In a simpler time -- around three months ago -- I reasoned that even though the salmon farming industry would continue to suffer attacks, critiques, lawsuits and other growing pains, it was, and I quote, "too big to fail."
And while my intent wasn't to be ironic, my column isn't aging well. In my defense, at the time I wrote it, the biggest things to hit the industry over the past year included the Washington State salmon farming ban, clothing giant Patagonia's anti-salmon farming campaign and Pamela Anderson's British Columbia drive-by.
"Too big to fail," of course, was first applied to the massive US financial institutions, who, after helping tank the global economy, were able to finagle billions in bailout funds. The term has always been applied ironically, because, well, nobody is too big to fail.
Since penning that column, here's just a few things that have happened in the industry that have shaken my thesis:
- Cooke employees were caught on video grossly neglecting their duties, including major violations of fish welfare and sanitary conditions
- Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party vowed to move all netpen salmon farms in BC into land-based or closed containment systems by 2025, just prior to winning re-election
- Chile's mass protests disrupted the salmon industry's logistics and eventually, protesters turned their sights on salmon company operations
- A massive climate-related die-off in Newfoundland resulted in Mowi having its licenses in the region suspended, and its CEO traveling to the province to deliver an in-person mea culpa
- The US Department of Justice brought a criminal anti-trust suit against Norwegian salmon farming companies (or their subsidiaries) including Mowi, Leroy, SalMar and Grieg
The list above isn't pretty. And I've left off the regular issues that impact the sector: the escapes, the disease findings, the lice loads, the roller-coaster pricing.
"The threats facing agriculture, including disease, will always exist, but with salmon farming's ability to adapt so quickly, those threats can be much more easily mitigated," my younger self argued.
But I overlooked one crucial point. In analyzing the events of the past couple months, one theme emerges: a failure to obtain sufficient social license.
All of the above issues had to do with poor community, worker or customer relations. Those can sometimes seem like small issues to tackle down the road. Businesses often mistakenly think they'll be the beneficiary of a "jobs halo": by bringing employment to an area that desperately needs it, they're given the protection of public officials and the majority of the locals.
While it is true that salmon aquaculture brings gainful employment to remote coastal communities that might otherwise have no job options, that alone isn't enough of a reason for a company to justify its presence. Local opposition is not a new problem for the industry, but it is rapidly becoming the most important one.
Certainly some of the crises that unfolded last month could not have been avoided. Salmon farming is as much at the whims of geopolitical and climate chaos as any other industry.
But whether they were bad luck, bad governance or bad communication, they brought into relief just how beholden the industry is to the communities that support it, and how quickly that support can turn.
"For those die-hard fighters that still think salmon farming can be stopped," I wrote in my innocence in August, "the battle was lost years ago."
October showed that the industry can still lose, and lose big. The industry cannot be stopped, it's true. But if it doesn't work harder to build public support, it can be slowed to a crawl.
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