PORT McNEILL, British Columbia When it's feeding time at Humphrey Rock, oily brown pellets engineered for size, sink rate, nutrition and medication spray out of computer-controlled hoses to 600,000 swirling and jumping Atlantic salmon.
Standing on floating net pens, workers watch intently through underwater cameras, speeding the feeding rate when the fish swim faster and closer to the surface, slowing it when the fish swim deeper and slower. The idea is to feed the fish as much as they will eat for maximum growth without letting any feed fall through to the bottom.
''You're playing them like a piano,'' said Rocky Boschman, manager of Stolt Sea Farm Inc.'s Humphrey Rock facility. ''It takes a person five to six months to get a handle on it. It's the most important thing we do.''
British Columbia has some 85 salmon farms rotating through 125 sites, nearly all of them around the remote western end of Vancouver Island. They produced 70,000 metric tons of salmon in 2002, 80 percent of it exported to the United States.
When British Columbia lifted a seven-year moratorium on new aquaculture sites last year, the industry looked forward to a major expansion to feed an aging U.S. population seeking heart-healthy foods.
However, high prices that marked the late 1990s have turned disastrously low, putting the industry into a global shakeout that has caused millions of dollars in losses and made every feed pellet count.
Meanwhile, stricter new environmental regulations have slowed federal and provincial government approval of new sites.
Environmentalists in the United States and Canada joined forces in a boycott campaign to pressure salmon farmers to get greener.
Salmon farms in British Columbia began in the 1970s as mom-and-pop operations dotted around coastal inlets. When U.S. wild salmon runs crashed in the early 1990s, international conglomerates controlling the industry filled the gap. Salmon turned from a seasonal treat to a global commodity.
According to H.M. Johnson & Associates' 2003 report on the U.S. seafood industry, salmon farms produced 1.4 million metric tons in 2002, 60 percent of world supply. Norway led with 530,000 metric tons, followed by Chile, United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Japan.
The United States imported 118,000 metric tons as salmon grew to the third most popular seafood in the country, after shrimp and tuna. Most of it came from Chile, poised to overtake Norway as the world leader.
After the heady days of the late 1990s, rapid expansion in Chile has been widely blamed for driving down prices, sending the industry into a tailspin.
As the industry grew, so did environmental problems. The first was waste. Tons of fish feces and uneaten food settling on the bottom beneath anchored net pens created dead zones of depleted oxygen and few plants or animals.
Seals and sea lions broke through the nets to prey on the captive fish, allowing millions of Atlantic salmon to escape. Biologists feared the Atlantics would pass disease to Pacific salmon, interbreed and push the natives out of scarce habitat. Established runs of Atlantics were reported in two rivers.
The feed, based on ground-up fish such as mackerel and anchovies, was questioned by scientists who feared it concentrated contaminants such as cancer-causing PCBs and depleted the oceans of prey for wild fish.
The latest issue is sea lice. A half-dozen lice on the tail of an adult wild salmon tells a chef it is fresh from the sea. But that many on each of the 600,000 fish at a salmon farm can broadcast millions of larvae into surrounding waters, where they can attach to tiny young salmon migrating to the ocean.
Dissatisfied with government regulation, environmental groups have taken out ads in the New York Times and held demonstrations in front of grocery stores urging consumers to boycott farmed salmon, arguing they are tainted by chemicals, antibiotics and dyes.
''The industry let us down, the government let us down, and we had to go to the consumer,'' said Jennifer Lash, founder of Living Oceans, based in the island fishing village of Sointula.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concluded in a report for environmentalists that salmon farms are still a bad deal: jobs are limited, taxes generated may not cover the cost of regulation, and they threaten sport and commercial fishing, fish processing and tourism, each of which generate more money.
Sointula fisher Dave Kaufman saw salmon farms drive down the price for his catch, and fears they may harm the spotted prawns he also catches, but can't begrudge his friends who have taken farm jobs.
''They're quite a bit better now, but they're still no good,'' he said.
Across the water in Port McNeill, a town of 2,300 struggling with downturns in commercial fishing and timber, the 165 jobs on Stolt's seven salmon farms and the Englewood Packing Co. plant in Beaver Cove are highly prized, paying as much as $17.50 Canadian ($13.50 U.S.) an hour plus benefits.
''This is the best job I've ever had,'' said Ellen Porter, a single mother who works on the state-of-the art processing line where machines gut the fish, drain the blood, slice the fillets and pull out the pinbones. ''My boys are able to play hockey because of this job. If I was working in a bar or grocery store, I wouldn't have that luxury.''
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