Ray Grigg is a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander. He is the author of seven
internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically
Zen and Taoism.
Read part 1 of this story here
Strange things can happen when salmon eat chickens. Such a diet is unprecedented and bizarre, a violation of the biological order that has occurred over millions of years of evolutionary history. Nature, it seems, does the unusual when human ingenuity tampers with its traditions. And the consequences can be dire. But this is a complex subject that requires some context — an understanding of details first requires an understanding of principles.
Evolution is not as simple as we thought. Darwin's theory of natural selection only describes the slow “vertical” transfer of genetic material from parent to offspring used by large animals and plants. But the microbial world of bacteria and viruses also does a “horizontal” transfer of genetic material between similar and different organisms by a non-sexual means. This microbial capability — operating since early life on our planet billions of years ago — is a genetic free-for-all in which DNA is exchanged like goods at a swap-meet. These opportunistic organisms use this genetic process to optimize change in their individual traits and thereby accelerate evolution. Their only requirement is that they be brought together in close proximity.
We've already experienced the consequences. Many of our common human diseases have come to us from farmed animals through the horizontal transfer of novel genetic material — thanks to globalization and industrial agriculture, at least 30 have occurred since 1970. So the crowded conditions in poultry or salmon farms provide the perfect combination of density and stress that allows viruses to exchange genetic material with each other. The result can increase their virulence, allow them to infect a new species, or even create an entirely novel version of themselves — in taxonomy, a new genus. Which brings us to salmon and viruses.
The fish in the salmon farm in Norway that first began to exhibit strange symptoms in 1999 were infected with a new disease later identified as heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI). The symptoms were a pale and soft heart muscle, yellowish liver, swollen spleen and other swellings. Infection rates in pens were as high as 20%, with morbidity close to 100%. HSMI was extremely infectious, soon spreading to 417 other salmon farms in Norway, then to facilities in the United Kingdom. Indeed, HSMI was discovered to be so infectious that it threatened wild fish that came in contact with the farms or with infected fish that escaped from them. Tests indicate HSMI has arrived in British Columbia.
PLOS One published a scientific article on July 9, 2010, entitled “Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation of Farmed Salmon is Associated with Infection with Novel Reovirus” (Gustavo Palacios, W. Ian Lipkin, et al.), linking HSMI with this “novel” piscine reovirus (PRV). The article's Abstract claims to “provide evidence that HSMI is associated with infection with piscine reovirus”, presumably the way AIDS is associated with HIV — one is a full-blown version of the other. The article claims that “PRV is a novel reovirus identified by unbiased high throughput DNA sequencing”, that “PRV is the causative agent for HSMI”, and that “measures must be taken to control PRV not only because it threatens domestic salmon production but also due to the potential for transmission to wild salmon populations.” Indeed, as Veterinary Research (4.06, Apr. 9/12) finds, “PRV is almost ubiquitously present in Atlantic salmon marine farms, and detection of PRV alone does not establish an HSMI diagnosis.”
If PRV is so prevalent and it does develop into HSMI as research suggests, this is a problem for salmon farming. But it strikes terror in those concerned about the health of wild salmon and the ecologies than depend on them. Indeed, PRV and HSMI may already be doing enough damage to be imperilling BC's wild salmon runs.
The clue to the origin and virulence of the PRV/HSMI virus and disease comes from the PLOS One article and the word “novel”. Two general kinds of the family of “Reoviridae” virus occur in the fauna community. One is an orthoreovirus, which includes both a mammalian and an avian strain. The other is an aquareovirus which is exclusive to aquatic animals. An analysis of the genetic material of the piscine reovirus identifies it as distinctly different from the two general groups, but situates it exactly between them, embodying half the attributes of the avian orthoreovirus and half the attributes of the aquareovirus. In other words, PRV is a new genus, designated GU994015 PRV, that has combined the traits of a bird virus and an aquatic virus. This probably explains why it is so infectious. But how did it become so “novel”?
The answer may be found in the chicken wastes that the salmon farming industry has been adding to its salmon feed — just the conditions that would provide viruses with the perfect opportunity to transfer genetic material horizontally. This would explain how the aquareovirus was able to exchange useful DNA with the avian orthoreovirus to develop a new virulent version of itself to infect fish, manifesting as the novel piscine reovirus and then with the clinical symptoms of HSMI. This suspicion is confirmed by a related article in PubMed (May, 2013) entitled “Piscine reovirus encodes a cytotoxic, non-fusogenic, integral membrane protein and previously unrecognized virion outer-capsid proteins”. According to the article, “Recent sequence-based evidence suggests that PRV is about equally related to members of the genera Orthoreovirus and Aquareovirus.” In other words, PRV seems to be a unique or “novel” virus created by combining the genetic material from two distinctly different viruses, one related to birds and the other related to aquatic animals — the first such amalgamation that has occurred since the divergence of the virus 49 to 52 million years ago (Journal of General Virology, Aug. 2002, vol. 83, no. 8, 1941-1951).
The discoverers of this virus, Gustavo Palacios, W. Ian Lipkin et al., are so confident of the causative relationship between PRV and HSMI that they have applied for a patent on the “immunogenic compositions and methods for inducing an immune response against Piscine reoviruses” (Pub. No.: US 2013/0058968 A1, March 7, 2013).
This preventative option might provide some hope for farmed salmon, but how exactly wild salmon would be immunized is a mystery. And a worrisome sentence occurs in another PLOS One article (June 5/12) entitled, “Atlantic Salmon Reovirus Infection Causes a CD8 T Cell Myocarditis in Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar L.). “The etiology of myocarditis (cause of heart inflammation) in humans remains unknown in most cases but an association with a viral infection has attracted a lot of attention over the years.”
