salmon farmers

Why aquaculture needs a science-led democracy

“If campaigns against salmon farming were based on facts, I wouldn’t be writing this article.”

By Ian Roberts

As activists continue to sidestep the democratic process in favour of interrupting work spaces, governments must step up to protect the health and safety of employees working within the laws of the country.

A recent court decision in Scotland awarded an interim injunction to Shell, intended to protect its work sites from trespass by Greenpeace members. The judge ruled that Greenpeace was unlawfully breaching Shell’s property rights and also putting its own activists’ safety at risk.

The decision mirrored that of a Canadian injunction against activists received by Mowi (then Marine Harvest) in 2018 that was required to protect the health and safety of its employees and livestock.

But this issue should be dealt with long before having to be heard in court.

There are democratic processes made available by all governments where salmon farms operate for people opposed to salmon farming to voice their concerns. Furthermore, government authorities are paid by working people to protect citizens and domestic food products.

Or put more clearly: farmers and the animals they raise should be protected by government authorities from the health and safety threat posed by direct action protesters (many living outside the country where they protest).

In response to a low return of Fraser River sockeye salmon on Canada’s west coast in 2009, anti-salmon farming activists pressed for a government inquiry. They got one, called the Cohen Commission. Two years and $30 million later, the Commission detailed 75 recommendations to improve the sockeye salmon’s survival.

Specific to salmon farming, Cohen concluded that ‘data presented during this inquiry did not show that salmon farms were having a significant negative impact on Fraser River sockeye’, and that ‘marine conditions in both the Strait of Georgia and Queen Charlotte Sound in 2007 were likely to be the primary factors responsible for the poor returns’.

The following year, the Fraser River recorded its highest return of sockeye salmon in a century.

Similarly, in Scotland, the angling body Salmon & Trout Conservation demanded that government impose a moratorium on salmon farming. In response, the Scottish parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee launched a review into the ‘environmental impacts of salmon farming’ in 2018.

The REC expressed concern about the ability of the country’s regulatory framework to adequately manage potential negative impacts from salmon farming, and while requesting changes to current farming practices, stopped short of recommending a moratorium, noting ‘insufficient evidence to support this’.

This is the democratic process – allowing for all stakeholders to provide input into a science led initiative upon which reasoned policy decisions can be made.

Unfortunately, some stakeholders refuse to accept a science led democracy, and have since taken to other means of influencing government policies.

Shortly after Canada’s Cohen Commission published its final report, salmon farmers in British Columbia witnessed direct action on their businesses.

Organised by the international protest group Sea Shepherd, activists began trespassing on salmon farms, threatening the health and safety of both fish and employees.

One farm saw a group of protesters set up camp for 16 weeks on the floating walkway of a salmon cage, blocking access to and fouling the work site.

After pleading, unsuccessfully, with government authorities to protect its employees from harassment, the company was forced to seek protection through the courts. Only after the injunction was received, did the protesters vacate the private work place.

Five years of direct action protests in British Columbia have, to a great extent, served their purpose. Coupled with targeted political influence from the social elite in Vancouver, and philanthropic support to Canadian activist groups and individuals from US based foundations, political support for salmon farming in the region has been severely damaged.

Most recently, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government took a turn-about-face. Four years ago, the Liberals were very clear about their support for Canada’s salmon farmers and science, stating that: ‘Legislating the removal of salmon aquaculture from Canada’s oceans represents an excessive approach to resolving environmental issues that are already being managed through robust, science based federal and provincial regulations.’

However, at the 11th hour before the latest Canadian election that saw the Liberal party reduced to a minority government, the party pledged to transition all ocean fish farms in British Columbia to land based facilities by 2025.

The pledge strongly mirrored the words of the ‘Wild First’ activist group formed by wealthy businessman and salmon angling lodge owner Tony Allard. Not unrelated, another business entity of Allard’s is seeking over $1 million in government funding…to build a 150 acre on-land aquaculture business.

Sea Shepherd skipper Paul Watson has said: ‘Truth is irrelevant… A headline comment on Monday’s newspaper far outweighs the revelation of inaccuracy revealed in a small box inside the paper on Tuesday or Wednesday.’

If campaigns against salmon farming were based on facts, I wouldn’t be writing this article. Sadly, but not surprisingly given Captain Watson’s modus operandi, fish farmers have – like many other food producers – fallen victim to embellishments at best, and flat out lies at worst.

Salmon farmers, like all farmers, experience challenges that must be overcome. We are not above fair and honest criticism. We make mistakes and must own our mistakes, correct them, and work to ensure we operate to the highest standards possible.

But when activists stage events, manipulate images, or use publicly available statistics (salmon farming is among the most transparent food production in the world) to twist fact, it should raise serious alarm bells at all levels of government.

A photo published on Facebook by Sea Shepherd, claiming to be that of a dogfish snared in an aquaculture net, was quickly debunked by Canadian fish farmers. The fish was previously killed and placed in the net.

I could, unfortunately, fill an entire magazine on the spin, lies and misrepresentation about our sector that I have witnessed over my 26-year career.

Some are big ones, but most are small ones that fly under the radar; over time, they can add up to create the ‘overwhelming body of evidence’, providing juicy content to naive journalists and social media, that influences public perception, that pressures politicians into making decisions based on perception rather than science and fact.

And let’s not kid ourselves – direct action protest and political influence has worked to erode public confidence in our sector. Science-be-damned political decisions regarding aquaculture have now been prescribed for Washington (USA), British Columbia (Canada) and Denmark.

Salmon farming companies in Canada and the UK average about one inspection daily over the course of a year. Facilities are inspected by qualified professionals, accredited non-governmental organisations and government authorities.

It is not for unqualified activists to ‘inspect’ salmon farms. To satisfy its obligations to regulators and the Crown, a company’s staff and livestock must be safeguarded from potential hazardous interference.

It is now time for government authorities to step up and protect their own turf: monitor and regulate a business the nation has permitted and endorsed, and also protect the country’s workers and the food they produce.

Ian Roberts from Campbell River, B.C. has been salmon farming in Canada and the UK for 26 years. He is director of communications at Mowi Scotland.

This commentary was first published in