Sara Pozonsky, a lifelong Alaska fisherman and owner of Wild Alaskan Salmon Company, believes salmon farms are a perilously overlooked environmental catastrophe, and she's launched an advocacy effort highlighted by a film to nudge the issue into the spotlight.
Pozonsky, Tracie Donahue and Shad Selby recently co-directed and released "A Fishy Tale," an hour-long documentary about Pozonsky's efforts to encourage legislation to inform Americans about the fish they're consuming. The film follows Pozonsky as she asks people on the street what they think about eating farmed salmon, visits a British Columbia community impacted by fish farming, confronts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about its support of fish farms, rallies for awareness in Washington, D.C., and interviews Rep. Don Young about his efforts to protect wild salmon fisheries in Alaska.
"I wanted to tell a story about how I came to the realization that open-net salmon farms were the most overlooked environmental hazard of our day, and how it poses a very real threat to Alaskans and our economy," said Pozonsky, a third-generation Alaskan who grew up on Kenai Peninsula beaches and fished commercially in Bristol Bay. Finfish farming was banned in Alaska waters in 1989 in an effort to preserve wild fish stocks and protect the commercial fishing industry.
British Columbia's experience
"Most of us Alaskans live in a fairy tale, thinking that we have beat back the U.S. government by taking over the management of our own fishery," Pozonsky added. "My first goal was to show how Alaskans aren't as safe as they think they are.
"Federal waters run right up Cook Inlet — right in the middle of a giant commercial fishery. Federal waters also run in Chatham Strait — another important (Southeast Alaska) fishing area. Alaska has no say in what happens in federal waters. If and when the federal government decides to move fish farms into Alaska is anyone's guess, but NOAA has made it very clear that they would like to drastically increase fish farms."
Pozonsky said that all Alaskans need to do is look to their neighbors in British Columbia to see what happens to communities and wild salmon fisheries when fish farms move in. She visited Alexandra Morton, a marine biologist in Echo Bay, British Columbia. Morton told Pozonsky that the vibrant fishing community went from thriving to dying in just a few short years after several fish farms opened for business. The wild fishery collapsed, unemployment increased despite promises of new jobs and fishing families were forced to move away. All of these sacrifices were made, Morton said, to develop an inferior food source.
"If people only knew what they were eating ..." Morton said. "There are all kinds of issues with them."
The high concentrations of salmon in fish farms create environments in which bacteria and viruses thrive, the marine biologist said. Fish also are injected with hormones to promote fast growth. Disease can wipe out entire stocks of farmed fish, and since these farms aren't 100 percent contained, Pozonsky said, wild fish can be endangered, too.
Beyond health concerns, environmental concerns stem from farmed fish, too, she said.
"I used to not care if people ate farmed fish," she said. "I thought it was like smoking a cigarette — up to you if you wanted to get sick or die -- smoke away! It wasn't until I studied the environmental devastation that fish farms create that I realized that it was insane what they were getting away with."
'Destroy a business and industry'
Pozonsky's work has gotten the attention of some politicians.
"Alaska's wild salmon is the best-selling salmon; we've managed it beautifully," Rep. Don Young said during an interview in the film. "It's come back dramatically since fish farms opened in Chile. Now we have a federal agency trying to promote offshore fish farms. NOAA was promoting this because ... they want to have these controlled farms, raise the protein quantity. They say they can do this, but they would destroy not only a business and industry, but something very valuable to the state of Alaska and Alaska fishermen."
Young has introduced H.R. 574, a bill that would prohibit the secretary of the interior and the secretary of commerce from authorizing commercial finfish aquaculture operations in offshore waters of the Exclusive Economic Zone (within 200 nautical miles of the coastline) until Congress passes legislation authorizing these activities.
Pozonsky said the idea for the film came from her friend, Tracie Donahue. "She convinced me it would be simple to do," Pozonsky said. "I had no idea what I got myself into. Three years later, after enduring a million setbacks, the film is done."
Pozonsky conducted most of the fundraising and invested $15,000 of her own money in the project. "A Fishy Tale" was released on Aug. 12 and is available for viewing on YouTube. Pozonsky has also submitted the film to various documentary film festivals and hopes to premiere it at the Anchorage International Film Festival in December. Organizers will announce their selections for that festival next month.
"(Currently) on YouTube, we have 708 people who have watched the film," she said. (That number has since risen to more than 1,200.) "That's 708 more people (than) I would have ever been able to share this story with without this film — so I'm already thrilled. However, I do hope everyone on the planet ends up watching it.
"I just want people to understand that this film wasn't funded by any radical environmental group or some heavily funded organization — just me, a private citizen, and the people who believed in me. This is just one person's attempt to throw light on a subject that hasn't been getting enough press time."
Jill Homer is a writer for the Bristol Bay Times.