For other related information on piscine reovirus, please go to http://www.youtube.com/embed/ePGoTadmUO0
The huge body of the dead humpback whale lay silently on the beach at White Rock, BC, as if it had chosen this spacious stretch of sand as a conspicuous and welcoming place to die. Its death on June 12, 2012, seemed important, perhaps because of the great size of its corpse, perhaps because of the incongruity of such a massive shape on a flat and vacant beach.
The whale looked serene in death, like a dark grey boulder that was reverently placed there by some mysterious force from the deep ocean. As if to confirm this, its body was ringed at a respectful distance with yellow police tape. And beyond this hallowed zone stood hundreds of people who had come to witness such an enormous dying. Everyone looked solemn and thoughtful. A few talked quietly in small groups. But most simply gazed at the dead humpback, trying to comprehend the significance of this death.
Some people had placed flowers on the whale's forehead, near its twin blowholes. The stem of three red peonies, the bouquet of mauve gentian and a single white lily turned the body of the dead whale into an honoured shrine.
This humpback, perhaps 16 metres long, weighed about 40 tonnes. It was once weightless in the gentle buoyancy of the ocean. Now the unkind pull of gravity dragged down its flesh, accentuating the bones of its skull, the curve of its ribs and the long ridge of its spine — the graceful span of its great tail fluke forever immobilized. Its two enormous pectoral flippers — always too big to be credible — were now still, one folded close to its left side and the other splayed flat on the sand. The only part of its body that looked comfortable was the forward part of the head, the rostrum. It had sunk into the huge soft pillow of its lower jaw, the elastic pouch with baleen that once filtered tonnes of water in a single minute. The long line of its closed mouth, arcing from eye to eye, formed the contented curve of resolution. Death, it seems, must even come to whales.
What does it mean for a huge thing to die? Does its heart, weighing nearly 200 kilograms and having the volume of three adult humans, shudder to a sudden stop? Whalers say that such animals can take 30 minutes to die, even with explosive harpoons. Does all the life needed to power such an animal surrender with a slow reluctance, with a special hesitancy? Is death bigger for creatures that are so big?
Perhaps this explains why hundreds of people came to witness the whale's death. They were not being macabre or ghoulish. The whale's dying was a rare opportunity to confront the most the persistent secret to haunt their own consciousness. Death has always escaped any description of human experience. It is the black void from which no words or answers ever return. And this was a death “writ large”, a statement too obvious and clear to be avoided. Attending the whale's dying was an invitation to come closer to death; it was an act of communion, and thus an opportunity to confirm their kinship with another living being.
But would they notice the death of a gnat, a grasshopper, a caterpillar or a spider? How many anonymous moths flutter to exhaustion around the hot light of a night bulb? How many summer bugs spatter on the windshield of a speeding car without a moment's concern from the driver? Industrial fishing of the oceans drags millions of tonnes of individual fish to the decks of trawlers where they each flap frantically and drown slowly in the terrible air. When a forest is cut down and bulldozed for a road, a building or a parking lot, a complex and living civilization of plants, animals, insects and fungi dies. Thousands of whales, as large and noble as the one on White Rock's beach, are hunted and killed yearly. So much dying dissolves into a turmoil of death so large that human concern is easily numbed by its enormity. Of all the species that ever existed on Earth, 99.9 percent are now extinct. For the 7 billion people who are presently alive on our planet, an estimated 100 billion of their forebears have died.
Death is so common that we can easily become inured to it. So we learn to avoid it with a dismissive indifference. Or we deliberately separate ourselves from it — abattoirs do not have glass walls. The ethical implications of killing, cutting and mincing flesh are avoided by silence and sanitized with styrofoam trays, plastic wrap and the hygienics of cheerful merchandising. Feigned ignorance is supposed to absolve us of discomfort. Selective innocence is supposed to lighten the burden of caring. Meanwhile, the impersonality we give to our technology is supposed to cast a spell of forgiveness that absolves it and ourselves of all the death it causes.
Death, of course, is natural. But the seven billion of us crowded onto this rare planet wreak havoc on the living ecologies that vitalize it with diversity and mystery. We terrorize life with our energized machines and their incessant hyperactivity. We would prefer not to notice this affront to nature so we dismiss their sinister work as normal, as necessary growth, as important development. And we diminish the opportunity to notice by continuing to bulldoze, build, industrialize and urbanize — more than half of humanity now lives in cities, increasingly isolated from the destructive consequences of our actions.
This is why hundreds of people came to witness the death of the humpback whale on White Rock's sandy beach. As a symbol of their caring, concern and vulnerability, they placed flowers on its great corpse. They gathered to meet and confront such an enormous dying because it was too large and conspicuous to avoid. The whale's death forcibly reminded them of the spreading shadow of a civilization so large and consuming that it often seems unstoppable and overwhelming. The crowds were not only somber and thoughtful for the whale but for themselves, for the future of their children, and for the future of all the other living things that will make the same haunting journey.
The anthropologist's view of capitalism has more perspective than the economist's. The economist examines such details as the rhythms of booms and busts, the dynamics of prosperity and poverty, and the merits of deficits and surpluses. But the anthropologist examines capitalism as a passing cultural phenomenon within great sweeps of time, as an event comparable to the chipping of flint or the beginning of agriculture. Someone who does this with illuminating clarity is Ronald Wright, first in his book, A Short History of Progress, again in What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order, and then once more in a poignant interview with fellow author and journalist Chris Hedges in "The Myth of Human Progress".
