billions of dollars). But so is the potential for disaster that could beset the region if mining safeguards fail and this unique, pristine, vibrant watershed is ravaged….

Read the rest of Cynthia's post here.

Photos by Riley Starks, used with permission. Check Riley Starks' Facebook page for the videos he's been posting about the spill.

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