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It’s time to stop blaming NGOs for salmon farming failures

by Neville Crabbe

July 4, 2024

A response to Brian Glebe, PhD

Brian Glebe’s June 5th commentary tries to paint the salmon farming industry as a victim and critics, like ASF, as baseless. He uses fallacy and distraction to dismiss the problems of open net-pen salmon aquaculture and misrepresents ASF’s position. 


Glebe argues that ASF singles out salmon aquaculture while ignoring other threats to wild salmon. True, we will never shy away from calling out salmon farming companies for poor practices and regulators for lax oversight, but aquaculture activities take up a fraction of our time. Most of ASF’s resources go to things like dam removals, habitat restoration, international conservation projects, and non-aquaculture related research.


Glebe’s assertion that ASF is “anti-salmon farming” is also wrong. There are people that feel all salmon aquaculture is bad and should be stopped immediately, but that’s not ASF. In recent decades we have spent millions to help develop alternatives, like land-based farms.  


Even when it comes to open net-pen salmon farms, we’re not calling for their entire removal. We’re mainly opposed to expansion, and for good reason.   


In Atlantic Canada, the production of farmed salmon is on a declining trend. The frequency of disease outbreaks is increasing, and escapes are a regular occurrence. The industry talks about biological challenges, which is their phrase for the inability to keep fish alive. 

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The production of farmed salmon in Atlantic Canada has been declining for the past decade according to Statistics Canada. The last year for which data is available is 2022. * Production values for Newfoundland include farmed trout and salmon.


A recent analysis of mass mortality events found over the last decade that 153-million farmed salmon died in Canadian sea cages, representing a staggering waste of resources and life.  


Companies in Atlantic Canada are only partially using the licenses they have and considering the industry’s diminishing returns and growing impacts, it is ASF’s position that salmon farmers should improve their existing operations and stop trying to spread into new areas. That’s not anti-aquaculture, it’s common sense.  


Glebe continues his anti-ASF argument by citing our early support for coastal salmon farms, which he helped lead.  


ASF began the Salmon Genetics Research Program at our St. Andrews, N.B. headquarters in 1974. This was the heyday of hatcheries around the world. People were filled with optimism about the potential for hatcheries to make up for habitat loss and overharvesting. 


ASF leaders at the time believed stocking rivers and developing a salmon farming industry would help conserve wild populations. As we learned, we changed course. The ASF hatchery ceased operations around 2000. Today, all our programs are focused on wild fish and wild rivers, not raising salmon in captivity. 


And what about the Magaguadavic River, which empties into the Bay of Fundy near St. George, N.B., the epicentre of the New Brunswick salmon farming industry? Glebe offers a classic straw man argument: The Magaguadavic never had a unique wild Atlantic salmon population, so ASF’s long-term program to identify and remove aquaculture escapes there is without merit. 


It’s debatable whether the Magaguadavic had its own wild salmon population or if it was established decades ago by stocking. It’s also irrelevant.  


Every single fish entering the Magaguadavic comes via a fishway that climbs up and over the St. George Power Dam. A gate at the top stops fish from swimming directly into the river and when salmon appear our veteran researchers perform an on-site scale analysis, using internationally recognized techniques, to determine whether it’s a farmed or wild fish. 


Salmon farm escapes are removed, killed, and taken for analysis. Regulators are notified and samples are offered to companies to determine the origin of the escapees. Fisheries and Oceans Canada permits this activity and it is similar to escape detection and removal programs around the world.  


In Eastern North America, the Magaguadavic is the only continuously monitored site for aquaculture escapes that we are aware of. Since 1992, it has been a sentinel to alert regulators, industry, and the public that an escape has occurred.  


Farmed salmon don’t just head for a single river when they get loose, they stray out far and wide, making their way into rivers where indisputably unique, wild populations are barely hanging on. 

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Reported cases of virulent Infectious Salmon Anemia in Canada have been increasing over the last decade according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The virus is highly contagious, can cause mass mortalities among farmed salmon and spread to wild fish like Atlantic salmon and Atlantic herring.

ASF cares about this because the global scientific community has proven that salmon farms harm the environment and interbreeding between aquaculture escapes and wild Atlantic salmon is a particularly wicked threat that can lead to population collapse.


Glebe dismisses all this evidence by saying he has “never seen well-designed experiments that demonstrate wild fish interbreeding with aquaculture fish are significantly less fit.” Has he not read the research, or is his definition of significant unique? It’s a confounding statement.


Arguing about the colour of the sky won’t help wild Atlantic salmon, the environment, or the salmon aquaculture industry. We agree, as Glebe suggests, that working together could produce better results, and ASF is open to this.


We will support industry efforts to improve existing operations if this also includes enhanced oversight and monitoring to reduce impacts on the environment.


But the issuance of additional licenses and expansion into new places is a red line for ASF. We will oppose this in a principled and vigorous way, for the sake of wild salmon, wild rivers, and the environment.

Neville Crabbe is the Executive Director of Communications and Marketing at the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

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