Wright describes the early years of capitalism in 15th century Europe as stagnant. Food production could not support a larger population. Wealth had plateaued. Limited European resources handicapped trade with the Orient. Then Columbus made contact with the New World in 1492. Within a few decades, potatoes, tomatoes, novel grains and other high-production crops from North and South America were proliferating in European fields. The population soared. Gold and silver from Aztec and Inca civilizations flooded treasuries. Valuable trading commodities passing through Europe energized its economy. The free labour of African slaves lubricated the entire process. Both Karl Marx and Adam Smith claimed that these factors culminated in the Industrial Revolution, an event that multiplied capitalism's accelerating economic activity.
As Wright explains in his interview with Chris Hedges, this success was the cause of a a fundamental misconception. “The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever. It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal.”
Consequently, Wright explains, “We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”
Wright's summary of our economic history from the 16th century to the present is succinct and insightful. It explains why our modern economic system, having expanded to encompass the entire globe, is so difficult to bring under control. The expectation of perpetual growth is so embedded in our culture that it has become a mythology, an “ideological pathology” incapable of considering alternatives. The result, when functioning in tandem with an exploding human population, is the over-exploitation of almost every ecosystem on the planet. Living in this illusion of normalcy is bringing us to the brink of environmental crisis.
The global economic system, by using desperate measures of exploitation and production, gives the impression that it is coping. But crisis is a word used with increasing frequency. The ecological stresses are rising uncontrollably by almost every possible measure—indeed, they are getting too numerous to list.
People are aware of this trend and are responding accordingly. The pervasive mood is a paradoxical blend of uncertainty and hope. The tension and anxiety are palpable—even among the ultra-wealthy, perhaps explaining why they are either hoarding or giving away billions to foundations trying to stem some facet of the crisis. The optimism that does exist is dependent on either a belated surge in the human sense for survival or in revolutionary technological breakthroughs. The frequent promises of a safer, cleaner, happier and richer world are sounding hollow in an era of growing skepticism. Capitalism, for all its merits and failings as a 500-year practice, may be better than the alternatives, but may not be able to meet the stringent conditions imposed by nature's laws. These, ultimately, are the only measures that count.
As an anthropologist, Wright has studied the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history. He has no illusions about the frailties and the follies of those who inhabit them. His perspective confirms what many others are thoughtfully considering. Our economic system has worrisome flaws that are incompatible with the constraints imposed by nature. Such flaws may prove fatal if they are not identified and corrected.
This growing awareness is in collision with capitalism's historical habits and practices. Wright's duty as an insightful academic is to identify this collision and to warn us of the consequences; his response as a caring human being is to worry about his fellows and to safeguard their future. His prognosis, if we continue as in the past, is not promising. The details are a replay of nature's dispassionate response to every experiment with an “ideological pathology”. We can either heed Wright's warning or we can hope he is incorrect. Unfortunately, history as revealed by anthropology, is on his side.
The decision by Canada's federal government to close the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a unique and world-class research region in Northern Ontario, fits a sobering pattern. Canadian scientists, employed with public funds, have been muzzled and are unable to speak openly to the media without prior approval of the government's Privy Council. Then their messages are often controlled, sometimes even interpreted so the findings are not politically awkward. Federal environmental regulations have been relaxed en masse.
The ELA is the only known place in the world where special ecological experiments can be conducted. The lakes, isolated from the contaminating effects of civilization and from each other, offer the rare conditions where single variables can be introduced under controlled conditions to examine specifically what happens when one environmental factor is changed. Critically important data that has been accumulating over 45 years of experimentation could be rendered useless for further scientific knowledge if the ELA is closed.
The comment of Dr. Carol Kelly, a Canadian scientist who has been doing research at the ELA since 1978, is typical of those made by her colleagues from around the world who are stunned and incredulous at the shortsightedness of closing such a remarkable site. “With the closing of the Experimental Lakes Area, there is about to be the loss not only of the specific and unique experiments going on right now, but also the ability of Canadian science to provide the kind of clear, unambiguous results that only a whole lake experiment can give. When you work in uncontrolled lakes, near towns, there are so many things happening at once that it's hard to say which factor is responsible for what you see, and uncertainty doesn't lead to sound policy. At the ELA, we change one thing at a time, such as phosphorus input, or mercury input, and we see how the whole ecosystem responds. This brings certainty to environmental policy formulation that no other approach can provide” (Globe and Mail, March 20/13).
The possibility of losing this critically important certainty perplexes scientists, who believe — like most people — that environmental policies should be founded on evidence rather than ideology. Profoundly expensive mistakes can be avoided or made depending on the availability of the solid scientific evidence. Phosphates provides a classical example. Corporations manufacturing detergents argued that the unusual algae blooms occurring in lakes and other fresh water bodies were the result of carbon rather than the phosphorus they were using in their products. A simple experiment at the ELA resolved the dispute.
Carbon was added to one isolated lake; phosphorus was added to the second adjoining one. The effects of carbon were negligible; the phosphorus was discovered to be a fertilizer that promoted algae growth, generated toxicity and created anoxic conditions that killed fish. This experiment reformed the detergent industry, revolutionized the manner in which waste water is treated, changed how fertilizers are used in farming, and saved the world at least a trillion dollars in remedial costs according to one scientist's estimate. After 45 years, the experiment continues to refine the ecological effects of phosphates in freshwater systems.
Many other experiments at the ELA are in progress. One is examining the effects of iron in fresh water — iron-rich lakes are inexplicably more vital than iron-poor lakes. A study of nitrogen is critical to understanding the consequences of disrupting the global nitrogen cycle, one of the biosphere's most important. Vital studies of mercury contamination are measuring the impact of burning coal — mercury is a major neurological toxin released in emissions.
Another study is assessing the impact on fish as global climate change reduces the inflow of water to lakes and raises water temperature. A new study is trying to determine the effects on ecosystems of silver nanoparticles that are increasingly being used as a bactericide in hundreds of consumer products. Because such tightly controlled experiments cannot be conducted elsewhere, the information gathered by all this crucially important research comes to an end if the ELA is closed.
