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No easy answers in salmon-farming debate

CANADA - Two words that jump out from the recent Pacific Salmon Forum update are "scientific consensus." The independent advisory forum wants to build one on the topic of farmed fish versus wild fish, but it seems unlikely that's ever going to happen.

Scientific consensus on anything is a rarity. The deeper scientists go into any particular topic, the more they find to disagree about. And since they're only scratching the surface of the body of knowledge about the salmon life cycle, there will be many more years of disagreement about what's going on with wild salmon and whether farmed salmon have anything to do with it.

The studies on that issue have been crashing into each other for years. It's a natural enough process. In fact, it's the basis of all scientific inquiry. But when people are waiting for a definitive finding on which politicians can make decisions that will affect people's livelihoods, it gets a little frustrating.

The biggest impact of the back-and-forth arguments has been an erosion of public confidence in the management of the resource, the forum says.

"Most people would agree that there is room for considerable improvement in the level of public confidence in the management of both wild and farmed salmon in B.C.," the forum's report said. That lack of confidence is blamed on historical criticism of federal management of the salmon, uncertainty over wild salmon returns and access to the fishery, by First Nations' rights and by general public cynicism.

But the biggest reason for public distrust, according to the forum, is "media reports of conflicting scientific claims concerning the possible effects of salmon farming on wild salmon stocks."

"This concern has been compounded by a lack of public awareness and understanding of the full spectrum of research that has been done, plus deep distrust among the various salmon stakeholders."

Industry and environmentalists distrust each other's scientists and the public doesn't appear to have a lot of time for either side. Nonetheless, the forum wants to make a concerted push toward reaching a consensus on at least one front in the argument: Sea lice in the Broughton Archipelago.

That's the series of waterways on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island that has the biggest concentration of fish farms, many of them sited near the migratory paths for wild salmon. "The future direction of the aquaculture industry is dependent to a large degree on the scientific resolution of the potential impacts of farmed salmon on wild salmon in (that) area," said the forum. And although there are a number of impacts in dispute, sea lice appears to be the major one.

Source: Times Colonist