For years, the David Suzuki Foundation and other environmental groups have made dire claims that small parasites from salmon farms put wild salmon at risk of extinction. These small parasites are called "sea lice" and are found naturally on dozens of species of wild fish.
"Sea lice have commonly killed over 80 per cent of the annual pink salmon returns," warned the David Suzuki Foundation, adding "... local extinction is certain." In 2005, the David Suzuki Foundation said that salmon farming caused sea lice levels to sky-rocket "30,000 times higher than natural."
From the get-go, this sea lice research has been controversial. Scientists have noted serious flaws and deviations from the commonly accepted good practices of the scientific community: lack of adequate baseline data, cherry-picking of data, inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims. In stark contrast, the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) described this sea lice research as undeniable, compelling, irrefutable and "proof."
"Fish farm causes sea lice abundances thousands of times higher than natural levels, new study confirms." That was the headline of a Suzuki Foundation press release from 2005. If that's what research actually shows, I would agree that the farms should be closed. But contrary to the alarming claims from the David Suzuki Foundation, research does not show what David Suzuki and his foundation have been saying. Some of the sea lice research claims made by David Suzuki and his foundation are plainly false. I will explain....
Why Some Sea Lice Research Claims Are False
Like most Canadians, at first I took the David Suzuki Foundation at its word. However, upon actually reading its published sea lice research papers, I found that surprisingly, sea lice levels at salmon farms and mortality in the wild were never reported in any of the papers by this group. None of the sea lice research funded by the David Suzuki Foundation actually meaured sea lice levels actually at salmon farms. None. Never. The researchers missed or ignored collecting the very data necessary to test their hypothesis that sea lice from salmon farms harm wild salmon. Its not possible to make sound conclusions about the transmission of anything from point "A" to point "B" if you don't measure point "A" (the salmon farm). Secondly, during part of the research, there were no fish at the farm.
In testimony to a public hearing of the B.C. government, the lead sea lice researcher, Dr. Martin Krkosek, admitted that his findings are "all correlative." A correlation does not show causality and yet, the University of Alberta (where the research was conducted) and the David Suzuki Foundation falsely reported in the headline of their press releases, "Wild salmon mortality caused by fish farms." When concerns about that headline were conveyed to the university, the press release was quietly removed but by then, hundreds of media stories around the world had parroted the university's headline, reporting "salmon farms kill wild salmon," just as the University of Alberta had said itself.
If these false claims hadn't had such a big impact on public opinion, public policies and budget allocations for the protection of wild salmon, the false and misleading claims from the David Suzuki Foundation and the University of Alberta would be little more than a nuisance. But the reality is that this sea lice research is at the heart of one of the longest running and fiercest environmental controversies in the history of British Columbia. More than 500 news stories reported this research and yet the central claim that the environmentalists and scientists have been making, is false.
For more about the reasons why some sea lice research claims are false, click here.
Don't get me wrong: I do not suggest that sea lice from salmon farms aren't a potential threat to wild salmon. On the contrary, I have no doubt that this can be true, especially if the farms are poorly managed and especially in parts of Europe where wild salmon populations are endangered. This is precisely why we need sound research that is reported accurately and comprehensively, not inaccurately and selectively. My point isn't that sea lice aren't a potential problem, my point is that some sea lice research doesn't show what scientists say it does.
Like many others, including a lot of people in the salmon farming industry, I was very concerned back in 2002 when I first heard about Alexandra Morton's early observations of sea lice on juvenile wild salmon. In a public inquiry, I urged the B.C. government to take Alexandra's work seriously. In fact, I even went so far as to question whether sea lice might be the marine equivalent of the pine beetle (see pg. 879) which has wreaked havoc on the B.C. forest industry. But then I started to come across information that forced me to change my views.
In the winter of 2007, I came across a $560,000 grant (shown below) from the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation for an "antifarming campaign" against farmed salmon.
The purpose of this campaign, according to what the Moore foundation reported in its tax returns was "to shift consumer and retailer demand away from farmed salmon" (see pg. 275). The campaign was to involve media and "science messages." The group that was paid the $560,000 was SeaWeb, a P.R. organization based in Maryland. Eventually, I learned that the sea lice researchers funded by the David Suzuki Foundation were in cahoots with SeaWeb and in fact, the sea lice research itself was funded by the Moore foundation, the same foundation that funded the "antifarming campaign" involving "science messages" and "earned media." (see e-mail). This and more led me to question whether false sea lice research claims had been made knowingly and intentionally as part of the Moore foundation's "antifarming campaign" to sway market share away from farmed salmon.
