We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


The Aquaculture Controversy in Canada: Activism, Policy, and Contested Science

By Ralph Matthews

Review By Jaime Yard

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 169 Spring 2011  | p. 148-152

There are few issues in British Columbia more divisive than aquaculture. With their new book, Nathan Young and Ralph Matthews provide a timely, well-documented, and clearly articulated step back from the aquaculture fray. The impetus behind the book is stated succinctly by the authors in their opening paraphrase of Ulrich Beck (2002): “this is a case where more and more knowledge paradoxically appears to be leading us further and further from consensus” (13). In response to the proliferation of aquaculture debates, Young and Matthews provide a useful outline of many key contemporary issues. This book could serve as a useful foundation for academics, coastal communities, industry members, policy-makers, and lobbyists who are interested in gaining access to reliable baseline data on such crucial issues as employment potential and quality, regulatory instruments and challenges, and the conflicts inherent in the Canadian state simultaneously working to regulate and to promote aquaculture development. A useful inventory of active pro- and anti-aquaculture lobby groups is included (1012). This research redresses a fundamental gap in the existing literature on aquaculture, namely, an index of key issues and data without a prior commitment to a pro- or anti-aquaculture development stance. 

Aquaculture Controversy in Canada is divided into three main sections. The principal argument of the first section is that aquaculture development and policy must be understood with reference to broader structural changes to Canadian economic organization – specifically, neoliberal restructuring of cycles of accumulation and systems of regulation. Descriptions of the reconfiguration of local-global connections and devolution of state involvement in industrial regulation to corporate actors are persistent themes of this work and of earlier work by these authors (Young 2008; Young and Matthews 2007). Given the great emphasis within this section on the empowerment of corporate actors under neoliberal reforms, the absence of any sustained discussion of corporate concentration within global aquaculture, particularly the role of Norwegian transnational corporations in shaping the industry, is a notable absence. The analytic framework that Young and Matthews provide – juxtaposing the geography of Fordist extractive development to neoliberal resource management strategies – would be usefully grounded by a more sustained discussion of the major global aquaculture corporations and the extent of their Canadian investments. 

Neoliberalism is usefully deployed in the text as a descriptive analytical frame for contemporary state facilitation of global markets, but the critique of this economic ideology is sometimes left implicit in the data-concentrated chapters to follow. Young and Matthews’s critique is most apparent in the final chapter of the book, which addresses aquaculture industry self-regulation. Readers looking for a more critical investigation of the application of neoliberal ideology in fisheries and aquaculture might supplement their reading with Dean Bavington’s Managed Annihilation, an examination of management ideology in fisheries, also recently published by UBC Press; the ongoing work of Evelyn Pinkerton on ecosystem-based fisheries co-management; and John Phyne’s critical comparative work on aquaculture in Norway, Ireland, and Chile. These authors provide in-depth examinations of the community-level impacts of the private enclosure of ecological commons for aquaculture development, while Young and Matthews focus their attention on the discursive construction of such impacts. 

In part two, Young and Matthews posit that, for the majority of Canadians, aquaculture is “learned rather than lived” (75): that is, farmed fish are encountered only as controversial commodities in the market, the conditions of their production being something read about rather than witnessed directly. Through the three chapters in this section the authors outline how the authority of science is invoked in a contradictory manner by environmental non-governmental organizations (engo), industry public relations, aquaculture experts, and the media. Chapter 3 specifically examines key incidents that have contributed to the endemic uncertainty in scientific debates about aquaculture. Significantly, they find that it is engo aquaculture opponents who have been most successful in defining the issues for debate and their scientific framing (103). The authors suggest that the extreme splitting of the expert community and their claims to scientific authority on such issues as environmental impacts, toxicity and human health, and effects on wild fish stocks have resulted in an increasingly technical debate that appears to have undermined, rather than enhanced, the public faith in scientific objectivity. Stated otherwise, aquaculture is often perceived by the public to be a moral and commercial debate disguised as a scientific one. 

Chapter 4 draws upon a survey, conducted by Young and Matthews and their research assistants, of three hundred aquaculture experts across Canada. Expertise is defined as “direct involvement in aquaculture and the communication of research findings” and “formal educational background in natural and/or social sciences” (115). The survey finds that the institutional affiliation of experts is the strongest determinant in their responses to questions, but the authors avoid taking a stand on whether or not personal and social variables help explain professional stances on aquaculture (113). Nevertheless, they quantify how value orientations towards economic growth and environmental health correlate with support for and opposition to aquaculture development (12930). They conclude that experts on all sides of the debate are more interested in “protecting the integrity of science from the turbulence caused by the controversy than they are with attacking adversaries” (157) and that experts overwhelmingly place blame upon the media for fuelling the controversy. This finding appears as a promising invitation for key contested studies in the debate – on pcb levels (Hites et al. 2004), sea lice contamination of wild fish (Krkosek et al. 2007, 2008; Riddell et al. 2008), and the effects of chemicals and antibiotics on surrounding marine environments and human health – to be restructured and repeated by teams of researchers with different industry, public, and engo affiliations. Chapter 5 is a content analysis of 1,558 print media items from two national and five regional newspapers. The separation of economic and environmental issues in media coverage is emphasized, as is the reliance of the media on a few key industry and engo spokespeople. 

