On the eve of renewing aquaculture licences for farms in the Discovery Islands, it seems more of an absolute definite maybe, with a new plan…by 2025.
Young wild salmon swim around a salmon farm’s open-net pen in the Discovery Islands (Photo by Tavish Campbell)
IN THE POLITICAL WORLD, news releases are carefully crafted to offer leeway for government shifts. The evolution of statements on the future of BC’s salmon farms is a case-study in allowing wiggle room.
Last year, during the election campaign, the federal Liberal Party’s campaign literature promised to “work with the Province to develop a responsible plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal waters to closed containment systems by 2025.”
There was elation among those who had argued for years that fish farms were threatening shrinking stocks of wild salmon because of the transfer of sea lice and diseases from farmed fish, while the salmon farming industry pointed to economic and employment losses, technological problems, and the additional costs of closed containment.
Then came the mandate letter issued to Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to “work with the Province of British Columbia and Indigenous communities to create a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”
Hmm—note the disappearance of closed containment systems.
In November came an announcement from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that “the Government of Canada is committed to developing and delivering a real and concrete solution for transitioning open-net pens in coastal British Columbia waters.”
So, what does transitioning mean? And transitioning to what?
It is a slippery word, said Aaron Hill, Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director. “Does it mean you’ll have the farms out by 2025 or you will have a transition plan in place by 2025? We don’t know yet,” he said.
And does transitioning mean getting salmon farms out of the ocean?
Well, not necessarily right out of the ocean and not necessarily by 2025.
Jane Deeks, press secretary for Minister Jordan, said nothing is set in stone and multiple options for transitioning will be considered.
“I can’t say what is going to be done by 2025. We’re not going to rush the process. It needs to be done really well and responsibly in a way that takes into consideration all of the factors and jobs at stake,” she said.
BC Salmon Farmers Association says salmon farming supports 7,000 direct and indirect jobs in coastal communities and contributes about $1.5-billion annually to the provincial economy. A report commissioned by the Association says that, with clearer government policy, the industry could invest $1.4-billion in technology and infrastructure and create 10,000 new jobs by 2050.
Terry Beech, parliamentary secretary to Jordan (and MP for Burnaby-North-Seymour), made it clear at a news conference last month that options now under consideration are wider than moving farms on land and could include “area-based management” that would look at the timing of wild salmon runs and cumulative impacts, as well as looking at new technology.
The key must be sustainability, Beech said.
That could include hybrid systems such as a semi-closed containment system, now being tested by Cermaq Canada in Clayoquot Sound. The system is fitted with a polymer lining that wraps around the net pen and eliminates lateral contact between wild and farmed fish.
Salmon farmers are also looking at increasing the time salmon spend in land-based systems before being transferred to ocean pens.
The joint federal-provincial study released earlier this year, State of Salmon Aquaculture Technologies, which will help inform the transition plan, concludes that both land-based pens and hybrid systems are technologies ready for commercial development in BC.
Other systems such as floating closed containment systems need more evaluation, it says.
Beech acknowledged it is going to be tough to find a balance, but emphasized the need to not simply protect wild salmon, but to restore runs to historic levels. “We know that the long-term success of the economy is completely reliant on the long-term success and health of the environment,” he said.
At the same time, almost half the fish consumed by people today comes from aquaculture and aquaculture could be a clear driver of a future blue economy, Beech said. “I am passionate about making our aquaculture sector as sustainable and viable as possible,” he said.
Beech will be in charge of consulting with BC First Nations, the aquaculture industry and “environmental stakeholders,” with an interim report going to Jordan this spring,
The big test: will Discovery Island fish farm licences be renewed?
The Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s Aaron Hill said delaying action for yet another report is frustrating because wild salmon cannot wait: “They’re now just starting the consultation process, which is something they should have gotten going a year ago. The outcome is just going to be a report by next spring and next spring a record low number of small, young wild salmon will have to swim past the usual gauntlet of salmon farms and all the viruses and parasites that they spew out. Another report won’t be much help in getting the lice to stop chewing their faces off,” he said.
