ENVIRONMENT

Blind leading the blind

A hatchery accident raises the hackles of B.C. fishermen

Malcolm Gray August 10 1981
ENVIRONMENT

Blind leading the blind

A hatchery accident raises the hackles of B.C. fishermen

Malcolm Gray August 10 1981

Blind leading the blind

ENVIRONMENT

A hatchery accident raises the hackles of B.C. fishermen

Malcolm Gray

It was a bad joke, one that the troubled West Coast salmon fishery didn’t need—the news this spring that a vaunted fish hatchery program had turned out 2.4 million blind and partially sighted salmon. As the Chinooks, cohos, pinks and chums were released to bump their way downstream to certain death, easy meals for predators they couldn’t see, criticisms of the $150-million federal-provincial program flowed in again. Improper diet caused the disaster at four Vancouver Island hatcheries: the fish were given food high in ash causing a zinc deficiency and, eventually, loss of sight. This means not only the loss of 75,000 fish that would otherwise have survived to reach dinner tables, but yet another reason for fishermen to feel vulnerable.

With four million young salmon blinded by the same food in Washington state hatcheries, the incident was another setback for dwindling fish stocks. Mid-ocean predators, growing commercial fleets and overfishing of Chinook (the favorite of sports fishermen) have caused severe decline and sparked loud protests from West Coast fishermen. High hopes for restoring the species were revived in 1977 with the federal

government’s salmonid enhancement program, designed to produce an extra 23,000 tonnes of salmon each year when all the land-based hatcheries were built. So far only 10 per cent of the total B.C. salmon catch originates from hatcheries. If the scheme succeeds in augmenting this percentage, federal fisheries plan something similar on the East Coast, where acid rain is taking its toll. But now the signs off the B.C. coast are ominous with a new low of 50,000 tonnes caught last year.

Not surprisingly, fisherman themselves, hurt by the salmon fiasco, are among the most vocal opponents. Observing the imbalance between fishing fleets’ increasing proficiency and declining numbers of fish, George Hewison, secretary-treasurer of the United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union in Vancouver, takes a strong anti-hatchery line: “The federal government should [instead] be concentrating on cleaning up the rivers, the salmon habitat—going after industrial polluters and getting rid of log jams.” Hewison believes that wild salmon are stronger and less likely to succumb to disease than the young fish raised in the shelter of hatcheries’ crowded concrete vats. He could point to the small but persistent problem with furunculosis—

a bacterial disease that kills between 500 and 2,000 fish each year on the Restigouche River, flowing between New Brunswick and Quebec. Biologists believe the disease was introduced to the river by hatchery fish living in such crowded conditions.

The blind salmon episode has implications that reach beyond a faulty diet, according to Howard English, an adviser to the B.C. enhancement program. It suggests there may be an undesirable homogeneity in the artificially raised fish—the more alike they grow, the greater the chances of breeding out genetic traits of resilience. English contends that “it’s an over-simplification to think that hatcheries are the answer to the decline in salmon.” Commercial fishermen, he says, must also alter their fishing habits to avoid fishing wild stocks—found mainly in offshore waters where they mingle with hatchery fish. Instead they should fish well into the mouths of hatchery-dominated rivers for tagged hatchery-bred fish. Such a suggestion carries little appeal to a fisherman who prefers commercially attractive younger fish, not yet heading for the spawning grounds.

Faced with such criticisms, Dave Barrett, a biologist at Qualicum Hatchery on Vancouver Island where thousands of Chinooks consumed the blinding meal, replies that instant results from the program are biologically impossible: “Treasury Board has difficulty understanding the life cycle of salmon. They think we should be up to our knees in fish by now, but the returns are only starting to come in.”

As different interest groups argue about a common resource that swims over international borders and past hooks and nets, a Vancouver scientist is working quietly on a new improvement for salmon farms (which raise the fish to sell directly to market)Jerry Marliave is attempting to eliminate the expense of food and labor by raising salmon in a barrel-like device immersed in a saltwater inlet. His new “tidal plankton accumulator” would allow fish to feed exclusively on plankton organisms flowing through the barrel. If consumers take to the potentially lower price, Marliave’s invention could revolutionize the industry. Fishermen will also have to adjust. Says New Brunswick biologist and fish farmer Art MacKay: “Philosophically it’s a question of whether you want to be a hunter or a farmer.”

Yet for all the experiments currently under way and the efforts of a Royal commission now studying B.C.’s troubled fisheries, the individual fisherman still feels set adrift. Says Leonard Wilson, who fishes salmon in Saint John Harbour: “All you need is one night of oil [spill in a fish farm] and you lose the whole works.”