As decision day on the transition of open-net salmon farms looms, both sides say science is on their side.
CONSERVATION ORGANIZATIONS, POLITICIANS, THE SALMON FARMING INDUSTRY AND FIRST NATIONS are all focused on Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray as decision day for BC fish farms approaches. While there is scant information on how Murray will proceed in crafting a transition away from open-net pen salmon farms, one thing is certain—it will be impossible to satisfy all interest groups.
On June 30 most federal salmon farming licences on the BC coast will expire and Murray must decide how to juggle the political, environmental and economic realities that surround the controversial industry. Reconciliation with First Nations, protection of iconic wild salmon runs and economic interests of coastal communities are all part of the complicated equation.
Murray’s mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifies that her task is to “work with the province of British Columbia and Indigenous communities on a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal BC waters by 2025 and work to introduce Canada’s first ever Aquaculture Act.”
Canada's Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray (Photo by Eric Thomas)
Murray has consistently released statements saying she is “committed to transitioning away from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal BC,” but, there are no specifics on what that transition will look like and it is unclear what will happen between the end of June, when at least 79 licences expire, and the 2025 deadline set by Trudeau.
With growing acrimony between salmon farmers—who claim the future of 4,700 workers and $1.2-billion in economic activity is at stake—and conservation groups—who fear pathogens and sea lice from fish farms are pushing shrinking wild salmon runs into extinction—both sides are waging campaigns for public support.
Watershed Watch Salmon Society is appealing to supporters to make a last ditch appeal to Murray to get open net pen fish farms out of BC waters.
“Despite what industry-backed scientists would have you believe, a massive body of peer-reviewed scientific research shows salmon farms harm wild salmon. Juvenile wild salmon need to be free to leave their home rivers and swim along our coast without battling the deadly viruses, parasites and bacteria spewing from factory fish farms,” wrote Aaron Hill, Watershed Watch executive director.
“Previously, factory fish farm licences have been renewed every six years or so, but, if Minister Murray is serious about keeping her promise and meeting her 2025 commitment, she needs to start shutting farms down this year,” Hill said.
Brian Kingzett, BC Salmon Farmers Association science and policy director, would not speculate on what decision Murray might make or comment on whether companies are preparing for closures. However, an Association release says that “if the 79 licences up for renewal are not reissued, Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities will face even greater devastation.”
It is a point that has the attention of Premier John Horgan and, in a letter to Trudeau, written earlier this year, he said that, if the licences are not renewed, hundreds of jobs will be lost and the economies of dozens of coastal communities will be undermined.
A spokesman for the provincial Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said Minister Josie Osborne has “strongly advocated, in a letter to federal counterparts across economic, social and fisheries portfolios on the need for a comprehensive federal support plan for First Nations and communities that rely on the economic opportunities provided by the salmon farm industry as well as for exploring new technology that may provide economic opportunities for the industry in BC”
University of BC professor Tony Farrell, Canada Research Chair in fish physiology, culture and conservation, said Murray will make a political, not a scientific, decision and it is essential she is given accurate scientific advice on the impacts of salmon farming.
“I think that what [Murray] should do is listen very carefully. There are many scientific facts that exist about the impacts of aquaculture on wild salmon and, when I look at those scientific facts, not the opinions, I fail to see major and sustained impacts that could explain the collapse of wild salmon in BC,” he said.
“I think appropriate consultation has not gone on,” said Farrell, pointing out that First Nations in areas such as Klemtu have run commercial salmon farms since the 1980s.
IntraFish Media, which analyzes global aquaculture industries, said in a report this month that “the future of the world’s largest salmon farmer’s [sic] operations in Canada look dim as a decision nears on whether a critical farming region in British Columbia will be closed.”
Intrafish reported that Mowi Canada West, which lost 30 percent of its west coast harvest because of the federal decision to phase out farms in the Discovery Islands, also holds 44 percent of the licences up for renewal, while Grieg Seafood BC holds 22 of the expiring licences.
Cermaq Canada, whose Discovery Islands farms accounted for 20 percent of the company’s overall production, has 14 licenses up for renewal in Clayoquot Sound where conservation organizations, backed by Department of Fisheries and Oceans correspondence, have raised the alarm about sea lice counts that far surpass the federal threshold of three lice per fish while young wild salmon are migrating.
