In 2014, Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, both world-renowned conservation photographers, started SeaLegacy with one simple goal: conserve and protect the oceans through their powerful pictures and media campaigns. SeaLegacy has matured into a worldwide NGO focused on the conservation and health of our planet’s oceans. Through stunning imagery, stories, and outreach, SeaLegacy seeks to communicate and encourage global advocacy of threatened oceanic environments. Their process is simple: embark on expeditions all over the world to illuminate the pressing threats; coordinate campaigns to gain public awareness and support; then support or produce community-based solutions.
SeaLegacy is currently working on campaigns in Norway, Antarctica, Isla Mujeres, West Papua, Alaska and British Columbia. In Norway, they collaborated with the Friends of Lofoton on a campaign to stop oil development. Through interactive social media strategies their massive global audience pledged not to support a pro-oil agenda. A 4-year moratorium was announced. In Antarctica, SeaLegacy is working to establish a marine protected area through political and public advocacy. And of primary focus in this article is SeaLegacy’s ongoing opposition to open-net Atlantic salmon farming operations in British Columbia.
Open-net Atlantic salmon farming is proven to increase the spread of disease and negatively affect diminishing wild salmon runs. Other regions have abandoned this form of aquaculture because its effects were obviously harmful. Currently, British Columbia stubbornly remains the only region on the Pacific coast of North America to continue the practice.
Farmed Atlantic salmon pose a grave threat to wild, genetically diverse salmon. Cases of flesh-eating sea lice, Piscine Reovirus (PRV), and other diseases are all found in higher concentrations when examining farmed Atlantic salmon operations. All of these potential infestations are worsened by the unnaturally high densities of farmed salmon found in farming operations and pose significant risks for already-diminished wild salmon populations.
“Risk and Precaution: Salmon Farming”, a 2017 report written by Alexandra Morton and Richard Routledge, highlighted some of these risks. The report found that Atlantic salmon farms increase the rate of sea lice infection in wild salmon species. Most notably, juvenile salmon are more susceptible to sea lice infection when they migrate past salmon farms, decreasing their subsequent chances of survival. To combat this, salmon farms have explored the option of chemical treatments to reduce sea lice prevalence in their open-net enclosure, but there is growing evidence that sea lice are becoming resistant to such treatments. Of similar seriousness is the risk of piscine reovirus (PRV) and heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) from farmed salmon infecting wild populations. PRV is the causative agent of HSMI, which causes lesions in the heart and skeletal muscle, substantially reducing survival rates of infected salmon. Currently, PRV is widespread in farmed (80%) and wild salmon in British Columbia. The report found that this virus has direct negative impacts for wild sockeye salmon completing their life cycle in British Columbia’s Upper Fraser River watershed. Morton and Routledge concluded the PRV section of their report by saying: “Therefore, the abundant presence of the highly contagious PRV-infected Atlantic farmed salmon in net pens in the Discovery Islands presents greater than minimal risk of serious harm to Fraser River Sockeye Salmon”.
Many of the ecosystems and communities in the Pacific Northwest are dependent on wild salmon. Yet, open-net Atlantic salmon farms, which are 90% foreign owned, continue to operate. This industry’s irresponsible proliferation of disease will continue to damage wild salmon species, which will directly negatively impact bears, orcas, and humans. Indigenous tribes have relied on prolific salmon runs for thousands of years, yet now their way of life is in danger. The ‘Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, British Columbia has peacefully protested against open-net salmon farms in their waters for more than 20 years. Now that the issue is gaining political, stakeholder, and public support progress appears to be achievable.
In June of 2017, twenty-five tenures for open-pen Atlantic salmon farms were up for renewal in British Columbia’s Broughton Archipelago. In an effort to block the renewal of these farm tenures, SeaLegacy worked with local First Nations and partners to educate consumers and generate political support to get fish farms out of BC waters. In response to this collective pressure, the government promised change in the licensing processes for these farms-but only after the next election. SeaLegacy will continue their efforts to end open-net Atlantic salmon farming in these coastal waters by exploring options to invest in sustainable, land-based aquaculture and spread traditional knowledge and practices of ocean stewardship, to inform future consumer choices.
Cristina Mittermeier, Co-Founder & Vision Lead of SeaLegacy had this to say, “there is no denying that aquaculture is a necessity when it comes to feeding a growing, global population. It shouldn’t however, and nor does it have to, be done at the expense of environmental or cultural sustainability. There are other options.” Growing research and innovation in land-based aquaculture is one example of how the industry can evolve and operate more responsibly.
In October of this year, the SeaLegacy team spent time documenting the sockeye salmon run at Adams River, in the interior of British Columbia. Every four years, a dominant run occurs; it’s supposed to be one of the biggest salmon runs in North America, with millions of sockeye salmon swimming approximately 500 kilometers from the ocean back to the river where they were born. This year, their journey has been especially hard. Low water levels have meant a lot of fish were not able to make it upstream and died before they could spawn. Additionally, the numbers of returning fish have been low, due to issues such as overfishing, rising water temperatures, and disease from fish farms; farms that so many people are working diligently to remove.
On Monday of this week, the Federal Court of Canada in Vancouver struck down a Fisheries and Oceans Canada policy that did not require PPV screening for juvenile Atlantic Salmon prior to being released into open net pens–where they can potentially infect wild salmon populations. While not involved in the case, SeaLegacy, along with many other organizations, celebrated the decision. On a recent instagram post, SeaLegacy had this to say, “Congratulations to @ecojustice_ca, @alexmorton4salmon, and the ’Namgis First Nation on this critical victory for the health of wild salmon and our coast. Together, we will #GetFishFarmsOut”.
We as fisherman ought to understand the effects that humans are inflicting onto our cherished fisheries and speak against them. Our wild fisheries are beautiful and, in some cases, a way of life for communities. Wild salmon continue to be depleted. The Columbia River, in 2017, saw its lowest number of juvenile salmon in twenty years, posing a poor outlook for returning salmon numbers in the coming years. Salmon numbers continue to decline; it is the responsibility of us, consciously informed fishermen, to champion the preservation of wild salmon. That includes supporting groups like SeaLegacy in their efforts.