Re-written & Removed Material
Several of the key documents related to this issue have been quietly removed or re-written:
- The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation quietly re-wrote four grants for $3.6 million for its "anti-farming campaign" against salmon farming.
- The David Suzuki Foundation quietly removed 23 press releases and web-pages that I had noted to contain inaccurate, false or misleading information about farmed salmon and salmon farming.
- The University of Alberta removed the key press release in which, as I had pointed out, the headline was a false claim. The University removed another key document in which the Centre for Mathematical Biology reported that it had a "research partnership" with SeaWeb. The entire part of the UofA's web-site about Dr. Martin Krkoksek sea lice is now GONE. Parts of it can still be accessed through internet archives. Click here.
By the time the University of Alberta and the David Suzuki Foundation removed their press releases and web-pages that contained false and misleading claims, it was years too late. By then, the sea lice research findings had been falsely reported in hundreds of media stories around the world and much of the media and the public had turned against salmon farming - albeit, in part, on the basis of claims that are false.
Formal Complaint to The University of Alberta
It is important that I mention that I worked in the salmon farming industry during 2002 and 2003. That's why I am familiar with the fish farm fuss. During 2007, I also did two short consultancies for the salmon farming industry. I was paid $17,750 for those. I have not worked for the salmon farming industry in any capacity since July of 2007. For more about the reasons why I have drawn attention to the "antifarming campaign" against farmed salmon - and why others haven't, click here.
From my experience working for UNICEF during the 1990s, I am familiar with cases of scientific misconduct because one of the worst cases in the history of Canadian science involved a prominent scientist in my field, Dr. Ranjit Chandra at Memorial University. Without a background in salmon farming and some understanding of issues related to scientific integrity, I wouldn't have noticed that something is fishy about the University of Alberta's sea lice research.
Based on what I came across during the fall of 2007, in February of 2008 I submitted to the University of Alberta a formal complaint of apparent scientific misconduct in the sea lice research conducted under the auspices of the UofA's Centre for Mathematical Biology. As the basis for this complaint, I wrote a 267 page document. For the 2 page executive summary of that, click here.
At the University of Alberta, the senior scientist involved in this research is Dr. Mark Lewis. The graduate student who was the first author on most of the sea lice research papers is Dr. Martin Krkosek. One of the researchers in this group, Alexandra Morton, has campaigned actively against salmon farming for years.
This research was partially funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, through the David Suzuki Foundation, and was published (Krkosek et al. (2007) in the journal SCIENCE, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.
My complaint and request for investigation was supported by The B.C. Council of Resource Community Mayors, the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association and a scientist with expertise in sea lice."While this activity has created an economy within academia, it has done nothing to alleviate Third world living conditions in coastal communities. Instead it has denied First Nations and others opportunities for jobs and prosperity," wrote the executive director of the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association.
Complaint Dismissed, No Investigation
When I first contacted the University of Alberta about this in the fall of 2007, I was assured that it would be taken seriously. In fact, I was told that in the previous year, the university had investigated nine such complaints and that after finding fault in three of them, the scientists involved were no longer with the university. However, in my case, the University of Alberta dismissed my complaint with no investigation of the information provided. When I appealed to the president of the University, I received a letter from the university's lawyer saying that there was no right of appeal and that all information had to be kept confidential. Nonetheless, the following year (2009), the University of Alberta awarded the Gold Medal of the Governor General of Canada for this very same sea lice research.
Briefly, here's what happened:
Between 2005 and 2007, the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Alberta published a series of papers claiming to show that sea lice originating from salmon farms put wild salmon at serious risk of extinction in the Broughton Archipelago, ground zero for B.C.'s salmon farming controversy. This research was widely publicized by the David Suzuki Foundation, Alexandra Morton and two campaigns with which the David Suzuki Foundation was involved: the Farmed and Dangerous campaign and the Pure Salmon campaign. Both of these campaigns have been heavily funded by American foundations, the same ones that fund the promotion and marketing of Alaskan salmon, under the banner of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the so-called sustainable seafood movement. For many years, the majority of MSC-certified fish was Alaskan and more than half of MSC-certified products were salmon. It follows that promoting MSC-certified fish was tantamount to promoting Alaskan fish.
