Hatcheries, Frankenbucks, Disease: When Will We Learn?

Over a decade ago, I was hired to write a chapter for a book called Return of the Wild: the Future of our Natural Lands (if you've never heard of it, you are not alone). My chapter of the book was called "Marketing the Image of the Wild," and it was about game farming and about the (then) new boom in salmon aquaculture.

In short, the chapter was about the complications that arise when we try to manufacture and sell a replica of an animal or food that has its real value based in the fact that it lives a wild, free, and presumably healthy life in a natural environment. This was in the early years of the troubles with Chronic Wasting disease in the game farm industry, not long after the bovine tuberculosis epidemic on elk farms in Canada, and just before the shipment of the live, CWD infected domestic elk to South Korea crashed the Asian velvet antler trade. For a writer, interesting times indeed.

Partly because of all that was happening in the game farm industry, my work on salmon aquaculture did not make it into the final cut of the chapter--there just wasn't enough room. But the research for that story was one of the high points of my life as a writer. I spent a week or so traveling the coast northwest of Seattle, visiting a couple of the aquaculture operations, and talking with employees and managers--all of whom were top-notch, hospitable and hard-working people. I liked being there, and seeing the operations, and I would have probably enjoyed working there myself, out there on the cold saltwater, working with all those fish, it was kind of like the commercial fishing that I once loved.

Almost a month on the telephone (this was the year 2000, with dial-up internet: type in web-address, hit Enter, take nap) and a few hundred pages of studies and reports, changed my mind. The net pens that held the non-native Atlantic salmon produced the fecal load of a small city of humans, and the antibiotics used in the feed to prevent disease in the crowded conditions came out with the effluent, and entered the food chain. Each one-ton "plug" of fish meal pellets that fed the thousands of Atlantic salmon in each of the net pens was made of 4-5 tons of anchovies taken from the cold waters of southern Peru, where big steel-hulled bottom draggers mined away the foundation-fish of the oceans' food pyramid in one of the poorest parts of the world. In storms the net pens broke, and one farm employee told me a story of crowds of local people coming down to dip up the disoriented, newly freed Atlantics as they thrashed along the rocky shoreline.

Dr. John Volpe, a fisheries researcher from the University of Alberta who spent his days studying Pacific salmon by rocketing down freezing whitewater streams in a wetsuit, was finding the big escaped Atlantics on the spawning gravels of major watersheds like the Amor de Cosmos Creek. These fish were supposed to be sterile, but what would they do? Nobody seemed to know then. They still don't, even as the new genetically engineered super salmon (critics call it the "Frankenfish") awaits FDA approval, and, if approved, introduction into the net pens, and then the ecosystem. The diseases and parasites predicted to come from the net pens to infect the native fish stocks did come. Millions have been spent trying to address the challenges to native fisheries.

But I am telling this story of a long-ago writing job not to warn readers of the dangers of game farming and salmon aquaculture but to share a kind of revelation that I had, after all those months of research: Those who want to put in jeopardy the gifts of the natural world--too many to list, and each hunter and fisherman will have their own--always promise us that what they plan to take, or have already taken, can be replaced. Hatchery fish (paid for by license money and tax money) to replace the natives that once spawned on clean gravels there in the now-ruined headwaters, disease- and pest-vulnerable monoculture pine forests to replace the magnificently diverse hardwoods of the Southeast.

Farmed trophies, sold to the highest bidder, and fenced in on land that was once the range of healthy deer and elk herds that belonged to us all, animals that came and went as they pleased, lived and died according to their own wits, replaced by lumbering genetic freaks that are little more than glorified Holsteins. The feds will use taxpayer money to haul water to the community whose wells have been poisoned. The mine owner promises to pay for construction of a hatchery, at least at first. Plans will be made to feed the mule deer that once wintered in the gasfield. The Norwegian government will pay 300 million kronen to poison the iconic salmon fishing rivers where the flesh-eating parasites spread by aquaculture and hatchery fish have been found, and plant more hatchery fish to replace the lost native Atlantics.

Public money spent endlessly to try and fix or create a façade where once was a natural wonderland, taken for an all too fleeting profit. It's an equation so common, so ever-present in our existence that I missed it for decades. I had to revisit the aquaculture story from so long ago, to see what is still happening, all around us. In essence: we trade or allow others to trade, our birthright--in the case of salmon aquaculture; clean, mighty rivers, and salmon, living unimaginably wild lives in the open ocean, and returning to spawn in feeder creeks so small that we can step across them, for huge pens, anchored, polluting, protected, filled with facsimile-fish so weak, so pale compared to the real thing, that their very flesh must be dyed orange with harvested krill before anyone will purchase or eat it. The diseases and parasites that flow out from these operations imperil the very survival of the native species, and the economy and ecology that they support. When all we would have to do is protect the rivers and the fishery in the first place, and reap the treasure for all time. How many similar examples, from every nation on the planet, from our own local creeks and hunting grounds and communities, can we list?