The Canadian government is arguing that the $2 million in savings per year is necessary economy — scientists contend that the actual savings are about $600,000, a mere pittance considering the value of the information in shaping wise environmental policies. Continued research at the ELA could save billions of dollars — and perhaps trillions — by avoiding ecological and health catastrophes in Canada and around the world.
The international scientific community is dumbfounded by the Canadian government's current treatment of science. The muzzling of colleagues, the withdrawal of crucial research funding, the relaxation of carefully constructed environmental regulations, and now the closing of the ELA can only lead to the conclusion that the official position of the government of Canada is anti-science, supposedly because experimental evidence may be in conflict with an ideological agenda. This country's scientists once held a prestigious position as respected and valuable contributors to world science. They are now objects of sympathy as they try to maintain their dignity and freedom in an atmosphere of abandonment and repression.
The cumulative effect is serious. The closing of the Experimental Lakes Area has become a symbol of Canada's collapsing scientific credibility and respectability. Scientists from other countries are showing a reluctance to work here for fear that constraints may limit their ability to conduct open and free research. A prestigious German research organization, the Helmholtz Centre, has ended its collaboration with the University of Alberta on tar sands environmental research because of fears that its reputation could be jeopardized by operating in such circumstances (Ibid.). American scientists are expressing the same concern.
German politicians and the German press have noted Canada's collapse from scientific credibility, not to mention its withdrawal from the legally binding Kyoto Protocol and, most recently, from a 192-nation organization that is trying to mitigate the humanitarian effects of desertification. German anger and frustration is palpable. Its press has published in headlines, “The Stench of Money: Canada's Environment Succumbs to Oil Sands” (Ibid.). And its leaders from all parties have undiplomatically condemned Canada's actions as “dishonest and cowardly”, and “a fatal flight from responsibility” (Ibid.). Other countries clearly take science and the environment far more seriously than Canada does. Indeed, without the intelligent guidance of unfettered science, Canada is set to make some extremely expensive mistakes.
Exasperation is the tone of the full page ad placed in a March edition of Victoria's Times-Colonist newspaper by the Discovery Islands Marine Tourism Group, a coalition of businesses associated with an ecotourism industry employing over 1,200 people and generating $45 million for the local economy. Their problem is logging, specifically in areas where they have established a strong and burgeoning economic foundation to replace a forest industry that has essentially deserted the region.
“The Discovery Islands,” explains the Group's spokesperson, Ralph Keller, “have become a world class destination worthy of protection. We've become the second most important marine wilderness destination in BC, behind Tofino/Pacific Rim, yet the government is managing the forests here like it's 1956. They're treating us like bystanders instead of major revenue producers and employers” (Discovery Islander, “Tourism Businesses Slam BC Liberal Forest Policies”, Mar. 22/13).
The source of this problem has two components. The first is the elimination of appurtenance, the stipulation that once linked logging of Crown land with the local processing of logs. This traditional arrangement generated lucrative employment in the manufacture of lumber, pulp and paper products. When appurtenance disappeared, so did most of the mills which were part of a broadly based forest industry that had economic relevance and social respectability. “The once great forest industry,” Keller notes, “is now just a logging industry acting with impunity, completely insensitive to our needs. They degrade our operating environment then send the timber not only out of the region, but out of the country” (Ibid.).
This points to deregulation, the second part of the problem. “We're not against logging,” Keller explains, “but when the government revised the Forest Range and Practices Act in 2003, they gave all the power to the logging industry and left everyone else out of the planning process. We find out about forest development plans when we start to see trees being felled. We're being misled about forest industry intentions and have no meaningful way to influence cut block design. When we complain to government, they tell us to go talk to the licensee... . Who's writing the rules here? Whose forests are these?” (Ibid.).
Keller has a valid complaint. The particular forests of concern in the Discovery Islands are not privately owned — they belong to the people of BC. They are licenced to logging companies for the benefit of the larger community. If that benefit is no longer being served because of changed circumstances, then companies such as TimberWest have lost both their actual and moral legitimacy as key economic drivers. Indeed, in many cases, their logging becomes a net liability to the larger interests of the community. TimberWest, therefore, should conduct itself with a respectful deference to the other economic interests that are superseding logging in importance — ecotourism being a prime example.
A sampling of ecotourism's problem with logging in the Discovery Islands occurred in 2012 at Boat Bay on West Cracroft Island — the solution to this problem is presently postponed rather than solved. A logging company with the cutting rights on a Tree Farm Licence — the public's land — intends to cut 60 hectares above and around a kayaking base camp across from the world-famous Robson Bight. Such logging would ruin the aesthetic attraction of the base camp, isolate a nearby forest reserve, and create a visual eyesore for one of BC's most important scenic marine corridors.
The kayaking company did an illuminating economic analysis. It calculated that the economic value of the 60 hectares of timber to be logged was $3,600,000. Since the regeneration cycle meant the area could be cut only once every 60 years, the yearly economic value of the timber was $60,000. The economic value to the kayaking company, however, was $416,000 per year, or $24,960,000 for the same 60 year period. In stark contrast to the approximately 300 person-days employment from logging the 60 hectares just once, the kayaking company provided 20,160 person-days of employment during the 60 year cycle. And this simple economic analysis didn't include the employment and earnings for the 40 other ecotourism businesses using the same area. These calculations suggest that logging, when it is in conflict with high-use ecotourism areas, is economically and socially indefensible.
