Seals Getting Shot for the Sake of Disease-Ridden Salmon

seals being killed

Story at-a-glance -

  • One of the largely unknown casualties of industrial fish farms are seals, which may be legally shot by fish farmers and fishermen “when necessary”
  • About 1,600 seals were shot in Scotland alone over the last six years, primarily by industrial fish farmers like Marine Harvest Scotland and Scottish Sea Farms, which supply popular supermarket chains
  • Wild salmon are at risk of disease and parasites from fish farms, including sea lice and piscine reovirus (PRV)
  • OneKind, an animal welfare group in Scotland, is calling for a halt on expansions to salmon farms until the sea lice issue and other welfare concerns are under control
  • Lawsuits have been filed against a Canadian policy that allows fish farms to move juvenile salmon from their land-based tanks to pens in the open ocean — without first testing them for PRV

By Dr. Mercola

One of the largely unknown casualties of industrial fish farms are seals, which may be legally shot by fish farmers and fishermen “when necessary” under the U.K.’s Conservation of Seals Act.

Nearly a decade ago, The Guardian revealed that seal numbers were falling by 25 to 50 percent in the U.K., to the extent that in 2007 marine scientists counted only 23,000 of the animals — “equivalent to the species stopping breeding for five or six years.”1

Fish is a mainstay of seals’ diets, so the resourceful creatures are understandably tempted by fish farm cages that present an ever-ready buffet of their favorite food. But attempting to break into the cages or netting puts their lives at risk, and despite calls from animal rights and conservation groups to stop the killings, seals are still targeted by fish farmers.

Seals Being Killed so You Can Eat Salmon

According to Andy Ottaway, campaign director with the Seal Protection Action Group (SPAG), about 1,600 seals were shot in Scotland alone over the last six years, primarily by industrial fish farmers like Marine Harvest Scotland and Scottish Sea Farms. The former supplies the popular supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, the latter of which touts itself as being a particularly ethical and “green” company.

Some fish farms have taken steps to deter seals using nonfatal means, such as the use of acoustic devices to scare seals away and removing dead fish from the cages to avoid luring the animals’ in. Still, grey seal populations have dwindled to 400,000 individuals worldwide, one-quarter of which live in U.K. waters.

“There are fewer gray seals than African elephants in the world, but because they are concentrated in U.K. waters, people believe that they are thriving,” Ottaway told the Daily Mail. “I don't think that the public knows that seals are being shot just so that they can eat salmon.” He added:2

“Seals are under a lot of pressure — from overfishing, culls, disease — and protecting them is an ethical issue. If the industry wants to sell fish they must be aware of the public reaction to their practices which many people find offensive and appalling.”

Scotland did institute a licensing requirement to shoot seals in 2011, which is credited with decreasing the number of seals shot by 70 percent from 2011 to 2016. Further, the U.S. implemented an import ban on salmon from fish farms that kill seals, which is set to take effect in 2022.

Scotland apparently tried to get an exemption from the ban but was unsuccessful, and while seal-deterrent practices such as the use of extra strong nets has cut down on the number of seals shot by some fish farms, dozens of seals were still killed in 2017.3

What’s more, some farming outlets are shooting more seals instead of less, with some reports saying overall seal killings by Scottish fish farms may have risen close to 50 percent from 2016 to 2017.4

John Robins of the Save Our Seals Fund told The Times, “There’s absolutely no need to shoot any seals, numbers should be falling, not rising … They should install netting before they start shooting; that would be last resort. But they are reaching for the guns because bullets are cheaper than nets.”5

Diseased Fish Farms Filled With Lice-Ridden Salmon

Farmed salmon is Scotland’s biggest food export, bringing in more than $789 million annually. But what is touted as a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to produce seafood is actually devastating for the environment, public health and animal welfare.

The video above was filmed by Corin Smith, a Scottish photographer who became alarmed when drone footage of the area hinted that fish on the farm were in distress. He then swam to the fish cages to get the footage of Vacasay fish farm, which is owned by The Scottish Salmon Company.

As you can see in the video, he estimated that up to 80 percent of salmon on the farm were suffering with sea lice. He told The Ferret:6

“I was utterly shocked at the health of the stock and the very high proportion of fish in poor health with mortal sea lice infestation … For fish to have reached this state of heath as a result of sea lice parasites eating their flesh, this situation would have had to occur over a matter of weeks.

… I am 40 years old, 20 years born and raised on a working hill sheep farm. I am still an active member of the agricultural community. I am not squeamish or hysterical about the rearing of animals for food …

But I have never in my life witnessed such extensive animal suffering, and over such a long period. At least 40 percent of stock need euthanized immediately on the grounds of compassion. Any responsible farmer would do that.”

Sea lice are tiny parasitic crustaceans that feed on salmon skin and mucous. Just one or two sea lice can kill a juvenile salmon, and adults may also be harmed if infestations occur, with the lice literally are eating the salmon alive. OneKind, an animal welfare group in Scotland, is calling for a halt on expansions to salmon farms until the sea lice issue and other welfare concerns are under control.

“It is now widely acknowledged that fish are sentient animals and are capable of feeling pain,” OneKind campaigner Sarah Moyes told The Ferret. “Not only does this make this suffering wholly unacceptable, but the industry’s reputation is once again being damaged by another report of animal neglect.”7

Sea Lice From Fish Farms Spreading to Wild Salmon

In addition to being inhumane, the sea lice spreading on fish farms is putting wild salmon stocks at risk. Wild salmon from Blackwater River, which is near Vacasay fish farm, have been found to be heavily infested with sea lice.

Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland has blamed the industrial farm for the infestations, as the salmon must pass by the farms on their way back from the Atlantic Ocean.

