A Stain upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming

A Stain upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming

Betty C. Keller, Alexandra Morton, Stephen Hume, Rosella Leslie

Reviewed by Lissa Wadewitz

This collection explores many of the controversial issues surrounding fish farming practices in British Columbia. In five separate essays, the authors illustrate the importance of the precautionary principle in experimenting with new chemicals and processes that could potentially have devastating environmental consequences. This anthology demonstrates that very little is known about the long-term effects of fish farming practices, and the authors advocate both stronger regulations and the need to proceed with care. 

The first three essays provide introductions to the environmental concerns surrounding fish farming, the main players involved, and how the industry has evolved. Stephen Hume’s “Fishing for Answers” discusses the main points of contention in the fish farming debate: escapement, the use of antibiotics, and the impact of the farms on the wild fish population. Hume interviews a wide variety of people concerned with the industry in order to reveal local understandings of fish farming practices and their environmental effects. He makes several important points about the potential dangers of introducing Atlantic salmon to the Pacific coast and raises good questions about the government’s seeming de-sire to promote fish farming over wild fish protection. The second chapter, by Betty Keller and Rosella Leslie, offers a detailed recent history of the fish farming industry in British Columbia. They spotlight the industry’s reliance on foreign capital and the consequences of lax government regulations. Otto Langer’s “Any Fish Is a Good Fish” highlights the failures of the Department of Fish and Oceans Canada (dfo). Langer charges that constant reorganization and political concerns have led the dfo to promote fish farming and to ignore the impact of the industry on the environment. Langer’s chapter calls for impartial studies of the fish farming industry and criticizes the government for letting politics direct scientific inquiry. 

The last two chapters focus on the scientific evidence available regarding fish farming practices and their potential dangers. Don Staniford presents a long list of toxic chemicals used by salmon farmers and their known – and suspected – environmental impacts. He charges that fish farmers simply turn to new and more powerful chemicals to control the diseases that plague farmed fish. Staniford advocates tighter controls on the use of chemicals – especially in the marine environment – and the need for ongoing studies to identify their effects. Alexandra Morton’s chapter is a personal account of how she got involved in fighting fish farms and tracking their impact on wild fish runs. She outlines the steps she took to study regional wild fish stocks and argues for additional research. 

A Stain upon the Sea is a somewhat polemical critique of how governments, industries, and communities allow economic concerns to take precedence over both the health of the environment and of people. The strength of this collection is in the questions it raises about fish farming practices and our lack of knowledge regarding the marine environment. Still, there are many issues that these authors do not explore – issues that would help to clarify how this industry has developed. A more critical and thorough analysis of the government’s motivations and policy decisions would have significantly strengthened several of the chapters. Why have the provincial and federal governments been so negligent in their management of fish farms? Who is responsible? Why hasn’t public pressure made a difference? As it is, the authors claim that government officials have favoured businesses and economic development over the environment, but they do not offer much in the way of direct evidence to support these claims. Likewise, several of these chapters would have benefited from paying more attention to larger political and historical contexts. In particular, it would have been helpful to know more about the relationship between fish farming and the long history of artificial hatchery propagation. Do fish hatcheries confront some of the same challenges as fish farms? Do they pose any of the same dangers? How are they different? Finally, while these authors clearly highlight the paucity of research on the introduction of new chemicals into the environment, there is no discussion of potential organic solutions. Are there any natural/organic methods for controlling diseases among farmed fish? Is anyone studying this possibility? 

Despite these criticisms, A Stain upon the Sea provides a readable overview of fish farming practices and the problems they pose for community members, government officials, and the wild salmon populations of Canada’s west coast. As most of the chapters do not include footnotes and the authors are upfront about their environmentalist agenda, this book will likely appeal most to general readers hoping to learn more about the rise of this controversial industry. 

BC Studies 146 (Summer 2005)