A more current example is evident on Sonora Island. Several cut blocks containing old-growth trees in the Discovery Islands are to be logged by TimberWest this summer — even though TimberWest contends it is not cutting old-growth because of its rarity. “Yet in one block alone,” wrote a concerned islander in her letter to the editor of the Discovery Islander (“TimberWest Has No Plan Except Cutting Until It's Gone”, Ibid.), “we recorded 160 tall, straight, beautiful, old growth trees, mostly Douglas fir, the rest red cedar, about 700 years old.”
These remnant pockets of old growth forests should be treated as ecological treasures. They are all that's left after the incessant logging that has almost obliterated the magnificent lowland stands which were once the hallmark of the Gulf of Georgia. For the ecotourism industry and for our collective human legacy, these few remaining pockets should be places to visit, not opportunities to log. They are nature's temples where people from around the world can come to honour some of the largest and oldest living things on the planet. Any but the most venal of intentions would understand that these are sites for preservation and pilgrimage, rare opportunities for visitors to encounter the unimaginably slow time of primal forests and to lose themselves in silent and reverential awe. That screaming chainsaws should be allowed to desecrate such places is, frankly, a moral, aesthetic and economic obscenity.
Old growth trees should be sacrosanct. The butchery of clear cuts that scar green hillsides can be avoided by open consultation, thoughtful silviculture and sensitive logging. TimberWest has the professional skills and the social responsibilities to do better than affront Discovery Islanders and raise the hostility of the 120 tourism businesses that depend on the scenic grandeur of this treasured coast.
Correction: Alexandra Morton was very quick to note — she seems to be fastidious about accuracy — that the sushi from farmed salmon referred to in last week's column, Salmon Confidential, was not tested for ISA. She concurred with all the other material in the column.
Anyone who has been following the sorry saga of inexplicable diseases and unusual mortality in BC's wild salmon will not be surprised that the information in Twyla Roscovich's documentary, Salmon Confidential, links the source of this trouble to the salmon farming industry. The surprise, however, is the impact of such information when its complexity is condensed to an intense 70 minutes.
The documentary, of course, is guided by its own perspective. But this perspective is supported by such compelling and powerful circumstantial evidence that it incriminates the salmon farming industry and the government agencies so obviously accommodating and protecting it. If the health of wild salmon are at risk, these are prime suspects.
Twyla Roscovich, with her keen filming and editing skills, presents a convincing case. But the highest accolades go to Alexandra Morton, the indefatigable BC biologist whose worries about the safety of wild salmon and the entire ecology they support have become her life's concern. Her research and investigations have brought the public's attention to the alien diseases threatening native Pacific salmon. It was ostensibly her work that resulted in the reconvening of the Cohen Commission to hear new evidence on previously undisclosed viral infections in wild fish. This testimony subsequently led to the incriminating recommendations in Justice Cohen's Report, which clearly question the environmental safety of salmon farms.
Morton's evidence linking salmon farms to diseases in wild salmon has now initiated “the world's largest study of salmon health” headed by the genetics expert, Dr. Kristi Miller, the same researcher who refused to be silenced by the ministerial pressures of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans where she is still employed. This 5-year study, involving DFO, Genome BC and the Pacific Salmon Foundation will use state-of-the-art technology developed by Dr. Miller to examine salmon diseases from farmed, hatchery and wild sources.
Yet another consequence of Morton's heroic efforts, belatedly announced on March 23rd by the BC government, is a moratorium until 2020 on any further expansion of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area, that narrow cluster of passages where many wild fish are compelled to migrate on their journey from and back to their nascent rivers.
This situation, the film contends, is a death trap. One of the most searing images in Salmon Confidential is of a single surviving salmon swimming upstream past the white corpses of thousands of dead and unspawned fish. Something alien, unusual and traumatic is happening to BC's wild salmon, testament to an unfolding ecological tragedy. Norway has confronted this same problem by banning salmon farms from the migration routes of wild fish. Why then, according to evidence given by one DFO official at the Cohen Commission's reconvened hearings, has no such application ever been refused on BC's coast?
A memorable and revealing moment occurs in Salmon Confidential when Dr. Kristi Miller testifies that DFO warned her not to do any testing if she didn't know what the ramifications would be. In other words, this government agency has an unofficial agenda that could be compromised by an inconvenient scientific discovery. Placing ignorance ahead of knowledge is the perfect formula for environmental catastrophe.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the CFIA, seems to have a similar unofficial agenda. Infectious salmon anemia is designated a reportable disease of global health concern. If the CFIA should find ISA in BC farmed salmon, international protocol would require that all exports stop. So the solution to this problem, according to Salmon Confidential, is to not find the disease. The documentary explores the complex ends to which the CFIA has gone in order to hide evidence — complete with a threatened government Bill 37 (2012) that would forbid any individual from revealing the existence of such diseases as ISA. The reality is that at least two other new diseases in wild salmon, piscine reovirus and salmon alphavirus, have also been linked to salmon farms.
Despite the serious tone of Salmon Confidential, the documentary does have moments of levity. When salmon farmers refused to give Morton any samples of their fish for testing, she and her fellow investigators found an ingenious solution. They simply bought farmed salmon from a local supermarket — of the 11 fish carefully dated and identified with the name of the grower, 3 tested positive for ISA. And when Morton decided that testing dying fish from a salmon farm would be the definitive evidence, she was even denied “mortes”. As the researchers plotted how to surreptitiously recover a sample, an eagle picked up one of the carcasses and unceremoniously delivered some crucially important body parts to a nearby rock.
But Salmon Confidential is much more serious than it is entertaining. For anyone who cares about the future of wild salmon in British Columbia, this is a film that must be seen. It identifies Twyla Roscovich as a skilled documentarian and places Alexandra Morton in the pantheon of heroic environmentalists — not to mention a competent scientist and a gifted detective. Both these women have the insight, perseverance and fortitude to help save BC's ecological future as they shake the edifice of deception and duplicity that they characterize as the history of salmon farming in British Columbia.
