We’ve been thinking about this question during the past weekend (when we weren’t basking in the sun and consuming vast quantities of Lucky Lager, hot dogs and marshmallows).
Why is salmon farming so scary?
Some people react to it as if salmon farming is going to creep into their houses at night and abduct their children, then leave a giant underwater mountain of feces in the ocean blocking the Georgia Strait while evil Norwegians on the shoreline laugh maniacally and count their money.
It seems ridiculous when we put it that way, but we have honestly had people tell us they believe there is a conspiracy between government and salmon farmers to wipe out all the wild fish so there will be no salmon but farmed, so they can make more money.
Of course, they ignore the facts that although both are valuable, wild fish are worth more to the government than farmed fish. Fishing creates more jobs, more money for the economy and more revenue for the government in terms of licences. But still they believe there’s a conspiracy to get rid of the wild fish.
These sort of conspiracy theories and the visceral reactions some people have to salmon farming seems absurd to us. How can people react with such horror to something as benign as growing fish? How can people believe such ridiculous ideas of government conspiracies?
Here’s where we in the salmon farming business need to do something different. We have to change how we react to this horror. We need to show people that we are trustworthy.
The first thing we need to do is realize and understand that the fear and anger people feel is very real. We cannot dismiss these feelings, even though there’s probably not much we can do to change them.
Thanks to the horror stories of a few people who have dedicated their lives to stopping salmon farming, many people now have these feelings of fear and anger, and this mistrust of salmon farmers. We salmon farmers have our track record, our data and science. Guess which group wins in the media, which is built on conflict and drama and people pointing fingers at each other.
Thanks to millions of years of evolution, in our brains, feelings trump data every single time.
A bad two-man play in which one character gets eaten by a tiger
We are hard-wired to make quick, gut judgments about things. Consider two early hominid hunters out on the plains. A poorly scripted dramatic re-enactment follows.
HUNTER 1: “What’s that rustling in the bushes? It must be a tiger, I’m outta here!”
HUNTER 2: “Well, it could be a tiger, but it ‘s probably just be the wind, or maybe a rabbit or AAAAARRRGH IT REALLY IS A TIGER OH GOD MY LEG TELL MY WIFE AND KIDS I LOVE THEM…”
Hunter 1 made a snap judgment from his gut and ran away before anything could eat him. Hunter 2 took a few extra moments to think logically about the possibilities and got eaten.
Guess which genetics got passed along to future generations?
But there can’t be a tiger in every bush. How likely is that? Let’s consider another small hunting party out on the plains.
HUNTER 1: ”What’s that rustling in the bushes? It must be a tiger, let’s get outta here!”
HUNTER 2: “It could be a tiger, but it could also just be the wind, or maybe a rabbit. Look, I don’t see any tigers.”
HUNTER 1: “Maybe, but your father got eaten by a tiger that jumped out of the bushes, remember? Let’s not take any chances.”
HUNTER 2: “Good point. Let’s go hunt somewhere else and tell other people there might be a tiger here.”
While only one hunter was inclined to make a snap judgment from his gut and run away, they were both inclined to recall an example and apply it to their situation. In this case, both sets of genetics, the “run away” reaction and the “take no chances” reaction got passed along to future generations.
This is a crude and simplistic example but it shows how we as humans have evolved to have brains that make snap judgments about risks. Examples reinforce those judgments. We only consider the logic and the facts once we are sure there is no imminent danger.
Some people who have made it their mission in life to shut down salmon farms are experts at appealing to this part of our brain. They make people feel as though even stopping for a minute to logically consider the risks will lead to catastrophe.
They ridicule, ostracize and condemn anyone who doesn’t see the imminent danger that they do.
And why wouldn’t they? Their feelings are strong. They believe what they are saying. Their brains, programmed by millions of years of evolution, have switched into the position of believing that salmon farms could kill wild salmon, and no risk is worth taking in that scenario. People who disagree are making the risk even greater by their inaction.
Enter cognitive dissonance
This belief is plagued by cognitive dissonance, holding several conflicting ideas in mind at the same time and convincing yourself there is no conflict. We’re not psychologists, but we find the science behind this term very interesting. Apparently, the term was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse.
Reminds us of an anti-salmon farming group, which has a few members who act like cult followers sometimes.
These believers ignore the risk from other real and imminent dangers, which could easily be argued to be far more risky than salmon farms. Overfishing. Climate change. Ocean pollution from cities. Habitat destruction. Bycatch.
But those are all things we are familiar with. We understand them, and usually think of them in terms that are “Good.” It’s not overfishing or bycatch, it’s fishing. Fishing has costs, and we accept it because we feel the benefits are greater than the costs. It’s not habitat destruction, it’s logging. We accept it because, like fishing ,we feel the benefits are greater than the costs. We accept these things as “Good” because they provide obvious benefits. Food. Lumber.
These real dangers might be things we don’t feel we can do anything about. Climate change, for example. How can we save salmon by altering climate change? Let’s worry about something else.
Or they are things we have come to accept as necessary, regardless of the cost. Cities, for example. People aren’t going to stop living in cities and creating pollution.
But salmon farming, well, that’s new and weird and kind of scary. People don’t know much about it. We haven’t had 10,ooo years to get used to it like chicken farming. Most of the things we remember hearing about it are BAD examples. And in our brains, new and scary plus BAD examples equals DANGER. We are primed to be fearful, and all it takes is a few skillful prods from individuals to turn that low-level fear into a sort of manic hysteria, and channel that into anger, hate and outrage against salmon farming.
