Fish farms no cure for BC's economic ills

July 1, 2003

There is a mistaken perception among many British Columbians that BC's wild fish stocks are dying and that we need salmon aquaculture to replace the jobs and economic benefits they provide. With all the attention being paid to fish farms lately, some may even think that BC's salmon farming industry already towers over wild fish industries in significance to the province's economy.

Think again. The GDP of BC's wild fish industries--including commercial fishing, sports fishing, and wild fish processing--is more than four times larger than salmon aquaculture, including the processing of farmed salmon. Aquaculture's importance shrinks further if one considers employment, since seven times more jobs are created from BC's wild fish than are created by salmon aquaculture.

In response, the industry argues that secondary economic benefits or "job spin-offs" add much more value than these numbers indicate. That's true. Of course, job spin-offs are generated from the much larger wild fish industries, as well.

In short: salmon aquaculture delivers fewer economic benefits right now compared to the very industries it puts at risk.

But what about the future? The aquaculture industry--dominated by multinationals based in Europe--wants to triple production by the end of the decade. They claim that, notwithstanding less-than-stellar performance at present, the industry will be the future driver of jobs and economic development, particularly in economically beleaguered coastal communities.

Government agrees: Last year, BC's fisheries minister said that salmon farming has "tremendous economic potential." Western Economic Diversification Canada (WEDC) described the industry's economic potential as "very promising."

But a look at the statistics both here in BC and internationally paints a different picture. Consider this:

  • BC already tripled farmed salmon production in the 1990s--without adding any jobs. And that includes processing.
  • In 1997, WEDC predicted that a tripling of fish farm production would triple employment. So far, salmon farming has doubled production, yet added a mere 100 jobs (a 6% increase), including processing.
  • Scotland also tripled salmon farming production over the 1990s. And between 1985 and 2000, Norway's fish farms increased production by a whopping 1000%. New jobs created on fish farms? Less than zero--jobs declined in both countries.

All this stands to reason--it takes very few people to run a fish farm. And, over time, fewer people are needed due to efficiency gains. Processing jobs do increase with production, but in BC this barely offset job losses on fish farms themselves.

So, what about the latest industry message: that wild fisheries and industrial salmon aquaculture can co-exist side by side? Maybe. But the reality is that weighing in against the industry's slim economic benefits are the significant risks posed by salmon farming to our more robust wild fish industries.

As most British Columbians know, the scientific community points to numerous potential impacts--Atlantic salmon escapes, waste from salmon farms, and disease transfer to wild fish. And those same scientists repeatedly stated that more research is needed. Even then-fisheries minister Stan Hagen admitted that, "it was amazing to [him] to find out the lack of scientific information we have in the year 2003."

The fact is, despite promises of managing BC's natural resources based on good science, the BC government has never done a risk assessment on the salmon industry. In other words, we know that there are risks--but we don't know how great they are, or how likely they are to occur.

That's akin to playing Russian Roulette with our other more valuable coastal marine industries - without knowing how many bullets are in the chamber.

Should the salmon aquaculture be shut down? Is it an "either/or" proposition? No.

But given the enormous uncertainties about the ecological (and therefore economic) risks facing our other wild fisheries, the industry should be paused. The moratorium on industrial fish farm expansion should be reinstated for a year, in order to conduct a meaningful risk assessment.

British Columbians have a right to know what the risks and benefits of salmon farming are to BC's economy. Especially given the modest economic benefits the industry provides, it should be up to fish farming proponents to prove that salmon farms will not have an ecological impact, not for scientists and regulators to prove they will.

Dale Marshall is Resource Policy Analyst for the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.