The science of salmon farming

The future of Canada's economically strategic aquaculture sector is entirely dependent on the quality and objectivity of the science used to inform regulatory and policy decisions that govern the sector.

Scientific research is at the core of technological innovations that lead to increasing crop yields, providing food safety and security, unlocking medical advances to fight disease, fighting climate change and fostering a healthy environment, and many other elements of everyday life we take for granted.

Scientists pursue objective truths about the relationships between fish and the environment they live in through a fact-based, evidence-first method of inquiry. It is a disciplined process where open-minded experts can debate and challenge each other's opinions to arrive at the best insights. That is why peer reviewed research is so important because of the rigour and transparency applied to ensure insights face intense scrutiny before they are used as the foundation for regulations and policy.

The regulations that govern Canada's salmon farmers are based on science so the food we produce is safe, high quality and respectful of the environment. Science, over time, has informed key governance guides such as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Aquaculture Activities Regulations and the Provincial Aquaculture and Land Use legislation. Salmon farmers follow a series of comprehensive Fisheries Act regulations that define our approach to everything from salmon farm facility management and environmental performance monitoring to sampling, disease management, habitat transference, and contamination management amongst many other factors.

What the science says

Over the last two decades, Federal and Provincial forums have reviewed the scientific literature detailing the benefits and risks of salmon farming. These comprehensive forums have engaged academia, ENGOs, First Nation communities, aquaculture professionals, and fisheries scientists. The reviews have found less than minimal impact to wild salmonids, the family of fish that includes sub-species of salmon, trout, char and freshwater whitefish. Should an individual salmon farm be found non-compliant with any government regulation, corrective actions are immediately taken.

Formal science reviews of salmon farming in British Columbia have included both the Cohen Commission and CSAS process, both of which were informed by hundreds of peer-reviewed studies:
Cohen Commission (2011)

The Cohen Commission was a Judicial Inquiry looking into the decline of the 2009 sockeye salmon run in British Columbia’s Fraser River. The findings concluded that “…data presented during this Inquiry did not show that salmon farms were having a significant negative impact on Fraser River sockeye…” (Volume 3, page 24).

CSAS (2020)

The Cohen Commission Recommendation 19 requested that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) study if salmon farms in the Discovery Islands in BC posed a threat to wild salmon. The DFO completed nine peer-reviewed, scientific risk assessments based on hundreds of individual multi-year studies to determine the impact of interactions between wild Pacific salmon and pathogens from salmon farms. The assessments concluded that the pathogens found in Atlantic salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area pose no more than a minimal risk to Fraser River Sockeye Salmon abundance and diversity under the current fish health management practices. While naturally present pathogens in the environment can sometimes affect farm-raised salmon, Canadian salmon farmers use best management practices and technologies to ensure the health and welfare of farm-raised salmon.

Canadians can trust the scientific facts and advice presented by CSAS, the science evaluation body of the DFO

- Dr.Tony Farrell

Professor and Canada Research Chair for fish physiology, culture and conservation at the University of British Columbia

Activism versus science

Science is based on believing what we see, not seeing what we believe.

Some campaigners, in an effort to confirm their beliefs, may choose to avoid facts that conflict with their belief system. They are uncomfortable with the rigors of science and the pace of objective fact creation. In its place they often quote each other's opinions as trusted sources. They retweet unproven speculation in news stories. And they spread conspiracy theories to cast doubt on trusted authorities.

The promotion of stories to conform to a biased outlook as the first priority leads to sensational claims based on superficial research getting more attention than the careful work of scientists. Activism can be effective in influencing public perception, political parties and sometimes policy.

For example, in December 2020, then federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan bowed to activist pressure and abruptly cancelled 19 salmon farm licenses in British Columbia. This decision was overturned in April of 2022 by a federal judge because the minister committed a “breach of procedural fairness” for not providing reasons that justified the closures.

Activists' disregard for science was recently challenged by a group of Canadian university professors and scientists led by Dr. Tony Farrell, professor and Canada Research Chair for fish physiology, culture and conservation at the University of British Columbia. Professor Farrell, on behalf of eight other scientists, opened his remarks saying “We're compelled to respond to prevent propagation of any misinformation. Canadians can trust the scientific facts and advice presented by CSAS, the science evaluation body of the DFO.”

Science must inform the future

Salmon farmers support strong and consistent financial support for DFO and independent science. Aquaculture will play an increasingly important role in ensuring Canadians have a safe, secure and sustainable food supply.

The salmon farming sector is committed to constant improvement. If and when scientific findings point to the need for any changes to address environmental risks, the sector will respond, as it always has, with technological innovation to address any problems. The sector needs a strong and stable regulator with dependable science evaluation capabilities in order to continue to make long-term investments.

As we move forward to realize the potential of salmon farming for Canada, governments will need to defend the integrity of the science as the foundation to thoughtfully evaluate the objective facts that shape our regulatory systems.

A science-based future is a future where salmon farming will thrive.