A Rot from Wente's Words: Fishy Journalism

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Fishy Journalism
by Kim Petersen / September 11th, 2010
The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente has a penchant for pronouncing on matters as if she were an expert. It often lands her in hot water for causing offense, as when she posed as an expert on First Nations culture and history and wrote that “natives” were “savages.”1

From her desk in Toronto, Wente recently waded into the turbulent waters of the farmed salmon controversy. Disinformation has been a hallmark of salmon-farming advocates.2

The newspaper columnist begins her September 4 article by insinuating that there is nothing special about salmon.3

She writes of this summer’s sockeye salmon run on the Stó:lō (Fraser River) that “the fish are practically leaping into the boats. It’s the biggest sockeye run in a century.” She concludes, “So much for sea lice.”

What would one expect from a non-scientist situated 4400 kilometers from the west coast? Of course, a journalist might easily commit a science faux pas by deducing causation from correlation. But why would a self-respecting journalist write about something she doesn’t know about?
 
An email from Paul Kershaw, the Area D Gillnetters President, explained the 2010 sockeye run:
 

FYI- The lowest levels of sea lice were recorded during the out-migrating sockeye smolt period of this year’s record run of sockeye. That year was 2008 when the Pacific Salmon Forum study reported that only 4%–7% of the Chum and Pink salmon fry, tested in the Broughton [Archipelago off northeast Vancouver Island], were infected with sea lice compared to 2007, where up to 70% were infested. Other data collected in 2008 had sockeye with 1.8 lice per smolt compared to 7-9 lice per smolt tested in 2007 and 2009. In fact, it actually looks like how the salmon farms manage their sea lice, so go our south coast Wild salmon returns. Open net fish farming can hardly be vindicated by this year’s return, rather the data makes for a good case for the salmon farmers to move to closed containment so we can have Wild Salmon returns like these in the future.

Our association predicted a large return of Sockeye partly due to the low levels of lice in 2008. The data is readily available for anyone to look at …

 
In her piece, Wente even quoted one of the former “savages,” Darren Blaney of Homalco First Nation: “It’s kind of ironic that we sit here and talk about the declining Fraser stocks when there’s a record run.” What that comment is supposed to illustrate vis-à-vis salmon farms or sea lice is unclear.

She then engages in the effete tactic of criticizing environmentalists for maligning salmon farms. Wente does not, however, deal with any of the myriad charges against salmon farming-operations.4

“At first,” she writes, “environmentalists said farmed salmon contained dangerous levels of cancer-causing PCBs and shouldn’t be consumed by pregnant women – until it turned out that wild salmon (declared safe by Health Canada) has even higher levels of PCBs.”

On September 5, I wrote an email to Wente asking for evidence that wild salmon had higher levels of PCBs than farmed salmon because the preponderance of evidence indicates otherwise, including a peer-review article in the academic journal Science.5 Wente did not reply to any emails. Ergo, Wente asserts. This is what might be expected from a non-scientist. Readers are invited to do an online search for evidence that supports Wente’s assertion (try: PCBs + farmed + wild + salmon).

Wente: “Then they warned that escaped salmon would interbreed with wild salmon and produce Frankenfish.”

Wente either does not know the concerns expressed by environmentalists and wild salmon advocates or she distorts their position.

Important is what Wente does not mention. She does not mention that farmed salmon is predominantly Atlantic salmon, and it is a non-native species to BC waters. She does not mention the claims of salmon farmers: that farmed salmon would never escape their pens – they do; that farmed salmon would never be able to feed in the wild – they do; that farmed salmon would never enter spawning streams – they do; that farmed salmon would never spawn – they do. Given the many previous false assertions of the salmon-farming industry, caution would befit other salmon-farming pronouncements.

Nevertheless, as any scientist would know, that interbreeding has not been demonstrated to have occurred yet between farmed Atlantic salmon and wild Pacific salmon, does not mean it has not happened or that it never will happen.

Furthermore, the term Frankenfish is best applied to the genetically modified Atlantic salmon itself.6 And since salmon farmers advocate openness and transparency, it is expected that if such Frankenfish are sold to the public that they will be labeled as GM fish.7 Yet, the pronouncements of salmon farmers — who resort to spin doctors — demonstrates dissembling because their actions seldom match their rhetoric.8

Wente: “The scare that finally stuck was sea lice (even though there’s no good evidence that sea lice are a problem).”

Wente provides no evidence for her assertion.

