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Salmon farming controversy aired in U.S. homes

British Columbia’s salmon farming industry was front and centre in millions of American homes Sunday night.

CBS’ flagship newsmagazine 60 Minutes featured a 13-minute segment on the West Coast industry entitled Salmon in the Sea which investigated the issue of whether salmon farms help or hurt declining wild salmon stocks.

Health reporter Dr. Sanjay Gupta was dispatched to the “Northwest” to report on the issue. Front and centre in the segment was Ian Roberts, communications manager for Campbell River-based Marine Harvest Canada, who conveyed the industry message that farming has an impact, like all agriculture, but it’s a way to help feed the world without taking more from wild stocks.

“While there is a local impact, and let’s be honest, when you farm anything, whether it’s vegetables or animals on land, you have an impact. But you’re also taking pressure off wild stocks,” Roberts said in the report. “By raising fish in the ocean, we’re actually conserving what we have left in the ocean.”

Industry insiders were happy that CBS spent time in the northwest visiting farms and talking to the industry directly but they also talked to industry nemesis Alexandra Morton to get the other side of the story.

“Salmon farming cannot be done in the ocean in net pens without destroying the environment around it,” Morton said.

All in all, B.C. Salmon Farmers Association executive director Jeremy Dunn felt the report was fair.

“I thought it was a pretty balanced story,” Dunn said. “I thought the coast of Campbell River looked fantastic and that’s a big deal in front of an American audience.”

Dunn was particularly impressed with a web-only supplementary segment entitled 60 Minutes Overtime which looked into the consumer dilemma over whether to eat wild-caught or farmed salmon. Dr. Gupta said in his report there was basically no difference between the two.

“If you compare farmed salmon versus wild salmon, there actually wasn’t that big a difference between the omega-3 levels,” Dr. Gupta said.

Statements like that pleased Dunn.

“One piece that I thought was very, very fair to the industry was the CBS Overtime piece on eating salmon and the health benefits of all salmon really,” Dunn said.

If you’re choosing to not eat farmed salmon based on a perception of health risk then you’re basing your decision on a lot of myth, Dunn said.

But Morton didn’t mince her words in the segment about eating farmed salmon.

“This product has serious health implications,” she said. “There are dioxins and PCBs in it. This product is not good for the planet. It’s not good for you.”

Dr. Gupta acknowledged there is concern about whether farmed salmon had too much “bad stuff” – PCBs and the like.

PCB levels are sometimes 10 times higher in farmed salmon but they’re still well below the threshold that the U.S. Food and Drug Administraton starts to worry about.

“The levels are so low it’s almost a drop in the bucket in either source (farmed or wild salmon),” Dr. Gupta said.

Where the salmon farming industry didn’t fare so well in the report is the controversy over the presence of Infectious Salmon Anemia or ISA, a highly communicable disease that wiped out salmon farms in Chile.

Morton pointed out in the televised 60 Minutes report that the fish are not kept in farms, they’re kept in feedlots creating an environment ripe for ISA outbreaks.

Dunn felt the 60 Minutes report left the ISA issue hanging.

“I wish they wouldn’t have left the uncertainty they left the viewer with over ISA,” Dunn said.

He felt that it should have been reported that the industry has done 3,000 tests on salmon and has never found ISA.

Brian Wallace, senior counsel to the Cohen Commission which looked into the 2009 drastic decline of the sockeye run in the Fraser River, was left looking uncertain and unsure of himself or the situation.

The segment ended with Wallace admitting that the only way to establish a link between disease transmission from farmed salmon to wild salmon is to wait until it actually happens.

“That sounds like it would be too late,” Dr. Gupta said.

“I hope not,” Wallace replied.

Our View: Tonight on 60 Minutes – Nothing new

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