Comment: Letting go of the past key to sustainable salmon future

As a sport-fishing guide and lodge owner who has spent a lifetime on the water, I have the good fortune of living and working in Quatsino Sound, one of the last wild frontiers on the British Columbia coast.

When I bring new clients into this environment, they’re often in awe of its beauty: the sea otters frolicking in massive kelp beds, the orcas and humpback whales spouting. It’s as if they have stepped back in time.

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In addition to enjoying the beautiful surroundings and the plentiful fishing, my clients frequently want to know more about the salmon farms that we pass on our way to open waters. I’m always happy to talk about this, because I believe we need both wild and farmed salmon.

The issue shouldn’t be “either/or.” It should be about more. More survival for wild fish, and more healthy food for the world.

If the public and the media had the chance to take a closer look as my clients do, they’d see a modern farming industry that is creating more wild-salmon stocks. They’d see best practices such as monitoring water quality and daily testing that ensure farm operators produce the best fish.

Up close, we see what happens because farms provide surrounding areas with nutrients from the farmed fish’s waste. There’s far more marine life in proximity to these farms. In 40 years of guiding, I’ve never worked in an area that has so much herring bait fish. There’s also hake, halibut and all the fish species. Far from creating some kind of dead zone, fish farms help create a healthy marine environment.

My clients see for themselves that salmon aquaculture companies can’t afford to have fish that aren’t healthy, and that healthy fish pose no disease danger to wild salmon.

These are challenging times for wild salmon. Changing ocean conditions, commercial fishing and the destruction of habitat are part of a nuanced picture.

Maybe the biggest benefit from salmon aquaculture for wild salmon is that the fish produced take the pressure off remaining wild stocks. Last year, the global output of farmed salmon was 2.2 million tonnes. That represents millions of wild sockeye, chinook, coho and pink salmon that didn’t have to be caught to meet rising global demand.

Back at the lodge, it’s a community effort to feed the 80,000 baby chinook salmon we raise in a net pen most summers. Governments don’t have the money to do enough of this work. But our local salmon farmers see what’s at stake and have seen fit to share their ecologists and fish-health experts for the project.

Without the contributed expertise and donated equipment from local fish farmers, there would be fewer mature wild salmon coming back in four or five years to sustain our local sport and commercial catch.

Some restaurants, and even B.C. Ferries cafeterias, like to make a big deal of only serving wild salmon. We don’t eat wild chickens or cows, so why do we harvest wild salmon when we have better, more sustainable alternatives? There is simply no need to harvest the last of our wild fish.

How about this for a better message: “We’re preserving wild stocks by serving fresh, farm-raised salmon grown right here in B.C.” Which is what we do at Quatsino Lodge — all the salmon we serve guests is farmed Atlantic.

As the B.C. Wild Salmon Advisory Council recently confirmed, there still is an astonishing amount we do not know about wild salmon and the challenges they face.

What we do know is that managing our remaining wild stocks will require that we stop being prisoners of the past.

As efforts continue to fill in the blanks, it’s time to work together to create a sustainable supply of salmon — wild and farmed — now and into the future.

Walter Schoenfelder owns and operates Quatsino Lodge and is a founding supporter of the Wild Salmon Protectors.

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