By coincidence, Salmon Confidential was finished in time for the upcoming provincial election in May. Both Roscovich and Morton hope its timely arrival makes the protection of wild salmon a part of the political conversation. Indeed it should, given the crucial importance of these iconic fish to BC's identity and ecology. The film is now touring the province and will be shown around the province over the next several months. See showing details here.
Bitumen is the current subject of much discussion in Canadian economic and energy policy. Getting Alberta's version of this carbon-intensive crude from the tar sands to market by pipeline is the cause of considerable concern, study, frustration and tension. The proposed Northern Gateway to BC's treasured West Coast is laden with controversy, as is the Kinder-Morgan expansion to Vancouver.
The Keystone XL pipeline that would send bitumen south to be refined in the US Gulf Coast has become more complicated than the “no brainer” envisioned by those promoting bitumen exports. Now a report released jointly by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and the Polaris Institute (PI) is casting doubt on the wisdom of the federal government's avid promotion of resource extraction as its primary economic strategy (Shawn McCarthy, Globe and Mail, Feb. 2/13).
Alberta may be the best example of this economic folly. The so-called “bitumen bubble”, the hollowing out of Alberta's oil prices, has left the seemingly wealthy province with a staggering budget deficit of billions. With an economy now mostly dependent on the value of its bitumen, the province is vulnerable to price fluctuations determined by international market forces.
Now, with new extraction technology flooding the market with oil and gas from shale deposits, Alberta is cornered and in financial crisis. The federal government's attempts to establish Canada as an “energy superpower” is now in doubt. The report by the CCPA and PI refers to this situation as the “bitumen cliff”.
As Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute explains, “Canada's current bitumen strategy is not only damaging to the environment, but is leaving our economy highly vulnerable to shrinking markets for bitumen as the world moves to less polluting fuels” (Ibid.).
The problem is the intensive energy required to extract bitumen from the tar sands. As climate change advances and the international community becomes more sensitive to carbon emissions, the preference for cleaner fuels will rise and the demand for bitumen will fall. In an age of growing environmental concerns, bitumen becomes a sunset fuel.
But the “bitumen cliff” is expressed in more serious structural effects. As a primary economic strategy, resource extraction offers a questionable future. One of Canada's famous economic historians, Professor Harold Innis, succinctly identified the danger of relying on resource extraction as the source of national wealth. In summarizing Innis's thinking, the CCPA report notes, “As staples are exported in raw form to more industrialized trading partners, Canada is left to buy back processed, value-added products and services at a much higher cost. The combined outcome is a self-reinforcing staples trap (a phrase borrowed from Professor Innis), whereby the faster Canada exports its latest staple, the less diversified and capable the economy becomes and hence all the more dependent on finding more staples to export” (Ibid.).
However well-intentioned, a strategy of resource extraction drifts a country downward in status, sophistication, wealth and stability.
A lack of economic diversity means a lack of economic resilience and greater economic vulnerability. Not only do boom-and-bust cycles become more common but a country's economic health is wholly dependent on the needs of other economies. Bitumen is a classical example. It seemed like a good idea when the world was facing peak oil — the federal plan, in concurrence with Alberta, was supposed to make Canada an “energy superpower”. Now that other oil and gas is flowing freely from multiple shale deposits around the world, bitumen is in danger of becoming an expensive burden.
As well as the environmental risks and costs associated with the production and distribution of bitumen, such a resource comes with other consequences that are not so obvious. Economies that are dependent on a single resource are compelled to safeguard its production, to cater to its interests and to those who control it. The inevitable result is a deformation and erosion of democracy.
Saudi Arabia is an extreme example. But the economic power of oil almost invariable comes with a politically corrupting influence. Economic diversity invariably creates better government, greater resilience and more social stability — and broadly educated societies that are healthier and happier.
The most valuable resource in a modern society is its people. They are nourished and developed by schools, universities, health care, open inquiry and the free-flow of information. Informed people invent their own wealth. A country such as Canada has the raw resources that are best used by Canadians. Professor Innis's “staple trap” is an economic cliff to be avoided.
Short term political objectives are inclined to exploit the immediate cash of raw resource extraction. But the best and most enduring investments are made in the people themselves. They, after all, are the real substance of nations.
And finally, at the bottom of the “bitumen cliff” is environmental mayhem. In Alberta, it's open pits of toxic wastes, and an endangered Athabasca River which flows northward to expansive valleys and deltas ecologically rich with fish and wildlife.
In adjacent places, it's pipelines, tankers and trains with the certain threat of disastrous spills. For the planet, it's greenhouse gas emissions, a polluting process with unfolding consequences that science describes as being catastrophic to both natural ecologies and to human societies.
So the “bitumen cliff” also comes with a moral dimension. Is it strategically wise to develop a resource that comes with a suicidal component? Shouldn't our human energy and ingenuity be applied to avoiding weather extremes, rising oceans and the plethora of other environmental disasters awaiting a hotter planet?
The most important discussions today are no longer about the economy and oil but about the fate of future generations. Bitumen belongs in this broader and deeper conversation.
Perhaps the big white banner with black letters at the recent American protest of the Keystone XL pipeline summarizes BC's fossil fuel folly. “Fossil Fuels? Fossil Fools,” it declares. The “o”s are painted a hazardous yellow, and within each is an unequivocal “x”. The protest's specific target is the pipeline intended to carry carbon-intensive crude from Alberta's tar-sands to refineries in the US southern Gulf Coast; the protest's broader target is the industrial development that is adding carbon dioxide to an already stressed biosphere.