On the basis of their research, much of which was computer-generated, the UofA scientists claimed that sea lice originating from salmon farms cause high levels of mortality among juvenile salmon in the wild and put their populations at risk of extinction. For the ten reasons that I have explained elsewhere in detail, it is clear to me that that this not what the research actually shows.
In stark contrast to the UofA's sea lice scientists, the David Suzuki Foundation and Alexandra Morton, 20 scientists from Canada, the U.S. and Norway agreed that wild pink salmon returns in the Broughton actually appear to be increasing but this consensus among senior, international scientists never made the news.
In the fall of 2006, I made a two-part submission in a public inquiry that the B.C. government was conducting with regards to aquaculture. As I was preparing that, I unexpectedly came across several pieces of information that made my look back at the controversy over salmon farming from a perspective that I missed when I worked in the industry; the marketing perspective.
One of the things that I came across was a slide, shown below, from Dr. Gunnar Knapp, an Alaskan economist and world-renowned expert on the global salmon market. In a lengthly presentation about the status of Alaskan salmon fisheries, Dr. Knapp asked what he considered "an important question" about what had done most to improve Alaskan salmon prices: Positive Alaskan marketing or the negative, "anti-farmed salmon campaigns" by environmental organizations. This is what got me thinking about the market impacts of environmental campaigns.
Around the same time, I was looking for funding for a non-profit organization of which I am a board member. Unexpectedly, I came across a grant from the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation ("Moore") for an "antifarming campaign" against the salmon farming industry. This grant from Moore was for $560,000, paid to SeaWeb, a Maryland-based communications outfit. The $560,000 was for the co-ordination of an "antifarming campaign" involving "science messages," "earned media," and "co-ordination of media for antifarming ENGOs (environmental organizations)."
I wondered what were the "science messages" of the "antifarming campaign" and thought back to a form letter that I had received from David Suzuki a few years earlier. In that letter, Suzuki thanked supporters, including me, for having helped him to uncover the "fact" that "B.C. farmed salmon is heavily contaminated with PCBs and other toxins." The problem is, as I have discussed in Suzuki's Fish Story, and in my paper on the subject, PCB levels were extremely low, less than 3% of what is considered tolerable. Mercury levels were actually higher in the wild salmon than in the farmed but that was meaningless because the whole study only had eight fish. It followed that David Suzuki had not uncovered the "fact" that he said he did. I wondered whether the false scare over PCBs in farmed salmon was one of the "science messages" of the antifarming campaign, so in the spring of 2007, I sent a letter to David Suzuki to ask this question and several other questions. As it turned out, that was the first of 15 letters to David Suuzki that I sent over the past five years.
In my first letter to David Suzuki, sent in May of 2007, I specifically asked whether the David Suzuki Foundation was one of the "antifarming environmental groups" that SeaWeb was paid to co-ordinate. I also asked whether the publicity of studies on contaminants in farmed salmon, and sea lice, was the "earned media" and the "science messages" of the antifarming campaign. Neither David Suzuki nor his foundation answered my questions.
In the fall of 2007, while using Google, I unexpectedly come across a University of Alberta document in which the Centre for Mathematical Biology reported that it had a "research partnership" with SeaWeb, the Maryland P.R. outfit that was paid $560,000 to co-ordinate the "antifarming campaign." When I contacted the University of Alberta, about this, that document was immediately removed from the university's web-site. In that document, the Centre for Mathematical Biology reported that SeaWeb had generated 147 media stories based on its sea lice research.
From information that I obtained in 2009, I eventually learned that not only the Moore foundation funded SeaWeb to co-ordinate the "antifarming campaign," Moore also partially funded the sea lice research itself, through the David Suzuki Foundation. However, neither the Moore funding nor the UofA's "research partnership" with SeaWeb was disclosed in the acknowledgements of the UofA's published papers. I would find it hard to believe that the CMB's sea lice research was funded by the same foundation that paid for the "antifarming campaign" but that the research itself was not part and parcel of the "science messages" and the "earned media" of that campaign.
Looking back, its hard to believe it but when I testified in a public hearing in the fall of 2006, I actually urged the B.C. government to take the University of Alberta's sea lice seriously. I even went so far as to ask whether sea lice might be the marine equivalent of the pine beetle which has devastated B.C. forests. I would have testified very differently if the University of Alberta scientists had disclosed their funding from a commercial fishing company and their "research partnership" with SeaWeb.
