Water Brothers feel the wrath of farm salmon truth brigade

Last night (Oct 15 2013) the Water Brothers (Tyler and Alex Mifflin) aired a show (can be streamed here until Nov 15 2013 only) on the continuing challenges of farmed salmon in British Columbia (BC). Not surprisingly they are now facing an industry-led backlash characterized by language and tactics starkly contrasting the frank and honest perspectives of the industry representatives on camera. I can’t help but think it is not Tyler and Alex that are the targets here, but the unsightly reflection of the salmon farming industry unwittingly revealed by its own reps on camera.

Having been in the centre of this debate for going on two decades I have seen all the media, pro and con regarding farmed salmon. The Water Brothers piece is among the most balanced and engaging out there. All the more interesting is that it is the product of two young guys fronting a modest production company generating thoughtful content devoid of simplistic black and white distillations so common in environmental journalism. Alex and Tyler present the issues, allowing the viewer to reach their own conclusion.

I suspect the salmon farm industry was taken in by the youthful appearance of the two hosts and, I can only assume, were under the impression Alex and Tyler would fall prey to well worn industry talking points. They even allowed them to dive within the net pens. Only acknowledged “friends of the industry” have been granted that kind of access in the past. To my eyes a sure signal that industry felt they were going to get kid glove treatment. Any objective individual diving in a manure strewn cage would make the same observations the guys did – there is a lot crap down there… They could have gone much further, such as asking questions of the viewer if they are comfortable eating fish that spent their lives swimming through the feces of their ~1,000,000 neighbors. But they didn’t. They came, shot the footage and provided narrative only to support the images. For their part, the industry reps on camera simply didn’t appear to work all that hard on generating a positive reflection of their industry. I hope this signals recognition that the public is no longer swayed by the smoke and mirrors approach long practiced under the tutelage of Hill and Knowlton. What was truly shocking was that not one, not two but all three main industry reps acknowledged on camera that the environment was not their concern. Refreshingly truthful and frank for sure, but I’m not sure were we go after this little peek behind the curtain. For instance:

Ian Roberts of Marine Harvest, states categorically that there are only two concerns of industry: profit and product quality. The state of the environment, a common property to which industry alone has been granted extra ordinary access, is simply not their concern. Legally, this is so. From a moral and ethical perspective this is a game changer.

The vet Barry Miligan: The only virus that’s been any issue for our industry is the IHN virus. Again, the issue at hand is not impact on industry. There is a laundry list of parasites and diseases that are very much in play for wild fish that are potentially amplified by farms. Impact on industry is industry’s business, impact of industry on the broader environment is everyone’s business. Again, the message is: environment is not our concern.

Jason Mann the salmon pellet maker seems to be the only one still playing the old school game.  He slyly changes the metric used to measure feed efficiency mid-sentence from fish in:fish out to fish meal in : fish out, yielding a much more attractive ratio. Convoluted specialist terminology still has the power to obfuscate and remains a go-to tactic for those peddling an argument difficult to make with simple truths. For the record, absolute best case, real world numbers are 1.25 – 1.40 Kg of edible fish to produce 1Kg of farm salmon. It is often worse but yes, a 1.1:1 ratio is theoretically possible – just like I can run a 4 minute mile…so long as you only time me for the first 30 seconds and extrapolate the rest.

Tyler and Alex did a great job highlighting what everyone (outside of the net pen industry) sees as the obvious fix – recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) on land. These systems eliminate nearly all the issues, including one that doesn’t get enough play – carbon footprint of farmed salmon. The footprint of a farm salmon fillet is nearly entirely due to transport from farm to table which are typically separated by hundreds to thousands of kilometers. RAS systems, which are most efficient when embedded in large metropolitan areas takes care of this significant issue too…

The environmental ambivalence of senior industry reps is on record.  Technology in the form of recirculating aquaculture systems has, since filming this segment, proven to be not only environmentally but also financially viable in BC.  What further motivation does government need to take action in shepherding industry away from old and dirty net pen technology towards clean and efficient RAS? Perhaps this explains why industry has come out swinging in response to the segment airing? Maybe seeing a clear and rhetoric-free (on both sides) reflection of themselves was simply too dangerous now that viable alternatives are on the table… Hard to say, but at least now we can all agree that as far as industry is concerned, it is about the product and profits and not about the environment.

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