The Scottish Salmon Company has attempted to block the public release of photos showing their diseased salmon and even claimed losses of more than $1.3 million in 2016 because of sea lice and other disease. Despite this, they reported profits of over $38 million in 2017.8

It’s not only Scotland’s wild salmon that are at risk of disease from fish farms. In fact, an oceanic watchdog group reported a sea lice outbreak in Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Fish farms in the area had salmon lice up to 10 times higher than the rate that requires treatment, at numbers that could prove lethal to wild salmon.

While Canada’s department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) requires salmon farms to monitor and control sea lice via the use of chemicals in feed or hydrogen peroxide baths, the measures don’t appear to be working — and are toxic in and of themselves, as pesticides used to kill sea lice can kill other crustaceans like crabs and shrimps.

They’re also known to suppress salmon immune systems, making them even more susceptible to viruses. As noted by Watershed Watch Salmon Society, “Even if average sea lice levels are kept ‘low’ on a farm, even very low numbers of lice per farmed salmon can add up to billions of sea lice eggs being released into surrounding waters.”9

Salmon Farms Sued for Spreading Disease

Piscine reovirus, or PRV, is another salmon disease that is devastating farmed and wild salmon. PRV causes heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) disease, which can be deadly to salmon. One study of salmon in British Columbia, Canada, revealed the proportion of PRV infection in wild fish was related to exposure to salmon farms.10

PRV was detected in 95 percent of farmed Atlantic salmon and up to 45 percent of wild salmon from regions highly exposed to salmon farms. In contrast, only 5 percent of wild salmon living in regions farthest from salmon farms were infected.

“These results suggest that PRV transfer is occurring from farmed Atlantic salmon to wild Pacific salmon, that infection in farmed salmon may be influencing infection rates in wild salmon, and that this may pose a risk of reduced fitness in wild salmon impacting their survival and reproduction,” researchers noted in PLOS One.11

Alexandra Morton, a Canadian marine biologist who has spent decades studying the impact of salmon farming on wild salmon, and the ‘Namgis First Nation have filed lawsuits against a federal policy that allows fish farms to move juvenile salmon from their land-based tanks to pens in the open ocean — without first testing them for PRV.12

Some claim that PRV has not been conclusively shown to cause HSMI, but Morton’s attorneys argue that “screening is the very least” that can be done to prevent PRV from being introduced into ocean environments from fish farm hatcheries.

Unlabeled GMO Salmon Now on the Market, but Where?

In November 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AquaBounty salmon, a genetically engineered (GE) “frankenfish” that’s being touted as a way to solve overfishing and world hunger.

The GE salmon are engineered to grow about twice as fast as typical farm-raised salmon, an eerie feat achieved by inserting the DNA from two other fish, a growth-promoting gene from a Chinook salmon and a “promoter” gene from the eel-like ocean pout.

This genetic tweaking results in fish with always-on growth hormone, and because they grow so much faster than other salmon, they also require less food, by about 20 to 25 percent per gram.13 In 2018, 4.5 tons of the GE salmon, called AquaAdvantage Salmon, were sold in Canada, but AquaBounty’s CEO won’t say to whom — only that it’s being used for a high-end sashimi line.14

About 9 tons of GE salmon were also sold in Canada in 2017, none of which was labeled as such. So there’s no way of knowing whether salmon being sold in Canada is GE or not. While the FDA approved AquaBounty’s salmon, a rider attached to an Alaskan budget bill imposed an import ban, effectively blocking the FDA from allowing GE salmon into the U.S.

However, AquaBounty has a fish farm in Indiana, where they’re making plans to start raising GE salmon if they can get approval to import the GE salmon eggs from Canada.

“That means the company’s salmon could be on sale in the U.S. by 2019, which would make it the first genetically modified animal food ever sold and eaten in this country,” wrote Richard Martin, senior editor for energy at S&P Global Market Intelligence, for BioGraphic. “Opposition, naturally, is fierce.”15

Unfortunately, however, it seems that GE salmon may be set to flood the market further, as AquaBounty’s CEO stated at an investor conference that their Canadian buyer said, "We'll take as much as you can produce."16

If You Eat Salmon, Wild Salmon Is the Only Healthy Choice

Farmed salmon and GE salmon pose serious risks to wild salmon and their surrounding environments. Farmed salmon are typically raised in pens in the ocean, where their excrement, diseases and food residues are disrupting local marine life.

Even land-based salmon farms are problematic,17 as the facilities pump water from rivers into their hatcheries, then pump it back out to the river once it’s contaminated with dissolved organic matter (DOM) — a mixture of liquid excrement, food residue and other salmon excretions, along with disinfectants and antibiotics.

Nutritionally speaking, farmed salmon are also a far inferior choice to the wild variety. For starters, their pens are often placed near shore, which means they’re close to land-based sources of pollutant runoff. In addition, they’re fed a diet of ground-up fishmeal, which may lead to concentrated levels of PCBs.

In a global assessment of farmed salmon published in the journal Science, PCB concentrations in farmed salmon were found to be eight times higher than in wild salmon.18 Farmed salmon also lack the correct ratio of healthy fats that many people are seeking when eating a “healthy” fish meal.

When seeking healthy, environmentally friendly salmon, look for "Alaskan salmon" and "sockeye salmon," as Alaskan sockeye is not allowed to be farmed. Avoid Atlantic salmon, as typically salmon labeled "Atlantic Salmon" comes from fish farms.

GE salmon is another variety of Atlantic salmon, so steering clear of Atlantic salmon in favor of wild varieties will help you steer clear of this frankenfish as well. In addition, pay attention to how it looks.

The flesh of wild sockeye salmon is bright red due to its natural astaxanthin content. It's also very lean, so the fat marks (white stripes) in the meat are very thin. If the fish is pale pink with wide fat marks, the salmon is farmed, and I recommend avoiding it completely.