Collateral damage?

The B.C Salmon Aquaculture Industry

by Stan Hirst

While listening with half an ear to some talking heads on TV recently, I was jolted back into the moment by an expression that was uttered – collateral damage. That set me thinking, which is always a good thing at my age. The term “collateral damage” is common enough, but it was the context that caught my attention. The TV host was referring to the impacts of some or other Washington scandal on a political figure’s personal reputation.

My English language skills were honed back in the colonies in days of yore and facilitated by a gruff elderly teacher in a suit who used a B-O-O-K as the source of all that was to be known about composition and syntax. Back then “collateral” meant “additional but subordinate or secondary” and referred to benign things like money or grammar.

In the 1960’s the term was flipped and was heard frequently on black-and-white film clips about the Vietnam War to pigeonhole the damage done to villages, villagers and schools blotted out by napalm or rockets which hadn’t quite landed on the originally intended targets. That usage continued through the unpleasantness in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan.

For decades the term was virtually synonymous with military actions. Now it seems to be in increasing use to categorize the blackening of the reputation of political figures who get side-swiped by accusations, revelations or evidence of wrongdoing aimed at someone else. I’m suggesting further that the term is also now applicable to current environmental activities all around us.

Frederic Rosen, author of Collateral Damage: A Candid History of a Peculiar Form of Death, notes that [collateral damage] “is a very, very old problem that boils down to the problem of explaining imperfect human agency.”

A military assault creates negative impacts for the enemy in terms of strongholds destroyed, equipment destroyed or captured, enemy combatants killed or taken captive. This is unfortunate for the enemy, but the ultimate purpose of the action from the perspective of the perpetrators is all positive. It means securing strategic locations and objectives, blocking the enemy’s ability to achieve similar goals, taking away the enemy’s ability to mount effective opposition, and placing the adversary in a disadvantageous position in subsequent deliberations, treaties, haggling and whatever. Along the way in this process non-combatants might be killed, injured or rendered homeless, and infrastructure such as houses might be damaged or destroyed. This is often pretty much inevitable, but it is not necessarily intentional. A lot of the damage is collateral by definition.

]The term “collateral” has some interpretations and nuances. To me it appears that the scope and impact are determined by the underlying intentions and motivations of the perpetrators. There are five possible models for this.

  • Model 1: The perpetrators of military actions do not realize they will kill civilians and children when they launch their ordnance. That suggests a lack of planning and forethought.
  • Model 2: In this age of satellites, drones and sophisticated intel it is much more likely that the perpetrators would know there were civilians and non-military structures in the vicinity of the target, but the attacker calculates that they can destroy enemy assets without harming non-combatants in the impact area. That suggests defective execution of the operation or just old plain don’t-give-a-sh**.
  • Model 3: They expect collateral harm but calculate that non-military damage can be lessened, even avoided, by a smart choice and application of ordnance.
  • Model 4: They are so intent on zapping the enemy that they don’t bother to avoid non-specific impacts. That implies the whole intent from the outset regarding collateral damage is to bluster or stage-manage any reports and information.
  • Model 5: The fifth obvious possibility is that they fully anticipated and orchestrated a combination of all of the above.

It is important to note that “not intentional” does not necessary equal “inconsequential” For example, some 500 civilians were killed by NATO bombs in Yugoslavia 1n 1999, 360,000 civilians in Afghanistan (2001 to date), and a roughly estimated 2 million Vietnamese civilians died in the 1954-75 wars in that country. The line between intentional and collateral gets blurry.

My interest in all this military malevolence isn’t just because I have watched Apocalypse Now eleven times. Its because I see strong parallels between collateral damage resulting from military actions and that occurring in many resource extraction and exploitation activities.

Corporate developers of oilfields, pipelines, mines, salmon farms and the like certainly do not kill people intentionally and generally commit a lot of money and resources to avoid killing anybody and anything that shows up on the public barometer, including wildlife, endangered species, high value habitats and the like. But there are unavoidable losses attributable to project development – ecosystems and habitats, water quality, air quality, species such as orcas and chinook salmon.

A sentiment I have heard expressed more than just a few times over the years in corporate planning offices and board meetings dealing with large resource extraction or management projects is “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. In corporate-speak that means you can’t achieve great things without breaking down some other thing. The expression is attributed to French royalist and soldier François Athanase de Charette de la Contrie (1763 – 1796). Apparently, Josef Stalin also used it once or twice.

There are many examples of corporate developments with collateral parallels. A pertinent one from the B.C. perspective is the case of marine aquaculture (meaning net-pens in saltwater sites).

Salmon farming is most productive in cool waters that are well flushed by tidal activity and protected from ocean storms. The waters of the Broughton Archipelago, on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, and of several large sounds on the west coast are well suited for aquaculture, and the large majority of salmon farms in B.C. are now located in these areas.

In British Columbia salmon farming started with chinook, coho and sockeye in the 1970s around the town of Sechelt. For economic reasons, the industry switched in the 1980s to Atlantic salmon, a European and eastern Canadian species with a faster growth rate and greater tolerance for higher stocking densities. Through the 1990s the industry moved from a small independent farm model to consolidated ownership. By 2016 farmed salmon harvests totalled 92,800 tonnes, with a wholesale value of $797 million, and was responsible for a third of the overall provincial seafood harvest.

Marine Harvest, one of the main corporate aquaculture operators, globally produces one-fifth of the world’s farm-raised salmon at facilities in Norway, Scotland, Canada, Chile, Ireland and the Faroe Islands. The company employs over 12 000 people globally, is listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange and trades its shares on the US OTC market. The Canadian operation employs 530 people and produces 45,000 tonnes of farm-raised Atlantic salmon each year. Their marketed salmon are four-star certified to the Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Aquaculture Practices.