People who are concerned about global climate change are watching the steep rise of global carbon dioxide emissions. While a few nations have been heroic in their efforts to cut these emissions, international efforts have been eminently unsuccessful. So BC's strategy to export energy — massive amounts of LNG, increasing quantities of coal, and perhaps a tide-water port for Alberta's bitumen — is generating justifiable scrutiny, criticism and concern. People are counting carbon, dreading the consequences and registering their objections.
Not surprisingly, numerous rallies are being held opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. Natural gas is also the subject of worry. Although it's an energy that produces only half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, some experts think that the massive drilling required, combined with the escaped methane from fracking, may make natural gas as carbon intensive as coal. Coal, too, is a target of protest. It causes ecological damage when mined, produces numerous toxic pollutants when burned, and its industrial use generates the world's largest single source of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Since we all live on a planet with one shared atmosphere, BC cannot embark on a strategy of exporting fossil fuel energy without calculating the global consequences. So it must expect both criticism and resistance from those who are counting carbon. Indeed, BC cannot even claim the virtue that its forests are sequestering carbon because new evidence suggests that the mountain pine beetle infestation is so massive that the province's forests are now carbon negative — they are producing more carbon dioxide than they are presently storing. Even BC's claim that natural gas is a carbon bargain is suspect because any gains in reducing CO2 emissions will likely be lost by the energy-intensive process of compressing huge quantities of it for export as liquid natural gas (LNG). Then more greenhouse gases are emitted when transporting the LNG by ship to distant destinations.
If BC were truly interested in its carbon virtue, it might note a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (Jane Petch, Island Tides, Feb. 28/13) which found that all BC's energy needs could probably be met by hydro electricity. Electrical consumption in the province is flat and any increase in demand can likely be met by efficiency improvements. This ethical option is undermined by the expanding industrial demands of mining, gas production and LNG projects.
BC is attempting to justify its strategy of exporting LNG by arguing that this relatively clean fuel — a debatable claim — will displace the use of coal elsewhere, thereby reducing net global carbon dioxide emissions. But a global review of coal use suggests otherwise. And BC's argument is further compromised by its record coal exports. A province more idealistic and less opportunistic could at least stabilize its share of global carbon dioxide emissions by cutting its coal exports to compensate for its LNG exports — something it is not considering.
Between 2001 and 2010 the US was able to reduce its coal use by 5 percent, helping it cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 1.7 percent (NewScientist, Nov. 17/12). But during that same period, global coal consumption increased by 47 percent, simply because other countries are dramatically increasing their consumption. As a fuel, coal is cheap, readily available, and its carbon dioxide output is wholly unregulated, unsanctioned and free. It now produces 40 percent of the world's electricity. And global consumption is at record levels. China, which uses three times the US consumption of coal, is showing no signs of reducing its use. In fact, China has new coal-fired electrical plants in construction that will exceed the entire coal-fired production of electricity in the US.
According to statistics in NewScientist, the amount of coal used on the planet is staggering. “Global consumption is about 71 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, which is equal to the daily oil output of more than eight Saudi Arabias” (Ibid.). This means that any coal exported from BC will simply go to feed the voracious global hunger for energy. And any LNG exported will not displace coal; it will simply be added to the climate crisis already unfolding. And any export of LNG will will eventually compromise BC's own energy needs.
If BC is going to export massive quantities of its natural gas, how is it to meet its own long-term energy needs? What are the environmental consequences of producing the extra energy required to power the drilling, compressing and mining of resources for export? What are the monetary and social costs of such a strategy? What are the economic traps in such infrastructure investment, considering that countries such as Australia already have 17 LNG plants in development? And what are the ethical implications of exporting fossil fuel energy to a world that is already wounding itself with excessive carbon dioxide emissions? Are these not valid questions that must be considered in BC's energy strategy? From a considered perspective, BC is joining the march down the path of fossil fuel folly.
Machiavelli would approve. So would Stalin, Mao Zedong, the ayatollahs of Iran, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Bashar al-Assad of Syria. George Orwell would proudly place the audacity of information control in the Ministry of Truth, the agency in his dystopian 1984 novel in which Big Brother uses the Thought Police as the instrument that determines right from wrong, good from bad, wise from foolish, fact from fiction, reality from illusion.
Reality is shaped by information. Control information and reality is controlled. Eliminate information and the blank slate of public consciousness is vulnerable to suggestion and manipulation. Reality is, in effect, an immensely valuable but incredibly fragile commodity, forever changing as information changes. Little wonder, then, that those with a special interest in power also have a special interest in controlling information.
This would be an academic subject befitting a university class on ethics, philosophy or politics if it were not surfacing in Canada because of the Privy Council's muzzling of scientists associated with the federal government through employment or grants. The strictures on what scientists can publicly say or publish, put in place by the Prime Minister's office, have been tightening in recent years. In 2011 scientists protested and collectively complained that they could not speak openly to Canadians about their research and findings without receiving prior approval from the upper echelons of government—a dramatic break from the traditional freedom that is an assumed liberty in an open, modern and democratic society. Now the strictures are tightening further.
“As of February 1st this year,” writes Elizabeth May in Island Tides, (Feb. 28/13), “new rules were put in place requiring that scientists working on projects in conjunction with DFO in the Central and Arctic Region to treat all information as proprietary to DFO and — worse — await departmental approval before submitting research to any scientific journals.” A week later, on February 7th, additional rules were imposed requiring that “now they must obtain prior consent before applying for research grants” (Ibid.).
In Elizabeth May's assessment of the tightening controls on scientists and their research, the process and its intent is obvious. “The tightening of control over science must be established far earlier in the process. Stop research from being submitted to journals. Stop scientists from collaborating with others. Stop scientists from applying for research grants. Stop science from happening at all” (Ibid.). This tragedy is compounded by strictures that constrain scientists from complaining about the constraints placed on them.