Extinction Claims Used in "Demarketing" Farmed Salmon
The UofA's sea lice research was used to justify "Ingredients for Extinction," the tag-line of a boycott against Safeway. The company's official motto is "Ingredients for Life." The Farmed and Dangerous campaign mocked Safeway's tag-line on the basis of the UofA's sea lice research. Safeway was sent more than 30,000 faxes telling it to stop selling farmed salmon.
The David Suzuki Foundation had been publicizing claims that salmon farming was putting wild salmon "on the brink of extinction" even before sea lice research started in B.C. Obviously, its not possible to run a campaign based on good science if you begin that campaign before you begin the science.
U.S. tax returns indicate that the purpose of SeaWeb's campaign was "to shift consumer and retailer demand away from farmed salmon." In marketing, reducing demand or shifting demand away is called "demarketing."
Indeed, it wouldn't be easy to "demarket" farmed salmon by reminding people that fish farming avoids over-fishing and by-catch, which are, after all, the worst risks to wild salmon. It also wouldn't be easy to scare consumers away from farmed salmon if environmental groups would inform consumers that farmed salmon is actually very LOW in contaminants, especially mercury, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than any other commonly eaten fish. Indeed, it would be much easier to sway market share away from farmed salmon by depicting it as toxic, dyed and dangerous, which is precisely what environmental organizations have been doing, and on the basis of seemingly credible research published in a prestigious journal and publicized by trusted environmental organizations.
The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute has reported working with environmental organizations. Back in 2002, ASMI's executive director wrote:
"In our case, it is far more credible to leave the attack to third parties, such as environmental groups and newspaper columnists, then it is for us to come out and do it ourselves. We can then leverage that information with a marketing campaign pointing out the positive aspects of our fish using the bad things about farmed fish as our points of difference. And that is exactly what we are doing. In addition, we are helping the people that sell our products or use them in restaurants understand the differences in wild and farmed fish, which includes showing them the material that is being generated by the environmentalists and the media. We also have been working with a number of environmental groups and media for several years now pointing out the purity and sustainability of our salmon, which helps them make their points about the difference in wild verses farmed fish."
As it appears to me, the "demarketing" campaign against farmed salmon was funded as part and parcel of the Packard foundation's multi-million dollar Market Intervention Strategy to support commercial fisheries and the communities that depend on them, especially in Alaska. I have seen no evidence that there are commercial interests behind this; my hunch is that the American foundations that are funding this, the Packard foundation in particular, are trying to soften the market impacts of aquaculture on the Alaskan communities whose traditional lifestyle and livelihood hinges on market demand for wild fish. Protecting a traditional lifestyle is a noble pursuit but thwarting the aquaculture industry on the basis of flawed science and false claims, is not the way to go about it.
Despite a long series of letters in which I pleaded with the University of Alberta scientists and the David Suzuki Foundation to please clarify the actual sea lice research findings and American funding sources, this was not done. To the best of my knowledge, no amends were ever made for the false and misleading information that was spread around the world in hundreds of scary headlines.
The Editor-in-Chief of the Journal SCIENCE, a Packard Trustee
While SeaWeb's $560,000 grant came from the Moore Foundation, SeaWeb's biggest funders over the years have been the David & Lucile Packard Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Between 2000 and 2010, the Packard foundation alone granted at least $23 million to SeaWeb.
In 2007, when the CMB's sea lice research was published in the journal SCIENCE, the Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Donald Kennedy, was a trustee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Dr. Kennedy is a former president of Stanford University.
Since 2000, Packard has spent more than $100 million ($US-88 million as of 2010) on its Market Intervention Strategy that sways consumers and retailers towards wild fish, especially from Alaska, and away from the competition: farmed fish, especially farmed salmon. That included $2.7 million to start campaigns (Farmed and Dangerous and Pure Salmon) to get consumers to boycott farmed salmon on the basis of the University of Alberta's sea lice research and other concerns. Without the UofA's sea lice research, conveniently published in the prestigious journal SCIENCE, these campaigns would lack credibility.
In light of the information and analysis mentioned here, and more, in February of 2008, I filed a formal complaint of apparent scientific misconduct with the University of Alberta with regards to its sea lice research. Largely on the grounds that the research had been published in the prestigious journal SCIENCE, the University of Alberta dismissed the complaint and warned me that everything had to be kept confidential. When I appealed to the president of the University of Alberta, the university's lawyer sent me a letter saying that there was no right of appeal. I sought legal advice and was advised to seek a judicial review but I didn't have the funds to cover legal costs.
