The tides of uninformed opinion

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Everyone has observed something that makes them feel really awkward.

Like when you are watching the blooper reel on the hit TV show American Idol and that gawky uncoordinated adolescent gets up in front of Simon Cowell and tries to belt out “I will always love you” by Whitney Houston – he tries so very hard, gives it all that he has -  but the song demands vocal prowess and skill beyond his expertise or capability. Sadly, the contestant is ridiculed by Mr Cowell and asked to leave, and the audience at home shrinks in their chair with embarrassment for the poor boy.

I imagine that is how thousands of Canadians felt after reading the latest attempt - in the Huffington Post - by a non-scientist to portray the salmon farming industry of BC as an evil, wild-fish killing, foreigner-owned empire.

Mark Davis, a health and wellness blogger and freelance business writer is just that - a non-scientist. Someone without the training or expertise in marine biology, fish physiology, or parasitology. But yet, nonetheless, someone who has decided to put forth their opinion into the public sphere about a highly complex subject that, unless you understand the science behind it, is simply an impossible task to try and sort out on your own, let alone inform others.

This article was very poorly-researched. But further to this, and perhaps more to the point of this present critique, Davis epitomizes the overarching problem in today’s media: a complete and utter disregard for fact-checking and performing due diligence.

Aside from his by-line, there is very little fact or reality presented in the article, “Foreign-owned fish farms are devastating BC’s wild salmon”. Moreover, Davis blatantly disregards the present state of the industry, instead using outdated data and quotes to vilify salmon farmers in BC.

He makes statements like “the salmon farming industry has long been banned in Alaska, where it's believed to be a threat to the state's healthy wild salmon populations.”

For the sake of brevity, I shall leave this one alone, except to say that it is entirely wrong for anyone to say Alaskan wild populations are healthy – refer to my earlier article “Grazing the oceans to death” – they are supplemented every year with billions of farm-raised juveniles in order to sustain a multibillion dollar commercial fishery. Without intervention, the wild salmon populations of Alaska likely would not exist.

However, in BC, there is no comparable program for sockeye salmon, and therefore declines in sockeye populations of the Fraser River have been felt by all stakeholders – First Nations, commercial fisherman, sports-fishing, and the ecosystem.

Davis writes how Dr David Suzuki had once blamed the fish farming industry for the demise of wild salmon by saying “these controversial corporate citizens are largely to blame for the gradual dying out of Canada's most famed fish.”

It is obvious that Davis is unaware of the positive dialogue and collaborative relationship displayed by the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) not even two weeks ago at a scientific workshop hosted by the BC Salmon Farming Association. Once an opponent to the industry, the DSF has now shown great openness and interest in working together to ensure sustainability.

A major tenet to his story is how the Cohen Commission report released in 2012 maintained that “potential harm posed by salmon farms to Fraser River sockeye salmon is serious or irreversible”.

However, his analysis is very mistaken.

Justice Cohen recommended a moratorium to salmon farm expansion because of public concern, not because there was evidence of harm. (See report Vol. 3 page 24, where Cohen wrote “data presented during this Inquiry did not show that salmon farms were having a significant negative impact on Fraser River sockeye.")

Furthermore, Cohen said (Vol. 3 page 59): “I am also satisfied that marine conditions in both the Strait of Georgia and Queen Charlotte Sound in 2007 were likely to be the primary factors responsible for the poor returns in 2009. Abnormally high freshwater discharge, warmer-than-usual sea surface temperatures, strong winds, and lower-than-normal salinity may have resulted in abnormally low phytoplankton and nitrate concentrations that could have led to poor zooplankton (food for sockeye) production.”

Moreover, it is clear that Davis is not aware of the 2010 Fraser River Sockeye escapement, where over 33 million fish returned the year after the “crash” of 2009 (the cause for the commission).

Interesting how all those sockeye, the very next year, were able to survive the gauntlet of salmon farms, or how despite the salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago, pink salmon have been returning to nearby rivers in the largest numbers ever recorded…

Davis claims that salmon farms are ambush sites for juvenile salmon and that open-net pens expose passing wild salmon to “devastating lethal threats” they have “never encountered before” that “lead to a slow death”.

The fantastical language that resonates throughout this story is not only sensationalistic garbage, but its clearly presented by someone with absolutely no idea about what he is talking about. If he had consulted a scientist in the field, they might have saved him the embarrassment by informing him that these wild fish have been coevolving with all of those “exotic diseases” for literally millions of years. And many of them have actually developed genetic resistance to them. In the case of “blood-sucking, flesh-eating” sea lice, juvenile coho and pink salmon rapidly reject the parasite.

So, I would say that these fish are definitely not “defence-less”.

In fact, I would argue, it was the other way around. If you are so worried about the poor little fish, perhaps you need to advocate for the defence-less Atlantic salmon who are more susceptible to the diseases in the Pacific.

Warming waters, decreasing food availability, predation, commercial fishing, pollution (the fact that any sockeye are able to survive the lower Fraser River is a feat on its own) - there are so many factors that have severe consequences on juvenile salmon survivability. All of which have been shown repeatedly by scientists to be affecting Pacific salmon in the Strait of Georgia. Yet Davis, like many others before him, choose to wave their “smoking gun” – it must be the salmon farms – since the farms started around the 1990’s, and that is when we first really noticed decreasing salmon populations, therefore, the farms are causing the declines.

A similar string of non-logic is often used by internet-educated mothers who elect to not vaccinate their child against devastating preventable diseases. “Charlie was vaccinated when he was almost 2 yrs old, and then he developed autism. Therefore, the vaccine caused Charlie’s autism.” It’s an ignorant and simplistic way of thinking, and often (especially in the case of vaccinations) is not rooted in any fact.

The salmon farming industry has quickly evolved into an integral part of Canada – one would only have to walk through the exhibits at the recent Seafood Expo North America in Boston to see the excellence displayed by Canadian aquaculturists – it has helped revitalize rural coastal communities from coast to coast, employing thousands of Canadians, and helping stunt the economic blows felt by crashing timber and commercial fisheries industries.

Canadians lead the world in research and innovation in the aquaculture industry and our finfish and shellfish sectors produce some of the most sought-after products in the world. It is deplorable for someone with no understanding of the salmon farming industry, of the ecological and environmental characteristics of the marine environment, and of fish pathogens to write such an inflammatory article based on these topics. He shows complete and utter disregard for the scientific process that we as scientists strive so hard to achieve. Why was there not one single salmon biologist (not self-proclaimed) consulted for a comment? One would assume a scientific opinion might be useful under such circumstances?

But maybe then, the fear-mongering tale of doom and gloom might have been softened once credible information was added to the mix. Maybe then, the story wouldn’t have been so attractive to the Huffington Post.

In the words of Dr Phil Plait, astronomer and scientific educator, "I’m tired of ignorance held up as inspiration, where vicious anti-intellectualism is considered a positive trait, and where uninformed opinion is displayed as fact".