In 1989, Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist, diagnosed furunculosis, a bacterial disease in wild salmon. It was an antibiotic-resistant strain, suggesting that it originated from a fish farm. During ensuing years she saw increasing numbers of wild salmon infested by sea lice, small parasitic crustaceans that feed on the skin and mucous of fish. Sea lice do not normally harm adult salmon but pose a threat to younger fish.

As described by the Times Colonist Morton later diagnosed Piscine Reovirus as well as Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation Disease (HSMI) in wild fish. In some severe cases in Norway HSMI killed up to one-fifth of fish on farms.

A 1997 Salmon Aquaculture Review Report prepared by the province’s Environmental Assessment Office concluded that “[salmon] farming in British Columbia….presented a low overall risk to the environment“. The same report admitted to its conclusions being “tempered by certain reservations”. The latter included potential impacts of interactions of escaped farmed salmon with wild populations, identification and control of disease and disease pathogens, potential for disease transfer and impacts from antibiotic residues, and effects of waste discharges on water quality and seabed life.

On one hand this sounds like the old blind men and the elephant parable – how observers examine the very same issue and come up with diametrically opposite conclusions. But it is not far-fetched when one reads the opinions of specialists in salmon biology and parasitology.

Federal research scientist Kristi Miller points out that B.C. “…. is the only place in the world with abundant and commercially exploited wild salmon populations and where there is an expanding aquaculture industry”

The real issue became clear during the 2010-2012 Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, which concluded “We do not understand what the role of infectious disease in wild salmon declines is. . . . “ . . . . even though there are a lot of theoretical risks posed by aquaculture there are no solid scientific data to demonstrate exactly what those risks are in B.C.” The conclusion seems to be at variance with views commonly expressed by fisheries scientists, i.e. “Dense concentrations of salmon in net pens magnify the production of sea lice larvae, which have serious effects on the survival of young wild salmon”.

Apart from parasitic, viral and other infectious diseases, open-pen salmon farms cause significant collateral environmental damage in terms of the waste materials they release to the supporting marine environment. Waste feed, fish faeces, pesticides, antibiotics, heavy metals and complex organic compounds all contribute to the outfalls. Fish farm wastes build up under the pens, smothering portions of the ocean bottom, contaminating the marine ecosystem and depriving species of oxygen. The bulk of waste may be carried away by ocean currents, to collect in other sites, with additional impacts.

So which model of collateral damage best fits the salmon-farm situation?

  • Marine Harvest is a Norwegian company in business for 54 years and the world´s largest producer of farmed salmon, both by volume and revenue. They would certainly be fully aware of the potential impact of sea-lice on wild salmon (see web page of the Norwegian Environment Agency regarding sea lice in that country). Model 1 doesn’t fit.
  • Based on their considerable experience in the salmon aquaculture business and on the extensive and well-documented history of wild salmon use of B.C. coastal waters, they surely expected issues with sea lice and local contamination when they commenced farm operations in the 1990’s. Model 2 doesn’t fit either.
  • They fully realized that there would be major issues with sea lice but figured they had extensive experience elsewhere in the world and had run successful operations there, so why not the Broughton Archipelago? Model 3 is a distinct possibility.
  • By much the same reasoning the salmon farming corporations knew the sea lice problem was coming in B.C., knew that disease transmission to wild salmon was a real possibility, and knew that their operations would produce a lot of sludge and effluent. They also knew the potential profit margin was considerable, especially since they were disposing of their considerable waste loads for free into the public domain. Naturally they elected to go ahead and deal with issues and the communities as they had done for years in Norway and Chile. So, Model 4 is a good fit and probably the best descriptor of what is actually going on at the present time.

Now what? Does the collateral filter offer any pointers for a way forward with this complex issue?  I suggest the history of military collateral damage does that.

All military endeavours, however popular and patriotic at the time they are launched, inevitably end up on the ash heap of public approval. Operations such as Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan started out with flag-waving, hurrahs and national pride. They ended with handicapped veterans, millions of displaced people, orphaned children, damaged ecosystems and widespread public disavowal of the military intervention process. On a systemic basis they resulted in a change of policies and of the means to achieve the defined aims. No more “boots on the ground”, more reliance on drones and remote methods of fighting, shifting the burden of responsibility to local governments and communities. The ultimate collateral impact is on broad public opinion.

So too with marine-based salmon net-pen aquaculture. A 2017 analysis of headline contents of newspapers, blogs and magazines worldwide reveals that Canada leads the world in the extent of negative perceptions of aquaculture, with 38% of reporting emphasizing the negative issues surrounding the practice.

As with the military examples, changes in public opinion lead to new approaches to addressing the goals. With aquaculture it’s a case of moving the operation from the marine environment to land. The concept has been researched for the past 20 years with good results. With no free waste dumping system, land-based operations cost more of course, but have more flexibility in terms of size, location, species farmed, and mode of operations.

Its time to move on. To land.



  1. Here in Norway issue of new production licences is tied to salmon producers ability to control sea lice, so very few new licences have been made available over the past 5 years. Salmon farmers are now turning to new marine technologies like the ‘floating egg closed container’. It will be difficult in the short term to get salmon farms out of the water onto land.

  2. The ocean is a big place. Is the problem putting a high concentration of fish into open nets, or the location of those open nets?

  3. Excellent article. Every project that impacts the environment should be made to perform an environmental risk analysis and make it available to the public. • Step 1: Identify the hazards. • Step 2: Decide who or what might be harmed and how. • Step 3: Evaluate the risks and decide on control measures. • Step 4: Record your findings. • Step 5: Review your assessment and update as and when necessary.

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