Far from requiring Dr. Mark Lewis and Dr. Martin Krkosek to respond to the allegations, the University of Alberta set the complaint aside and allowed Dr. Krkosek to defend his Ph.D. dissertation. Dr. Krkosek was then awarded the Gold Medal of the Governor General of Canada meanwhile the complaint of apparent misconduct that I filed with regards to his sea lice research was never investigated.
I couldn't see what more I could do besides what I had already done to that point.
Seeing that nearly 20,000 people had signed a petition to close salmon farms on the basis of what appears to me to be flawed science and false claims, in the fall of 2009 I again appealed to the University of Alberta to please clarify the actual research findings and funding sources for its sea lice research. As the basis of my appeal to the president of the University of Alberta, I wrote two papers:
During 2007, 2008 and 2009, I corresponded with dozens of politicians and people in the media. Several journalists including Bruce Lloyd, Tom Fletcher and Timothy Renshaw wrote about the issues that I was trying to raise but I failed to get the bigger media outlets to look into it.
In March of 2010, the University of Alberta again dismissed my request for investigation and clarification, adding that any further communication from me would be considered "vexatious."
Finding that the University of Alberta had proven wholly unable or unwilling to investigate itself, I wrote a letter to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to request an investigation of the University of Alberta's use of NSERC funds for this sea lice research, and what appears to me to be the university's apparent mishandling of my complaint. My understanding is that according to national policy, Canadian universities are required to interview the complainant in cases of alleged scientific misconduct. I was never interviewed nor did the University of Alberta offer to interview me. I felt that this was a clear violation of the rules. In July of 2010, NSERC sent me a letter stating that the University of Alberta didn't need to interview me because it had dismissed my complaint. To me, this does not make sense; if this holds, then the way that a university can avoid having to interview a complainant is to simply dismiss the complaint.
I also wrote a letter to the Executive Publisher of the journal SCIENCE. He replied, "so far as we can tell, our well-regarded peer review process was followed meticulously and that no one violated our rigorous conflict of interest policies." By 2010, the journal SCIENCE had a new Editor-In-Chief, Dr. Bruce Alberts. He's a trustee of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the same foundation that partially funded the sea lice research and the "antifarming campaign." Thus, both the Editor-in-Chief of SCIENCE at the time that Krkosek et al. (2007) was published, and the current Editor-in-Chief are intimately involved with the foundations that have heavily funded the environmental campaigns that have used research conveniently published in the journal SCIENCE.
I also wrote to the international Comittee on Publication Ethics (COPE). COPE responded that it could't intervene because the journal SCIENCE is not a member of COPE.
In April of 2010, I also made a submission to the Cohen Commission as a member of the public.
If my original complaint had been properly investigated in the spring of 2008, and if the University of Alberta had publicly clarified the actual findings and American funding - including previously undisclosed money from a commercial fishing company and a U.S. foundation that was paying for a multi-million dollar "antifarming campaign," I doubt that 20,000 people would have signed Alexandra Morton's petition to close salmon farms. I also doubt that tens of millions of dollars would have been over-spent on sea lice research. Some public spending on sea lice was warranted - perhaps several million dollars, not $30 million - which is what has been spent. I also doubt that hundreds of people would have lost their jobs at fish processing plants that closed because the growth of the salmon farming industry ground to a screeching halt.
At some point in 2010, Dr. Krkosek, moved to New Zealand. There, in the southern hemisphere where there are no native wild salmon, he apparently continues his computer-generated sea lice research. His web-site at the University of Alberta, with all its media coverage and related information about the sea lice research that led to one of the fiercest and most costly environmental controversies in British Columbia, is no longer on the public record. The UofA's web-site about sea lice research is gone but false impressions remain about the actual research findings and the funding of the UofA's sea lice research.
As for Alexandra Morton, in 2010 Simon Fraser University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate for her sea lice research and activism. That same week, The Financial Post featured the University of Alberta's sea lice research during Junk Science Week.
Note added April 8, 2013:
On April 2, 2013, the journal SCIENCE announced that as of June 1, 2013, the journal's new Editor-in-Chief will be Marcia McNutt. Ms. McNutt was CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium from 1997 to 2009. The aquarium is one of the top recipients of funds from the Packard foundation, having been granted at least $375 million over the past decade.