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Getting the Whole Story: Consumer Education and the Sustainable Choice

By Coral Somerton



As sustainability becomes a prevalent topic in our society, its role in consumer decision making has become more significant. Price, taste, health etc. have made room for this relatively recent influencer in purchasing patterns. We’ve already seen major push backs on products such as plastic water bottles, purchasing local and drops in the demand for dairy.


What makes sustainability so challenging is determining what really is the sustainable option. Unlike price and personal taste, sustainability is a much more complex issue and not so easily quantifiable. It requires consumers to be accurately informed and unfortunately the complexity of all the factors makes this a difficult task. Further, as companies recognize a growing demand for sustainable production and products, it becomes a way for consumers to be manipulated without the proper education.


BC salmon products are the perfect story for how murky the waters can get when attempting to make sustainable choices For many reason, fish farms have been criticized for the role they are playing in the decline in the wild Pacific salmon population and for this reason there has been a call to purchase only wild salmon so as to not support an industry that is harming the wild salmon population. But is purchasing wild salmon really the most sustainable option?


Throughout the late 20th century, specifically in the 90’s, much Tofino faced extreme civil unrest due to the invasion of the logging industry thought Vancouver Island. This had detrimental effects on more than just the forests. Old growth roots systems are vital actors in the integrity of river beds and the effects of the collapse of the rivers and creeks are still apparent today. As the spawning ground for many Pacific Salmon species, these fresh water sources are necessary for a healthy salmon population.


When speaking with Steve Charleson, of the Hooksum Outdoor School, he discussed the creeks on the territory that have been damaged by logging and how that has affected number of juvenile fish found in the remaining creeks. Even those in the creeks are found with cuts on their bellies due to low water levels and sharp rocks from landslide runoff.


We learned that many of the conventional BC fish farms’ produce Atlantic salmon at high densities. The issue with this is it becomes the perfect environment to foster pathogens and other parasitic organisms like sea lice because of the stagnant nature and over population of these pens. Typically, farmed salmon only has to live for approximately 18 months in very low stress conditions and is treated for disease and sea lice outbreaks. Unfortunately, many of these pens lie in the migration routes of the native pacific salmon species and therefore exposes the wild salmon to all the disease and parasites that manifest in these aquaculture facilities. Wild salmon do not have the protection from predators and stress and must be fit enough to survive and so any threat to their health is a threat to their survival.


For this reason, fish farms receive backlash. Particularly, from communities such as First Nations and local fishermen whose livelihood and sustenance depend on the health of the wild salmon population. Fish farms have been an easy target and it’s easy to imagine corporate greed at the root of fish farming, increasing supply and depleting natural resources with money signs in their eyes. For someone looking to make sustainable choices in their diet, it seems obvious that purchasing wild pacific salmon is the way to go. But what if thats not the whole story?


Through the roller coaster of opinions we encountered in our research I couldn’t help but think, if the wild salmon population is so fragile because of logging, climate change and fish farm exposure, how does contributing to that demand really benefit the population. If spawning and migration and salmon health is already a major concern, supplying the global demand for salmon purely through wild salmon seems as though it would put an even greater strain on the stock.

I am the first to speak out against animal agriculture. I have always had issues with the idea of ‘producing’ animals. I believe breeding something, whose innate response is to avoid harm, in an environment where it doesn’t have that opportunity, is unnatural and cruel. The challenge is that due to the various forms of human activity that have threatened the wild salmon stocks, it doesn’t seem we can meet global demand purely with wild fish and so we are left with 2 options. First, to lower the demand of BC salmon as a whole, which unfortunately, is rather challenging. Or secondly, educate ourselves properly and creating a demand for the most sustainable sources of salmon meaning, accepting that currently it may not be wild salmon.


The struggle then becomes meeting the demand with fish farms, without supporting irresponsible practice that threaten the wild salmon. After meeting with Creative Fish Farms, I must say that there was little to criticize in terms of their production practices. Based on the information I have gathered thus far, it seems as though in the case that we can’t meet global demand without endangering the salmon population further, Creative, offers a happy medium, where most of the issues of conventional fish farming are rectified and are therefore less, if at all threatening to the wild salmon population. Unfortunately, Creative is a very small scale production so ideally these practices could be adopted by other farms and expanded throughout BC which requires demand.


In a perfect world ethically and environmentally, wild salmon seems to be the better option. It is a natural food source that, when given the opportunity, exists in abundance and offers valuable nutrients. Unfortunately we live in a world where capital greed has caused us to deplete and endanger valuable resources. Logging, climate change and fish farms have all led to a weakened population of wild Pacific salmon in BC . Ideally, the riverbeds and creeks can be rehabilitated, the threat of climate change can be solved and fish farms can go away. In the mean time, we have a global demand of salmon to meet.


What consumers must consider is fish farms are not the sole threat to wild salmon populations and may actually be the key to meeting the demand without depleting the resource completely. Without looking into this, we run the greater risk of making irresponsible choices in under the false pretence of sustainability. Make sure you understand the whole issue. In the case of salmon, learn why it’s more complicated than simply ‘farmed vs wild’ and understand that responsible fish farming may be the temporary key to strengthen the wild fish population by not contributing to the threats and offsetting the demand while the population recuperates and more is done on giving the wild salmon the environment they need to thrive.

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Philosophy Department

University of Guelph

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