Scientists have a different take:
 

The peer-reviewed primary scientific literature on sea lice interactions between wild and farmed salmon in British Columbia makes the following conclusions: (1) infection rates on wild juvenile pink salmon were greater in salmon farming regions than in regions without salmon farms; (2) within a salmon farming region most lice on wild juvenile pink and chum salmon originated from farmed salmon; and (3) transmission of lice from farmed to wild salmon leads to population growth and spread of lice in wild salmon populations. Salmon aquaculture likely has negative impacts on wild salmon populations and the next scientific challenge is to quantify this impact.9

 
Readers can evaluate the assertions of the non-scientist “journalist” against the research of scientists.

Wente acknowledges that aquaculture has “had its share of growing pains, and is by no means problem-free. Still, it brings considerable economic benefits to British Columbia, as well as local sustainable jobs to first nations [sic] up and down the coast.”10

Marine biologist and wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton has followed the money. She asked what money there is and for who?

Citing the BC Ministry of Environment, Morton noted that fish farms brought in $365 million in landed catch value in 2007. Wild salmon brought in $1.5 billion in tourism and $288 million in sports fishing. Sport fishing is mainly owned by British Columbians while salmon farms are mainly Norwegian-owned corporations. Citing Wilderness Tourism Association figures, full-time jobs provided by fish farms were 4,000 versus the 52,000 full-time jobs that wild salmon made possible.11

Says Wente: “But many in the [salmon-farming] industry have put their expansion plans on hold because of the mounting pile of regulations and dreadful PR.”

Wente discards the precautionary principle – that a product must be tested and determined to be safe for consumers and the environment. In Wente’s world, consumers and the environment would be guinea pigs for whatever corporations choose to produce and sell.

Wente: “Yet, even if the salmon return again next year, and the year after that, aquaculture is the future. As the world’s population soars, global food needs are soaring, too. Our oceans are shockingly fished out (a far more urgent problem than global warming). Like it or not, farmed fish will soon be vital to feed a hungry world.”

Wente claims prescience, and based on that offers some ill-thought conclusions. She asserts aquaculture is the future. Wild salmon advocates are not anti-aquaculture. Most would accept closed containment systems for salmon farms, although some would question the rationale of the negative protein exchange (that is, more protein in used in feed than is produced by the salmon; thus defeating a solution “to feed a hungry world.”)

Wente does not distinguish between farming predator species such as salmon with herbivorous species such as tilapia. She does not explore solutions such as marine reserves, protected areas where fish can replenish their wild populations.

Wente claims certainty. Yet her writing is replete with disinformation, logical lacunae, and prejudice. In her world, species are for corporate exploitation. The preservation of wild species, safety, scientific results, and caution be damned.
 
 
  1. Ben Powless, “What Wente Wrote was Really Dumb – and also Racist,” The Dominion, 26 October 2008. []
  2. See Kim Petersen, “Farmageddon and the Spin-doctors,” Dissident Voice, 29 March 2003; “Disinformation and Salmon Farming,” Salmon Farm Monitor, July 2004; Kim Petersen, “Lousy Disinformation: Norwegian Multinationals Threaten Existence of Wild Salmon,” Dissident Voice, 8 March 2010. []
  3. Margaret Wente, “B.C.’s fishy salmon science,” Globe and Mail, 4 September 2010. Fellow right-wing corporate media newspaper the Financial Post chimed in similarly day earlier. Ruth Salmon, “Tall fish farm tales,” FP, 3 September 2010. []
  4. See Stephen Hume, Alexandra Morton, Betty Keller, Rosella M. Leslie, Otto Langer, and Don Staniford, A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (Harbour Publishing, 2004). []
  5. See Kim Petersen, “Toxic Farmed Salmon,” Dissident Voice, 11 January 2004. []
  6. Robin McKie, “Why the case for GM salmon is still hard to stomach,” Guardian, 27 August 2010. []
  7. See Kim Petersen, “The People’s Right to Know,” Dissident Voice, 12 July 2010. []
  8. See Dan MacLennan, “Information gap infuriates fish farm opponents,” Campbell River Courier-Islander, 6 August 2010. []
  9. Martin Krkošek, Mark A. Lewis, and John P. Volpe, “Transmission Dynamics of Parasitic Sea Lice from Farm to Wild Salmon,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 30 March 2005. []
  10. The use of lower case for “First Nations” is revelatory. It is always spelled with capital letters. It speaks to Wente’s concern for jobs for Indigenous peoples. []
  11. See Kim Petersen, “Whose Ocean? Whose Wild Salmon?: Corporate-Government Chooses Profit over Wild Salmon; What Do the People Choose?Dissident Voice, 6 August 2009. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Read other articles by Kim.

 

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