An American scientist, Dr. Andrew Muenchow, who has been doing important collaborative research with DFO in the Eastern Arctic since 2003, has refused to accept the new conditions, politely calling them a “potential muzzle”. The dissemination of crucially important information from Dr. Kristi Miller on viral diseases arriving in Canadian waters from salmon farming has been obstructed by the government authorities. Scientists researching ozone depletion, Arctic ice melt, pollution and species loss have been silenced. These are typical examples of the control of information by the Privy Council, an adjunct of the Prime Minister's office. And it contrasts dramatically with the earlier protocol in which, “Data and any other project-related information shall be freely available to all Parties to this Agreement and may be disseminated or published at any time” (Ibid.). The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall have appeared in Canada as a blackout on any scientific studies that may conflict with the direction of government's agenda.
This is not a mere scientific issue. Although science should be the basis upon which governments make many important legislative and policy decisions, open and free scientific research is the most obvious measure of an open and free society, one in which evidence is given precedence over ideology, and decisions are weighted and made as rationally and intelligently as possible from the best available information. Control information and decisions can be shifted toward ideology, the unexamined opinions that drift away from enlightened guidance toward blind bigotry.
Granted, governments make decisions and devise legislation based on their particular ideological bent. But this ideology must be guided by credible information. And a substantial portion of this information now comes from scientific research, collaboration, study and findings. Opinion untempered and unguided by science lacks credibility because it isn't connected to an empirical measure of circumstances. Ideology that is untested and incompatible with evidence is medieval, for it bears little relationship to reality. Government strategy and legislation founded on uninformed opinion will invariably be flawed and dysfunctional. Even worse, the result is a burden of liabilities, faulty strategies, defective laws and missed opportunities that can be incredibly costly to a country, to its citizens and to the environment that sustains them.
The laws of science don't change to suit political and economic agendas. Pretending that greenhouse gas emissions are not changing weather, that the Arctic is not warming, that pollutants don't harm ecologies, and that crucial ecosystems are not under threat is denial bordering on the delusional and pathological. Scientists don't invent what is happening to our world; they measure, witness and report to us. Muzzling their effort silences evidence and increases our vulnerability to environmental ruin.
As Elizabeth May so eloquently concludes, this suppression of the free exchange of scientific information in Canada “is the 21st Century equivalent of the Dark Ages. This is book burning and superstition run rampant. This is the administration of a steady, slow drip of poison to a weakening democracy” (Ibid.).
The world's largest and most influential political and economic forces are showing signs that they might be ready to actively combat climate change. Presently the signs are only words. But the words are unequivocal and dramatic enough to be interpreted as a prelude to eventual concrete action at a global level.
Undoubtedly these words have been hastened by the collapse of a successor to the landmark Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This collapse was followed by the abject failure of subsequent negotiations. Extreme global weather events have now become so anomalous and conspicuous that they can no longer be denied as normal.
Such events are clearly sobering to those who are supervising the wellbeing of the global economy. They see trouble proliferating if something isn't done soon to reduce the climate threat. Even US President Barack Obama, emboldened by a re-election victory and facing a last term in office, is taking an assertive position, uncharacteristically forceful and visionary (Elizabeth May, Feb. 14/13).
In his January 21st inauguration address to his fellow Americans — and to the people of the world because of the global influence of the United States — he sounded heroic. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms...”
Obama is responding appropriately to the growing anxiety in America about a future made uncertain by strange weather. But he also sees opportunity in adversity. “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries; we must claim its promise” (Ibid.). Obama's new Secretary of State, John Kerry, also spoke of climate change and the need for remedial action from the international community, a sure sign that the level of awareness and commitment has reached a critical threshold.
More justification for optimism came from Christine Lagarde, the director of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has been notorious for financing environmentally destructive projects in the interests of economic development — it hasn't subscribed to the aphorism that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nature. But Lagarde's speech in Davos, Switzerland, in late January revealed a different awareness. After outlining the major threats to global economic stability, she conceded that climate change was the most worrisome, “the greatest economic challenge of the 21st century.” In elaborating, she added that, “Increasing vulnerability from resource scarcity and climate change, with the potential for major social and economic disruption; this is the real wild card in the pack.”
But Lagarde's most candid comments came during the question period that followed her speech. This is a time when the carefully edited words of a formal presentation are replaced by candid opinion. “Unless we take action on climate change,” she said, “future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled” (Ibid.).
A normal and predictable climate, Lagarde recognized, is the single most important prerequisite for healthy economies — global, national and local. It is foundational and essential. Environmental chaos causes economic chaos, not to mention political, social and cultural chaos. Nothing functions well when communities and their complex infrastructures are buffeted by extremes and unpredictables, exactly what will happen if climate change is not addressed.
A similar expression of concern came from the new president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim. On January 28th he used an article in the Washington Post to address the American people directly. “After the hottest year on record in the United States — a year in which Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, record droughts scorched farmland in the Midwest and our organization reported that the planet could become 7 degrees [Fahrenheit] warmer — what are we waiting for? We need to get serious fast. The planet, our home, can't wait” (Ibid.).
Good question. What are we waiting for? The physics that determines global climate doesn't understand excuses: the complications of international negotiations, the politics of domestic economics, the awkwardness of national recessions, the procrastinations of powerful leaders. Neither does it understand the interests of large corporations, the inconvenience of constructing low-carbon technologies, the stubborn reluctance of old ideologues to accept new modes of behaviour more befitting our environmental reality.
The longer we wait to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the more extreme the cuts must be, the more difficult they will be to implement, and the more likely they will have to be made in increasingly adverse economic, social and political conditions. People in powerful places are beginning to realize this. Hopefully, their words will be an impetus to action.