We are all wired the same way
We’re not trying to sound better than anyone else. Our brains are wired this way, too. If someone pulled the fire alarm at our children’s school, and no one sounded the “false alarm” in time to avoid the local radio station reporting that “there appears to be a fire in progress at your children’s school,” we would drive down there and take them home just like anyone else. We wouldn’t wait to get a phone call from the school that everything was OK.
And if we heard that someone who ate a chicken sandwich in our home town died from food poisoning, we would avoid that restaurant.
It’s just how our brains work.
But when we sit down and think about the real risks and dangers we face, we would realize that our kids are safe, and that driving down to the school in a mad dash to save them would likely be a bigger risk to ourselves and other kids than the threat from what is in all likelihood a false alarm (especially since we don’t see any smoke and if we bother to phone the school we would find out it’s false).
We would realize that the likelihood of getting food poisoning from that restaurant is incredibly remote (especially after someone died from eating there, the restaurant would make every effort to be as safe as possible).
And when it comes to salmon farming, we would realize that there is a lot more to it than just “GOOD” and “BAD.” We would see there are significant benefits, and that the risks are not as real as some have made them out to be.
Everyone in coastal Canada owes it to themselves to educate themselves about salmon farming. Read all sides. Take a tour. Ask questions. Read the science. Then make up their minds.
And farmers need to realize that they cannot tell their story in “GOOD” and “BAD” language, either. They need to be open, honest and consistent. Talk about the benefits of salmon farming. Answer questions. Show people how it’s not weird and scary and strange. Explain it. Explain the science. And let people make up their own minds.
Once we get beyond the primitive reaction, and the people who exploit this wiring in our brains to further their causes, we can all sit down and have a rational discussion about aquaculture.
And hopefully once we do this we can work together, critics and farmers, to make aquaculture in Canada the best, least risky and most environmentally friendly in the world.
We feel it’s apt to close with a Mark Twain quote here. We are trying to say that we believe fear and hostility towards salmon farming is a normal human reaction, under the circumstances. But we have got to have the courage to get past that.
We’ve had a lot of fun with Ms. Alexandra Morton’s ridiculous use of one particular graph to claim that salmon farms in BC brought about a decline in wild salmon productivity.
Without any context, her argument sounds reasonable.
Recently, DFO released its 2012 projections for Fraser River sockeye, estimating a 90 per cent probability of a maximum run size of 6.6 million.
Their predictions are summarized in a graph, including an estimate of the productivity of this year’s run, placing it just above the average.
This is, incidentally, the same graph Ms. Morton uses, but with all the context included.
See that? 2012 will likely be an average year.
What does that mean?
It means Ms. Morton’s predictions of doom and gloom are, once again, false prophecies.
Salmon runs fluctuate, and have done so ever since we started recording these numbers half a century ago.
In fact, according to recent research in Alaska, salmon runs have fluctuated for more than 2,000 years.
Humans have been impacting Fraser sockeye stocks and the stocks of every other kind of salmon in B.C. for thousands of years, and our impacts have increased ever since we started catching salmon in massive amounts and damaging their habitat more than a century ago.
But it seems apparent that ocean conditions have far more long-term impacts on salmon.
But Ms. Morton and anti-salmon activists don’t care about those facts. They focus on a small window in time and on one river system, asking, why did Fraser sockeye productivity decline for roughly 20 years starting in the 1990s?
It was salmon farms, they say, answering their own question and fingering the “new kid on the block” before anyone can raise any other possibilities or use science.
In contrast to their easy answers to hard questions, a scientific approach requires we look at as many possible factors as we can find.
What did cause the decline of Fraser sockeye productivity in the 1990s and 2000s?
Was it an explosion of Alaskan ranched fish entering the North Pacific feeding grounds in the early 1990s? Take a look at this graph.
Was it ocean temperatures? The ocean has gotten hotter since the 1950s. Interestingly, the decline in temperatures in the 1960s could be correlated with the dip in Fraser sockeye productivity at the same time. But the rise above average (0) since about 1990 can also be correlated with the decline in productivity in the 1990s and 2000s.
Was it The Pacific Decadal Oscillation? The natural fluctuation of ocean temperatures, which changes every 15-30 years? Interestingly, the brief change in the 1960s can be correlated with the decline in Fraser sockeye productivity at the same time, and the major shift from a long-term trend in the 1970s and 1980s to quick fluctuations in the 1990s and 2000s can be correlated to the long-term stability of Fraser sockeye productivity in the 1970s and 1980s, and the wild fluctuations and decline in the 1990s and 2000s.
Was it any of these things? All of these things? None of these things? We don’t know. We haven’t even included catch data in this post, that has to be considered as well. But it sure looks like ocean conditions have way more impacts than a few salmon farms ever could.
Plus, there is actually evidence to suggest that ocean conditions do have impacts (in contrast to the speculations and simplistic correlations anti-salmon farming activists use to support their claims).
But we can’t say for sure.
One thing we know for sure, however, is that, given all these factors which could affect Fraser sockeye productivity, suggesting that “salmonfarmsdidit” is a facile conclusion to the mystery, especially when we don’t even have a body.
The “corpse” of wild salmon is still swimming strong, despite all the predictions of doom and gloom, and with an average run predicted for the Fraser, exceptional runs predicted for the Alberni-Clayoquot region and good returns expected elsewhere in BC, we are confident in saying that all the evidence shows that wild and farmed salmon can coexist together in the same ocean with negligible risks to either species.
Farmed versus wild is a false choice.