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BC chefs call for end to ocean-based salmon farming

(iStock Photo)

More than 50 culinary minds across BC are urging the NDP to end farm tenures

Chefs speak out about their growing concerns regarding fish farming in BC

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – They don’t want fish farms in the ocean, and instead would like to see them moved onto the land.

Dozens of BC chefs are getting behind that movement, penning a letter to the BC NDP asking the government to do more to protect wild salmon along our coast.

Chefs Write Open Letter

More than 50 of some of the biggest culinary minds across the province are urging the government to end farm tenures, which are set for renewal this coming June.

“We’re not against fish farms, but if the oceans matter, we can’t keep using them as a garbage can,” explains environmentalist David Suzuki, who joined chefs in Vancouver.

He says the main issue with ocean based pens, where fish are surrounded by a net in the water, is that the open mesh allows waste and pellets to accumulate in the waters. He says diseases and parasites are also able to move freely through.

Chef David Hawksworth is one of the many lending his support to the cause. As the owner of the Hawksworth Restaurant, he says he feels strongly about the fish farming situation here in BC. “We need to move to on-land fish farms so we can have a clean water supply, so we can have clean waterways for our wild salmon.”

He supports farming fish and understands the idea is needed to keep up with supply, but believes keeping them in the ocean just isn’t the solution. “We use farmed salmon, but we use Kuterra salmon that is done up in Port Hardy, and that’s on-land. We’re big supporters of that.”

But others like Chef Meeru Dhalwala with Vij’s and Rangoli, have decided to exclude salmon from their menu all together until more research is done. “If I’m confused about something and if I don’t know the whole picture in terms of the facts and the science, it’s just safer for me at this point to just not serve it versus serving it and then finding out later on that it’s not right or that there’s a problem.”

She says many customers notice the lack of salmon on the menu, and Dhalwala says that is the first step in starting the conversation. “I would like to see the majority of the population of British Columbia says ‘no’ to coastal salmon farms. Not just the chefs but that the population is aware of the ‘no’ and why we’re saying no.”

Chefs and activists say farming also impacts the Indigenous communities.

“For thousands of years, salmon have been a sacred gift to Indigenous people living on countless rivers emptying into the Pacific Ocean,” reads a portion of the letter. “As chefs, we believe wild salmon are the highest quality for taste and nutrition and should be a priority for protection and restoration.”

Salmon ‘n Bannock Head Chef Jeremy Belcourt says his interest of getting rid of ocean-based salmon farms comes from his heritage. “It mostly comes from being Indigenous. It goes to asserting our human rights and putting a stop to something that’s very important to our people, it goes back thousands of years. It’s about culture preservation.”

He’s moved by the number of other chefs joining the cause, and says it’s an important issue.

Owner of Tojo’s Restaurant in Vancouver, Chef Hidekazu Tojo makes it a point of using wild fish. He believes his customers are also concerned about the state of salmon.

“I go into teaching all the time,” he says. “I know farmed salmon is cheaper than wild salmon, but it’s no good for you. I educate it every time, not only salmon but other fish too.”

That goes for all products, and Tojo says his goal is to promote sustainability.

Chef Robert Clark who owns the Fish Counter on Main Street has been fighting for 20 years, and says the important thing is that people are stepping up. “If nothing does happen it’s still right to try, it’s about trying.”

He says 50 plus chefs joining in the cause is a step in the right direction, and believes all people can play a role. “It’s the end result of logic. I mean… for everybody here, it’s about quality. It’s misrepresented to think that sustainable seafood is more expensive. It has nothing to do with the sustainability, it has everything to do with the quality.”

Clark believes chefs influence what’s in the market place, and says they have the potential to enact real change. He believes they have a responsibility to educate people about local food and its benefits. “It can be a very powerful tool if used correctly. I just want to bang my head against the wall when a local chef offers a recipe for something that isn’t local.”
“Our natural resource belongs to all Canadians. Once it’s gone it will not come back. We are at a very critical turning point if we’re talking about wild pacific salmon, and it takes everybody.”

Fish farmers don’t see viability with land-based model

While chefs and environmentalists call for an end to ocean-based enclosures, a member of the BC Salmon Farming Association says not everything is being considered.

“I heard information that was anecdotal even 20 years ago,” Ian Roberts says of the chefs’ call for action. “I would recommend that these chefs and David Suzuki himself come and see what a modern salmon farm looks like today.”

Roberts believes there is no need to change the way fish is grown. “The fact is today there’s no successful, commercial-scale, land-based salmon farms, but if it does become successful, that’s great, because it can help us keep up with demand for seafood.”

He says with the demand for seafood growing each year, aquaculture is an important source of supply. “And keep pressure off our wild resources in the ocean.”

On the topic of pollution and how fish farms may affect the environment, Roberts says the first thing farmers need is a healthy place to grow their fish. “It’s in our best interest to make sure that the area where we grown our salmon are kept healthy. And also our salmon themselves are healthy. When we harvest fish after three years of growing them, we have 90 per cent survival, which is exceptional for a farm animal.”

He invites the chefs to learn how modern farms are operated, and wants them to understand the benefits and challenges of ocean-based and land-based farming.

Roberts’ farm utilizes both tank and ocean-based technologies. Should the land-based technology become commercially viable in the future, he says it’ll be fantastic news and provide a big opportunity to expand the market without hurting the wild supply.

His fish are first grown in tanks on land for the first year and are then moved into net pens in the ocean for the final two years.

Should the province not renew licenses this summer, Roberts says production would take a hit. “The area that they’re referring to represents about 25 per cent of production here in British Columbia so you would see a significant decrease in aquaculture salmon,” he explains. “And I fear, as a conservationist, that that would put undue pressure on wild stocks, and would also put undue pressure on your wallets as well as the price of fish may increase here in British Columbia.”

Roberts says the BC Salmon Farmers Association expects the process of tenure renewal to be a science-based one. “And is not influenced by chefs or an activist that is using data from 20 to 30 years ago.”

On what he thinks about companies solely implementing the land-based model, Roberts claims those businesses are losing money and are leaving First Nations communities with debt.

He says salmon farms supply about 70 per cent of the world production of salmon, and believes it’s important not just from a food security and local economy standpoint. “Taking pressure off the oceans to make sure that we’re growing salmon instead of fishing out the very last wild one.”