In 1992, 95 percent of Atlantic cod disappeared. Our fisheries collapsed, and with a major ocean predator gone, an entire ecosystem was out of whack. Now scientists say the European cod stocks are collapsing.
Thank god for pollock. Oh wait, their stocks remain depleted. OK, haddock? Some stocks stable, some uncertain, some shut down for "rebuilding." Atlantic halibut? Improving, but data is scarce.
And salmon? Fuggedaboutit.
Out west, scientists are baffled---or in the case of government scientists, completely disinterested---by the disappearing sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. In all, 10 million fewer salmon have returned to spawn this year. At this rate, BC pink salmon will be extinct by 2015.
Strangely, while the sockeye that migrated north out of the Fraser disappeared, the ones that migrated south did better than expected. Renowned biologist Alexandra Morton's theory is that salmon farms are killing the wild salmon.
"The salmon that go north and have a 90 percent failure rate, encounter 60 salmon farm sites on their route," she explains. "The ones that go south, and come back at four times the rate of DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) predictions, encounter zero farms."
The fish are on the upswing of their natural population cycle, hence the success of the southbound farm-free sockeye. The return rates for the sockeye are enormous in farm-free waters through the Pacific.
Given the way salmon farms operate, Morton's theory makes sense. They use Atlantic salmon in the Pacific, pump them full of drugs and chemicals and raid the Pacific for fish food like herring and sable fish, which could have otherwise been eaten by wild fish.
Despite the drugs and pesticides, penning wild, predatory, migratory fish creates a breeding ground for parasites and disease. Sea lice in particular thrive in the bright lights of fish farms, growing and reproducing like rabbits on 'roids. And all the salmon poop lands on the ocean floor, where it creates toxic algae blooms hundreds of feet deep. The wild salmon farms are placed smack dab in the middle of migration routes.
Not all aquaculture is so unsustainable. Some shellfish farms may actually benefit ocean ecosystems. But, as Morton says, "Growing a carnivore is not good for the ocean."
Morton has found some corroborating evidence for her theory in the form of sea lice on the sockeye, a malady common in farmed salmon. But further study is needed. According to Morton, "DFO has thwarted progress with a torrent of highly contradictory and confusing misinformation."
Morton and other scientists have been pushing for an inquiry into DFO practices for years. "If there had been a judicial inquiry into DFO's management of our North Atlantic cod stocks," she says, "certain DFO scientists would have been allowed to speak earlier and we would still have those fish stocks."
Last week, Morton got her wish. In possibly the only positive environmental move he's made aside from repressing a fart, prime minister Stephen Harper announced that there will be a judicial inquiry into DFO management of the Fraser River sockeye. The last time anyone took an official look at fisheries management was in a royal commission of 1928.
"It's an amazing step," says Shannon Arnold, Ecology Action Centre's marine coordinator. "I hope it is just a precursor to delving into the utter lack of accountability of fisheries management in Canada, the political decision-making and mismanagement that has led to a crisis in our oceans and fishing communities."
DFO has been screwing up the fisheries on both coasts for decades, setting quotas too high, suppressing scientific findings, refusing to enforce existing rules or regulate emerging industries like fish farming and generally favouring the greedy palms of multinational fishing giants over the calloused hands of traditional fishermen.
If the truth doesn't come out the salmon will be the second domino (cod being the first) in a long series of big fish extinctions. Morton urges Nova Scotians to take a closer look at our fish farms. "We need to band together on both coasts," she says.
When the community of Port Mouton Bay on the south shore did just that, they found a layer of salmon poop covering the ocean floor, polluting the bay and threatening the lobster catch. They fought a newer, bigger fish farm proposal and convinced the province to put an indefinite moratorium on fish farming in the area.
Sadly, though, we've taken the problem as a solution. In the face of collapsing fisheries we've consumed nine percent more farmed fish every year since 1985. The industry is projected to triple in coming years. Let the dominoes fall where they may.