The Sustainable Consumption Series: What’s happening with the Salmon?

Jamie Long // Columnist 

British Columbia—Vancouver, specifically—is expensive. I get it. But the price we pay to live here comes with one of the most world-renowned and grandiose rewards of all time—the beautiful and unique land, ocean and climate of the West Coast. West coast, best coast. Right? But in order to protect what we’re all here for, action and education are required on all levels. Today, I’d like to discuss seafood consumption. 

Largely due to the rising levels of global consumer demand for seafood, irresponsible commercial fishing practices, inadequate policies and regulations, and of course, climate change, marine life on the beautiful coast of British Columbia is suffering. For just a moment, let’s shift the focus specifically to the production and consumption of salmon, one of British Columbia’s most beloved species. In BC, salmon are classified as a keystone species (one that has a disproportionate ecological effect relative to its abundance). In other words, without salmon, entire marine and terrestrial ecosystems in British Columbia would experience drastic and irreversible change. In 2019 in particular, wild salmon in BC experienced escalating levels of threat and endangerment with some locations thought to have fewer than 200 fish still remaining. As a result, scientists have predicted that some salmon populations could be wiped out entirely in the next 15 to 20 years if urgent action is not taken to help them recover.  

Here in British Columbia, salmon is both caught wild and farmed. Commercial farming, which produces a majority of the salmon that goes to market uses a wide variety of modern harvesting methods. Currently, the most common method of salmon production along BC’s west coast involves the use of open-net fish pens in offshore marine or freshwater areas. Open-net fish pens are large floating cages anchored in the seawater, which can contain over one million fish at a time, negatively impacting marine and non-marine areas alike, far beyond the immediate location of each net. Mass levels of exploitation by commercial fisheries have led to devastating measures of over-fishing and ecological exhaustion.  

They’ve also contributed to the ease of disease/virus transmission and sea lice infestations between captive and wild fish, interbreeding between farmed and wild salmon species, and organic and chemical pollution. None of which sounds appealing when considering salmon for your dinner plans, right? 

With salmon being used only as an example of the state of sea life degradation off the coasts of British Columbia, it is important to note that marine life exploitation prominently exists far beyond just this one species. Alongside the endangerment of fish in BC, other issues facing BC’s marine life include warming waters, pollution and ocean acidification—all which have led to the increased vulnerability of marine life across the west coast of Canada. In order to  protect British Columbia’s beloved ecosystems from  the current damage humans are causing, we have to consider the effects of local activity such as fishing practices and sustainable seafood consumption. 

As citizens of the west coast community, we play an integral role in defending local land and sea alike. And despite me being a vegetarian, this is not the part of the article where I try to convince you to stop eating your delicious, local, BC salmon. On the contrary, I actually believe that simply cutting seafood out of everyone’s diets—even if that were possible—would not be a practical solution to the current fisheries crisis as it would largely result in devastation for the hundreds of thousands of people along Canada’s west coast whose livelihoods rely on seafood production. Instead, I believe that the power of change lies first and foremost in the hands of policymakers (ban open-net fish farms!) and fishermen. But I also believe in the power of sustainable and conscious consumption. 

Despite all the above-mentioned ways in which humans are seriously harming sea life, there are still optimistic opportunities for positive shifts we can make on the consumer level. Firstly, supporting small-scale, sustainable fisheries and fishing practices can help to guarantee that there will be abundant populations of ocean and freshwater wildlife for generations to come. This can also ensure that stand-up fishermen who care for the earth are being financially supported, rather than large multinational fishing fleets. Secondly, to ensure safe and sustainable seafood consumption, the acknowledgement and utilization of science-based resources such as Ocean Wise helps to assure that we are consuming only sustainable, seasonal and local seafood products. Fortunately for consumers, Ocean Wise makes it easy to choose sustainable seafood by identifying all ocean-friendly seafood choices with the recognizable Ocean Wise symbol. Overall, if everyone changed their eating habits to support local and sustainable fish farmers and to consciously consume only sustainable seafood, together we could make a big difference. Besides, doesn’t your seafood taste so much better when it is harvested sustainably? 

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