Stay away from the salmon
Rowing my 14-foot skiff across the wide mouth of Broad Cove, I decided to explore the fish farm. The wind whispered, southwesterly. The tide had just turned. The blue-green Cobscook Bay grew a little chop and ebbed toward Canada. A hundred yards off my starboard, two seals watched. They’d been following me since Deep Cove. Off the stern, less than a quarter mile away, the fluke of a minke whale’s tail disappeared into the deep. Along the shore, an eagle soared. On the other side of the salmon farm, a great blue heron perched on a rusted mooring ball. A golden autumn afternoon — the last nice day before winter made leaky boat adventures too dangerous.
A dozen and half cages floated, tethered together, moored to the bottom, less than 500 yards from land. I came alongside one of the oval pens and grabbed ahold. The cage, three times the size of a backyard, above-ground swimming pool, was the maximum-security home for 25,000 salmon. Below the surface, a cake of bubbling silver swam, interrupted by dozens of particularly strong and sleek specimens of the species, breaking free of the school, sailing through the water like their wild and primordial cousins dashing up a Maine river, eager to spawn.
Except the farm-raised salmon crashed into the roof nets, rejected by the heavy-duty mesh designed to keep the fish in and the birds and seals out. The flying fish tumbled back into the frothing muddle, only to try again, for eternity, or until they are harvested for market at 10 pounds. A million bucks, maybe two, depending on the retail price, for all the fish in just one cage. For a moment, the anarchistic criminal inside my brain considered sawing through the net with my dull knife. Jailbreak. Freedom for the masses. Eco-terrorism, Down East-style, to teach the industrial food complex a lesson.
That would have been a bad idea. Sympathy for the farmed Franken-fish is misplaced and stupid. These salmon are no good in the real world. Escapees would further pollute the genetics of the already endangered, allegedly “wild” Atlantic salmon. Raised jam-packed in feedlots, these farm-fish are livestock, prone to illness like their terrestrial counterparts. Inoculated via needles, like schoolkids, just to live in a watery prison for a couple of lousy years. Vaccinations and antibiotics are necessary because these dirty beasts swim in their own shit and are popular with the sea lice carrying nasty diseases.
These salmon are lazy and carnivorous gluttons. They have an almost insatiable hunger and eat three pounds’ worth of processed wild fish (often herring and mackerel) in order to gain one pound. And their feed, laden with concentrated dioxins, is synthetically pigmented by the manufacturer. Otherwise the flesh of farm-raised salmon would be a sickly gray, not pink. And that wouldn’t look good on your dinner plate or bagel.
Like pigs, these fish generate tons and tons of shit. Twice a day, the cleansing tide sweeps some of the feces past the Canadian islands and out to the open ocean. But some of the shit, plus excess feed, settles to the bottom, where it destroys the seabed. Turns it barren. Messes with oxygen levels, which in turn causes problems with the local aquatic wildlife — trouble, up and down the food chain.
Earlier this decade, fish farms around here thrived. Multi-nationals and a couple smaller-scale, local operations were making loads of cash. Profit and greed drove them to grow more and more fish. Overcrowding led to the outbreak of disease, which resulted in the killing or “early harvest” of 2.6 million salmon. Business went downhill from there.
(Read the excellent Swimming in Circles by commercial fisherman-turned-journalist Paul Molyneaux. The book details the recent collapse of the industry located in my backyard and investigates the economics of raising salmon, and shrimp, in economically deprived regions: namely Maine and Mexico.)
But the Down East salmon industry — comprised of just one Canadian, monopolistic, family firm — is mounting “a comeback.” That’s according to a recent Associated Press story. Their reporter visited the same cage site I did, but saw something completely different: that Cooke Aquaculture’s investment of a supposed $60 million was good news for struggling Washington County.
I let go of the cage and let my boat drift. Flowing beneath me, out of sight and smell, was a river of shit, an open sewer of fish feces being flushed by the receding tide. I’m not saying fish farms will destroy the earth, because ultimately, after we’re gone, the ocean will recover. Screwing with the balance of nature that allows humans to participate in the current ecosystem — that’s what bothers me.