Fraser River sockeye returns hit a historic low of less than 300,000 fish this year.
Fraser River sockeye salmon may be going extinct, judging by 2020’s record low numbers
Biologist Alexandra Morton, a tireless advocate for wild salmon, has done extensive research on the effects of sea lice and pathogens spreading from salmon farms and believes Beech understands the impact of the farms and the importance of wild salmon to British Columbians and especially to First Nations.
“But this is a difficult situation, particularly in COVID where no job loss can be seen as being promoted by government,” said Morton, who has lobbied strenuously for closed containment. She points out that, in Norway, where most parent companies of BC operators are located, closed containment is now seen as the way to protect the industry. “The sea lice and the viruses are attacking the farm fish [in Norway] so badly, they have to get them out of the water,” she said.
Alexandra Morton sampling farm salmon (Photo courtesy Sea Shepherd)
Morton also noted that the aquaculture branch within Fisheries and Oceans has considerable influence and seems intent on barrelling ahead to promote and protect the fish farming industry. However, on the political side, there appears to be an understanding that Fraser River sockeye are actually going extinct and action is necessary.
The biggest test will come on December 18 when 18 federal aquaculture licences for farms in the Discovery Islands expire.
A DFO spokesperson said that, since September, the department has been focusing on consultations about the licence renewal with the seven First Nations with traditional territory in the Discovery Islands. “The outcomes from the consultations will inform the minister’s decision regarding the renewal of aquaculture licences,” she said.
Almost one-third of BC’s wild salmon migrate through the Discovery Islands and, in 2012, the Cohen Commission report on declining Fraser River salmon stocks called for the prohibition of Discovery Islands fish farms by September 2020 unless there was proof they posed “only minimum risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River salmon.”
However, in September, DFO concluded the farms presented little risk to Fraser River salmon stocks, even though studies had not looked at the effect of sea lice.
The lack of consideration of sea lice drew an outcry from conservation groups and while further consultation with First Nations in the Discovery Islands area was announced, the process came under fire for not including First Nations on the Fraser River who depend on wild salmon.
Fish farms should never have been put it such a critical area, said Morton, who is hoping the dramatic drops in wild salmon numbers will help persuade the federal government to cancel the Discovery Islands licences. “But I have learned not to have confidence in anything around salmon, people always seem to cave in,” she said. “Now, the salmon of British Columbia are hanging in the balance.”
In September, more than 100 First Nations, wilderness tourism operators and fishing groups demanded that the farms be removed and, in early December, the First Nations Leadership Council called on DFO to fully implement the precautionary principle and revoke the Discovery Island licences. (The precautionary principle recognizes that, in the absence of scientific certainty, conservation measures should be taken if there is a risk of serious harm to the environment or resources.)
Chief Dalton Silver, UBCIC fisheries representative, said only between one and four per cent of out-migrating juvenile salmon return to spawn and, with this year’s historic low returns, the returns four years hence are likely to be dire. “We cannot afford to wait any longer. We need to act now and protect and rebuild from what’s left of the remaining salmon stocks,” he said.
The other part of the salmon policy equation is the provincial government, which grants tenures and, in 2018, the BC government adopted a policy that, from 2022, the Province will grant tenures only to fish farm operators who have negotiated agreements with the First Nations in whose territory they want to operate.
Now, wild salmon advocates are watching to see whether Premier John Horgan’s newly-minted government will put protection of wild salmon at the top of the priority list. The appointment of Fin Donnelly as Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Aquaculture is viewed as an encouraging sign and Donnelly’s mandate letter includes “working with the federal government to develop new strategies to protect and revitalize BC’s wild salmon populations.”
That sounds good, said Hill, but, in the past, the NDP government has sometimes shown a regressive approach to wild salmon. “My main question is, will Premier Horgan let him do his job,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith