When 15,000 scientists warn of environmental catastrophe it must not be a one-day story

A BC fish farm. File photo

This writer was having supper with friends a few weeks ago when our host told us how happy she was to have found wild salmon for the evening's meal. She knew it was wild, she said, because it had been labelled as "Irish". 

Sadly, I had to disabuse her of that illusion. There is, I told her, no commercial fishery for wild Atlantic salmon in Ireland, and there has not been one for quite some time. All Irish salmon -- in fact, all commercially marketed Atlantic salmon from anywhere in the world, including Canada -- is farmed. 

Raising salmon for the table is a sophisticated and complex operation. Fish farmers have to reproduce, in controlled situations, the complex life cycle of the fish. All members of the salmon family (and that includes trout and char) reproduce in fresh water, often thousands of kilometres from the sea. When they are big enough, some migrate to salt water, where they grow quickly.

The Atlantic salmon can live its entire life in fresh water, and circumstances impel some to do so. Quebec's largest natural lake, Lac St-Jean, was once famous for its landlocked Atlantic salmon, known locally as ouananiche. Pollution, over-fishing and habitat destruction have significantly reduced that population, but at least there are still some. In Lake Ontario, human activity completely wiped out the native landlocked Atlantic salmon more than a century ago. Be that as it may, the salmon we most prize for the table are the ones that spend their adult years not in lakes but in salt water. In the cold ocean, these fish develop the layer of fat that gives them their appealing taste.

Salmon farmers thus need both a fresh water environment, in which to rear the young fish, and a saltwater one, where they can move the salmon when they are near maturity.

Aquaculture operators also have to determine how to best feed their fish for maximum effect (frequently resorting to growth hormones), how to protect them from diseases (antibiotics are normally part of the solution), and how to selectively breed the salmon to favour the qualities of taste and texture consumers most appreciate.

The dark side: the near extinction of a much-valued species

This complex, scientific form of aquaculture is a fairly recent development. Salmon farming of this sort only got started in Scotland and Norway in the late '60s. It came to Canada in the 1970s. Before that, there was commercial, freshwater-only, aquaculture for some members of the salmon family, most notably the rainbow trout. Raising trout for market is, however, much less complex than present-day salmon farming.

Atlantic salmon aquaculture is a huge industry today. In 2013, well over two million tonnes were produced worldwide, in numerous countries, and on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In 2016, one country alone, Norway, produced 1.18 million tonnes.

There is a dark side to this story of economic success, and it is the fate of the wild fish from which the millions of farmed salmon were bred. The wild Atlantic salmon, which used be abundant in such feeding grounds as the Davis Strait between Greenland and Nunavut, is now extremely rare.

There was once a thriving commercial fishery for wild Atlantic salmon. It is all over now. The small and declining numbers of Atlantic salmon in the wild would entirely disappear in a single season if the authorities allowed a commercial harvest to resume, even on a small scale. A few dedicated (and usually wealthy) anglers still get to cast their flies for Atlantic salmon in the wild, but even those privileged few must, as a rule, throw back their catch.

I think of the salmon, now, because of a new report signed by 15,000 scientists from around the world that came out earlier this week. The scientists call their document the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, a Second Notice. It is a second notice because it follows an earlier warning, 25 years ago, in 1992. The new warning measures the trends, over time, for environmental issues identified in the 1992 version.

One of those issues is the availability of freshwater, calculated on a per person basis, worldwide; another is the size of the marine fish catch worldwide. Both indicators are significantly down compared to 1992. People, especially in developing countries, have less access to clean and safe water than they did 25 years ago, and catches of fish in the wild have dropped significantly since 1992.

A third issue is the abundance of wildlife species, including fish. It has also steeply declined over the past quarter century. We are losing species at a rapid rate, including the fish that inhabit our lakes, rivers and oceans. But bodies of water and the fish that inhabit them are only two among the report's many concerns. On climate change, for instance, the report warns that "temperature increases will likely cause a decline in the world's major food crops, an increase in the intensity of major storms, and a substantial sea-level rise inundating major population centers."

Other indicators the scientists measured are forest loss, population growth, coastal ocean dead zones (caused by fertilizer runoff and fossil-fuel use), and depletion of the ozone in the earth's atmosphere. All save one show significant deterioration since 1992.

The sole exception to this dreary picture is atmospheric ozone depletion, which we have halted and are now reversing. For that beacon of progress, the scientists credit the 1987 Montreal Protocol, by which countries of the world committed to limiting the use of one of the main ozone layer killers, chlorofluorocarbons, once common ingredients in refrigerators and aerosol cans.

The scientists have issued some daunting recommendations

The success of the Montreal Protocol offers hope that when the world comes together it can reverse environmental degradation. The scientists also point to progress on other fronts, such as the drop in poverty and extreme hunger, declining birth rates (thanks to investments in girls' and women's education), and the rapid growth of the renewable energy sector. 

The scientists' recommendations to deal with the bulk of their grim findings are, however, ambitious and challenging. They would require major changes in the way we eat, work and move around.

As the report says: "By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution … and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperiled biosphere."

The scientists urge that it is time "to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources."

It is a lot to ask. And the scientists don't expect political leaders will do much without significant pressure from citizens. The warning expresses the hope that there will be a "groundswell of organized grassroots efforts" to push political leaders to adopt the measures it recommends.

In this, the scientists might be too hopeful. The pressures from the other side, from big business, for instance, are powerful and ruthless, and can all too often outweigh the voices of citizens.

And in a world where we can fool ourselves into thinking all is well because we can still eat fresh and tasty salmon -- not realizing it is a farmed product, while its wild cousins are almost all gone -- it will be hard to convince citizens of the looming environmental catastrophe that thousands of scientists see all too clearly. 

Image: rabble.ca file photo

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