Can salmon aquaculture be certified organic?

Representatives of several aquaculture enterprises approached the Technical Committee for the Canada Organic Standard with proposals to integrate their voluntary organic standard for aquaculture into the Canada Organic Standard. Their standard covered everything from mussels to sturgeon roe (caviar) to salmon in ocean-based net pens. After two days of discussion the proposal was withdrawn as it clearly did not have enough support. The following is a letter I wrote to them with my reflections on the whole idea.

As I mentioned at the meeting, I have a number of concerns which relate to the possibility of a genuine Organic aquaculture standard (whether or not it is integrated with the Canada Organic Standard).  I noted that your proposals are very much focused on maintaining the health and integrity of the organic products and processes, and it seems that much less, if any, attention has been paid so far to the broader Organic Principles which begin the document:

 Principle of Health – Organic production should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.

 Principle of Ecology – Organic production should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.

 Principle of Fairness – Organic production should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

 Principle of Care – Organic production should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

All of these indicate that organic production must be integrated with the environment in which it is practised, and be practised in such a way as to “sustain and enhance” that environment. Bluntly, if you indeed want to follow these principles, I can see no way to practise ocean-located net pens. They are an environment which cannot be isolated from its surroundings and the fish and other aquatic life there. There are inevitably escapes and inter-breeding with wild stocks, not to mention the outbreak of disease which can spread readily to wild populations. Even for a well-managed ‘organic’ enterprise with lower stocking densities, these are real issues. Together, the cumulative risks of disease from proximity to caged salmon, and the fact that the salmon’s amazing genetic imprint does not contain coding for this kind of lifestyle which makes them more susceptible to disease, puts into serious question the whole system of ocean-located net pens.

There is an ethical as well as a practical problem here. The Organic Standard reflects a vision which is couched in language of respecting integrity and natural systems. I think that many practitioners of organic farming might use the term ‘reverence’ in this context. The life- cycle of the Pacific Salmon is one of these systems which many revere, and the Adams River, which hosts the largest and best known migration, has been nominated as a World Heritage Site. The Sockeye salmon migrate for hundreds if not thousands of kilometres from their natal stream high in the interior, through river systems to far out in the open ocean, and then back again four years later, with striking changes in their bodies as they battle their way upstream until they spawn and die. The fish are in a web of interdependence with the wildlife (bears, eagles) that feed on their dead bodies, the high mountains whose snow-melt provides the cold water in the rivers that they need, and the majestic trees that both cool the water and are nourished by the remains of their carcases and the droppings of their scavengers. It is not surprising that the Secwepemc (Shuswap) and other peoples in the region describe the salmon as sacred, reflecting the interweaving of relationships that is basic to Indigenous thinking.

How can the principles of ecology and fairness be  applied to the confinement rearing of a migratory species?

In fact, the question must be raised about the suitability of what are in effect “factory farms” for an organic designation, even if they are located on land, and especially if they are not part of an integrated system where the leavings of one species provides the feed  for another in an elegant closed loop. (Please note, I am simply suggesting that the question needs to be discussed.)

One of the most important concerns of the Technical Committee was, of course, just this question of feed and its provenance. This includes concern about the balance of pelagic fish and other protein sources in the feed for farmed fish; some scepticism of the label “sustainable fishery” for the pelagic fisheries on the basis of a state sign-on, without third-party verification; and the fact that it takes 1½  pounds of [wild] fish to grow one pound of salmon. Again, these are concerns which require more discussion of the evidence available to show that the proposed aquaculture is indeed sustainable and adheres to the Organic Principles in that regard.salmon surround canoe

In the interests of full disclosure, I need to note that this is an issue about which I have been passionate for a long time. I am a Newfoundlander, and you can still reduce me to tears just by mentioning the demise of the Northern Cod. I also lived for nearly ten years in Secwepemc territory, close to the Adams River and Lake Shuswap, and the experience of paddling my canoe in the midst of swarming, bright-red fish powerfully reminded me of the early explorers to the Grand Banks, who reported that the cod were so plentiful you could catch them in a basket. These are not, to my mind, minor matters, and they need careful and respectful consideration if we are to contemplate a certified Organic Standard for Aquaculture in Canada.

Thank you for listening.

Cathleen Kneen

June 10, 2015