Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Responding to Alexandra Morton and the New York Times

Mary Ellen Walling also passed us the following note that she wrote in response to a New York Times profile of British Columbia-based environmental activist, Alexandra Morton:
Alexandra Morton's efforts to save the orcas off the coast of British Columbia are admirable. As Cornelia Dean discovered in her profile, Ms. Morton is passionate about her environment. Ms. Dean also learned Ms. Morton "doesn't come from a scientific background but she has had a lot of influence" when it comes to scrutinizing the salmon farming industry in British Columbia.

The problem is that readers of the article are likely to come away endorsing Ms. Morton's view that sea lice from salmon farms are decimating wild salmon populations in the Broughton Archipelago. That would be unfortunate because the article neglects to mention a couple of key points and misrepresents a couple of others.

A fisheries biologist quoted in the article notes, "A lot of wild salmon populations have been on the edge for quite a long time, threatened by logging, dams and plain old overfishing". Up and down the Pacific Coast this year there have been reports of declining salmon populations: many of the areas of concern are not conducive to aquaculture or are places where there are no farms. The main culprit seems to be climate change, which has caused increased water salinity and changes in water temperature and currents.

In British Columbia, where Ms. Morton lives, salmon farming is the most stringently regulated agricultural industry in the province, and of any salmon farming region in the world. In recognition of the fact that sea lice, a naturally occurring marine parasite, could infest salmon farms, breed and then transfer back to wild fish, farmers are required - as a condition of their operating license - to monitor fish for lice. More than three lice on any fish triggers treatment using a product called SLICE, which even critics such as Ms. Morton's research partner Martin Krkosek has found to be very effective in eradicating lice while being benign to the marine environment.

Ms. Dean describes how Alexandra Morton inspects farmed salmon to see if they have been fed chemicals to colour their flesh pink. What isn't mentioned is that all salmon - farmed and wild - have naturally pale flesh. The pink colour that we associate with salmon comes from beta carotene: wild fish get it from eating krill; farmed fish get it from carotenoids (either astaxanthin or canthaxanthin) an ingredient that can be purchased in health food stores for human consumption as it has strong anti-oxidant qualities.

In the video that accompanied the article we hear Ms Morton direct us not to eat farmed salmon but to eat wild fish instead. This statement is both alarming and irresponsible. Global demand for fish has doubled since 1973. As a result, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization states that "the maximum wild-capture fisheries potential from the world's oceans has probably been reached." For those who wish to protect wild fish the best thing to do is to eat sustainably farmed fish - such as those we raise in British Columbia - as a way to meet increasing demand without putting undue pressure on wild stocks

Ms Morton and salmon farmers in BC have many points of disagreement but we share a common concern. British Columbia's wild salmon are a precious resource that deserves to be protected -- both from environmental risks and emotional rhetoric.
For more on the salmon farming operations in British Columbia, click here.

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