Hakai Magazine

Along the west coast of Canada and the United States, regulators seem to be turning against open-net-pen Atlantic salmon aquaculture. The decline of industry there seems to be causing growth in other markets. Photo by Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Anti-Salmon-Farming Activists Are Playing a Global Game of Whack-a-Mole

Increasing regulation in several countries is forcing open-net-pen salmon farmers to pack up shop. But then what happens?

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by Ashley Braun

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When the Canadian government announced in February the closure of 15 controversial Atlantic salmon farms in British Columbia, activists opposed to the open-net-pen farming industry around the world took note. The decision is potentially a preview of the government’s plan, expected in June, that may shutter British Columbia’s remaining open-net-pen operations.

The BC farms—operated by Cermaq Canada, Mowi Canada West, and Grieg Seafood—are all subsidiaries of global corporations based in Norway, the world’s top farmed salmon producer. All three firms, along with two affected First Nations, are challenging the government’s decision in court. It’s the latest battle for the province’s US $1.1-billion salmon farming industry.

Among those paying attention to the news was Jessica Coughlan, a campaigner with Neighbours of Fish Farming, a community group pushing for aquaculture industry accountability in Tasmania.

Tasmania, a small island state off southeastern Australia, has no native salmon—or Norwegian-owned salmon farms. Yet as activists and some Indigenous people, politicians, and researchers in Canada and the United States are finding success in their efforts to end open-net-pen Atlantic salmon farming in the Pacific Ocean—operations tied to the spread of disease and parasitic sea lice from farmed salmon to free-swimming wild Pacific salmon—Tasmania has been seeing increasing attention from multinational corporations.

Since 2020, says Coughlan, foreign corporations have bought all three of Tasmania’s Atlantic salmon farming companies: Huon Aquaculture was bought by Brazilian meat giant JBS, Petuna Aquaculture by New Zealand’s Sealord, and just last November, Tassal by Canada’s Cooke.

“We’re definitely seeing … an increased pressure and interest from international companies that are being kicked out of other places in the northern hemisphere,” Coughlan says.

Cooke’s sudden interest in Tasmania is likely explained by its troubles in the United States, Coughlan says. In 2017, just a year after Cooke purchased Atlantic salmon farms in Washington State, a steel cage system used by the company to contain fish collapsed and released hundreds of thousands of nonnative salmon into Puget Sound. A state investigation concluded the company’s negligence led to the cage’s collapse, which Cooke disputed. The state revoked Cooke’s lease and fined it $332,000.

In 2021 and 2022, as Cooke fought to save its Washington-based farms from the fallout of the cage collapse, the company was also making bids to buy Tasmania’s Huon Aquaculture and Tassal.

“All of a sudden, we’re seeing this very aggressive push for expansion from that company down here,” Coughlan says. In early November 2022, Tassal shareholders finally approved Cooke’s $1.1-billion takeover. Cooke lost the Huon Aquaculture bid to Brazil’s JBS.

The Tassal takeover came through at a convenient time. Later that month, the Washington State public lands commissioner denied Cooke’s request to renew its last remaining leases for steelhead and then issued an executive order banning commercial open-net-pen fish farming in state waters. Cooke called the decision “punitive, arbitrary, and contrary to extensive scientific research” by the state and filed a legal appeal of the lease denial in December, which remains in litigation.

Cooke’s expansion hasn’t been limited to Tasmania; it has also been growing its salmon farming operations in Scotland and in Nova Scotia.

Martin D. Smith, an environmental economist at Duke University in North Carolina, says it is “extremely difficult to causally tie something like what’s happening in the state of Washington or in British Columbia to new facilities in salmon aquaculture in other parts of the world.” But in theory, he says, tightening environmental regulations on salmon farming in one place will “incentivize pushing it into other parts of the world,” potentially to nations with looser regulations. This phenomenon, known as leakage among economists, can end up undoing some of the net environmental benefit of closing the farms in the first place, he says.

Brian Kingzett, executive director of the trade group BC Salmon Farmers Association, also worries multinational companies will be driven to invest in places where the regulatory standards and environmental monitoring are lower. “Those salmon will be grown elsewhere,” he says. “The demand is not going to go away.”

As consumers, he adds, “We can’t just say, ‘We’re not going to do it here. I’m going to buy it from somewhere else.’”

Smith’s research on the global salmon farming industry shows how a company operating farms in a tightly regulated nation like Norway can insulate at least some of its profits and increase its risk tolerance elsewhere. One manifestation of this, he says, is that in countries with lower environmental standards like Chile, the world’s second-largest farmed salmon producer, multinational companies seem motivated to take fewer precautions to manage disease outbreaks on farms. The result is environmental overexploitation and a “tragedy of the commons,” Smith says.

Coughlan worries Tasmania may be headed for a similar fate.

Even before the foreign companies arrived, Tasmanians had a fraught relationship with salmon farming.

Macquarie Harbour, on the island’s west coast, is home to an endangered skate species, a World Heritage Area, and 10 fish farms. Over the past 14 years, as the fish farms have expanded, the harbor has struggled with low concentrations of dissolved oxygen. The region has seen massive farmed fish kills, and an unprecedented lawsuit in which one salmon farmer sued the government for allowing environmental degradation by “not regulating us appropriately.”

Tasmanian regulators eventually capped overall farmed fish biomass and nitrogen waste output in the harbor, and in 2022 a Tasmanian parliamentary inquiry recommended that salmon farming in the state should not expand until the government finishes revising its 2017 Salmon Industry Growth Plan. Notably, the inquiry suggested reducing fish farming close to shore and ending it in sensitive and biodiverse places—presumably like Macquarie Harbour. The Tasmanian government, however, is not fully backing that suggestion.

According to Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Joel Richardson, the company is seeing plenty of government support for its goal to “grow Tassal into a globally competitive salmon and prawn producer.” Richardson also defended the company’s environmental performance and points to farmed salmon’s low carbon footprint compared with other animal proteins as support for its environmental benefits.

Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania, Australia, is already home to several salmon farms. The concentration of industry there has caused a range of environmental repercussions. Photo by Mark A. Johnson/Alamy Stock Photo

“We have to think really seriously,” says Smith, “about whether our regulatory strictness is ultimately to the benefit of the environment.” He acknowledges the challenge of finding a regulatory balance that protects local environments in a complex global society. That multinational corporations could pick up and move elsewhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t regulate them, says Smith, but it risks encouraging a polluting industry to shift operations to less-regulated countries.

Though Smith is careful to talk in theoretical terms, recent events in Norway show the reality of the leakage problem.

At the end of March, the Norwegian government proposed a substantial new tax on the country’s largest salmon farmers. Ivan Vindheim, the CEO of Mowi, the biggest salmon farmer of all, threatened to take its multibillion-euro business elsewhere. “Mowi is a global company and salmon farming is not bound by geography—it can take place in sea and on land anywhere in the world, close to its major markets,” he said, adding that “Norway stands to lose its leading position within aquaculture to other countries.”

Whether or not this is just globalized capitalism in action, Coughlan worries that control over the world’s waterways is being consolidated by a shrinking pool of corporations that are more accountable to far-flung shareholders than to local people.

“It’s really quite concerning to think that your waterways are under stresses and pressure not just from climate change but from really, really big business that has interests with nothing to do with your state,” she says.