Perhaps the most valuable and potentially most controversial chapters are contained in the final section of the book, which deals with political economy. Chapter 6 relays the findings of a survey responded to by 275 aquaculture firms across Canada. An estimate of full-time, part-time, and seasonal employment in the industry nationwide is provided: five thousand to six thousand jobs for the 200304 year (202). Significantly, the survey finds that three-quarters of the aquaculture workforce is male. Together, these statistics are in direct conflict with claims by the Province of British Columbia that “aquaculture provides about 6,000 jobs” in British Columbia alone and casts doubt upon the claim that “over half the jobs in BC aquaculture are filled by women and First Nations” (British Columbia 2010). Young and Matthews’s research reflects that the aquaculture workforce is divided on gender-segregated lines, with women highly concentrated in seasonal work – a continuation of the traditional gender divide in fishing and fish processing (204; see also MuszyÅ„ska 1996).  

The final chapter outlines the rationale behind what the Canadian government calls “results-based regulation,” or “performance-based regulation.” This type of regulation is opposed to process regulation, which industry has deemed too cumbersome. Young and Matthews argue that the devolution of regulatory power to corporate actors is based on two assumptions: first, that the “private sector is inherently innovative” and, second, that “flexibility is necessary to remain competitive in global markets” (37). They highlight the contradictions inherent in the simultaneous promotional and regulatory goals of the Canadian government vis-à-vis aquaculture. The jurisdictional complications between federal and provincial ministries and acts are clearly outlined. This is an issue that promises to become more complex in British Columbia as in-land container aquaculture is overseen by the BC ministries of environment and agriculture and lands rather than Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

There is only one significant gap in the text that I wish to emphasize. Implicit in the list of issues that Young and Matthews provide is an acceptance of the anthropocentrism that undergirds rendering wild fish into domesticated private property for human consumption. While it might be argued that this focus on human livelihoods simply mirrors a gap in the public discourse that Young and Matthews set out to track, many groups active in the aquaculture controversy attempt to speak on behalf of wild fish or invoke the inherent importance of salmon to BC heritage. The macro-history of environmental movements included in the text completely ignores a vast literature in animal studies and on animal rights that is both central to the logic of many anti-aquaculture activists and germane to the discussion at hand (see especially Singer 1975, 2006; Shukin 2009). At a time when an ever-increasing portion of the global fisheries harvest comes from farms, the lack of attention paid to how the rights of fish themselves are represented by interested parties, and the naturalization of privatizing a wild resource, deserves more attention and might have been more prominently noted by the authors. Overall, however, Aquaculture Controversy in Canada is an important contribution to the aquaculture issue, providing a reliable baseline for public policy debates and academics alike.


Works Cited:

Bavington, Dean
2010  Managed Annihilation An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

BC Government
2010  Aquaculture http://www.gov.bc.ca/yourbc/aquaculture/aa_workers.html?src=/workers/aa_workers.html Accessed 6 October 2010.

Hites, Ronald A. et al.
2004 “Global Assessment of Organic Contaminants in Farmed Salmon.” Science 303:226-29.

Krkosek, Martin et al.
2008 “Response to Comment on ‘Declining Wild Salmon Populations in Relation to Parasites from Farm Salmon.’” Science 322:1790c
2007 “Declining Wild Salmon Populations in Relation to Parasites from Farm Salmon.” Science 318:1772-1775.

Muszyńska, Alicja
1996 Cheap Wage Labour: Race and Gender in the Fisheries of British Columbia. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Riddell, Brian E. et al.
2008 “Comment on ‘Declining Wild Salmon Populations in Relation to Parasites from Farm Salmon.’” Science 322:1790b.

Singer, Peter
2006 In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave.  Malden: Blackwell.
1975 Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Collins.

Shukin, Nicole
2009 Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Young, Nathan
2008  “Radical Neoliberalism in British Columbia: Remaking Rural Geographies”. Canadian Journal of Sociology 33(1):1-36.

Young, Nathan and Ralph Matthews
2007 “Resource Economies and Neo-Liberal Experimentation: The Reform of Industry and Community in Rural British Columbia.” AREA, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society / Institute of British Geographers 39 (2): 176-85

The Aquaculture Controversy in Canada: Activism, Policy, and Contested Science
By Nathan Young and Ralph Matthews
Vancouver: UBC Press 2010. 304 pp. $85 cloth