The Discovery Islands, near Campbell River, a bottleneck where juvenile salmon swam past farms, has been a flashpoint in the fish farm fight. Former fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan ordered the farms closed in 2020—meaning the pens are now empty—but, in April, Federal Court Judge Elizabeth Heneghan ruled that the Jordan decision breached salmon farmers’ right to procedural fairness. It is not known whether Murray will re-issue the order based on conservation needs.
The depth of disagreement between the polarized camps, with both claiming science is on their side, is illustrated by opposing views of what happened in the Discovery Islands after the farm fish left.
Young wild salmon swim around a salmon farm’s open-net pen in the Discovery Islands (Photo by Tavish Campbell)
NGOs point to a recent survey showing wild salmon are virtually lice-free when swimming near the Discovery Islands, but Kingzett of BC Salmon Farmers Association said there has been no change.
“We showed that sea lice levels in the Discovery Islands during our five years of monitoring, by independent, actual biologists, with Indigenous guardian oversight, has always been low and remains unchanged,” Kingzett said last month.
Yet, a scientific study, based on 10 years of research and released last month by the Pacific Salmon Foundation, found that when young Fraser River sockeye swam past Discovery islands fish farms, their exposure rate to the pathogen Tenacibculum maritimum was 12 times higher than elsewhere.
A second study, released by the University of BC, found that Tenacibculum maritimum and piscine orthoreovirus are the two pathogens that most negatively affect the survival of wild salmon.
Michael Meneer, Pacific Salmon Foundation president, is appealing to Murray to hold firm to the commitment to transition away from open net pen salmon farming.
“Any renewal of licenses that prolong this risk to wild salmon would be deeply concerning. Salmon face many challenges and open-net salmon farms pose a serious risk to wild salmon—a risk we can control,” Meneer said in a news release.
Stan Proboszcz, senior scientist at Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said one of the concerns is pressure on Murray from within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and, specifically, from the Aquaculture Management Division, where there is entrenched support for the industry.
“We believe [the minister is] potentially trying to transition salmon farms out of BC, but certain people in DFO may be trying to thwart those efforts,” he said.
There are also questions about the rules that will govern farms during the transition and about the time frame if licences are renewed to allow time for consultations with First Nations and other stakeholders, Proboszcz said.
Government must consult with First Nations and a likely scenario is that Murray will announce a schedule for consultation and engagement on how to get the farms out of BC, Proboszcz said.
“But, if the licences are renewed for three years, that bumps up against another election and, potentially, a new government that won’t keep this promise,” he said.
Indigenous communities are key and salmon farming companies are actively courting First Nations in efforts to reach partnership agreements.
Several farm expansion proposals have already been submitted, including three in the Broughton Archipelago where, in an agreement with First Nations, the BC government plans to phase out farms by 2023.
The majority of Indigenous communities—a total of 102 First Nations—are opposed to salmon farms in their territories, according to Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance.
However, a smaller group, represented by the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, wants Nations to be able to decide for themselves whether to have salmon farms in their territories.
BC Salmon Farmers Association website says 20 First Nations have partnership agreements for farming salmon in their territory, 78 percent of all salmon farmed in the province in under a “beneficial partnership” with a First Nation and “about 20 percent of salmon farming jobs are held by people of First Nations heritage.”
The Coalition wants licences reissued for a minimum of five years and says it is a matter of Indigenous rights and title.
However, Chamberlin said that, as salmon are migratory, it infringes on the rights of other First Nations when wild salmon, which Nations rely on for food and ceremonies, have to swim past farms with lice and pathogens.
Closed containment and other new technologies that prevent farm fish from coming into contact with their wild counterparts are seen as a path to the future and Grieg Seafood has conducted trials in BC with a semi-closed containment system. But concerns about viability and cost remain even though at least three major on-land salmon farms are planned in the US.
With the decision looming, the bottom line must be to find a way to minimize the contact that farm fish have with wild salmon.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world.
UPDATE: The federal Minister made her announcement shortly after we published the above article. She has promised more details over the coming weeks, and more consultations with First Nations, towards the final transition plan, expected in spring, 2023. Meanwhile, she has renewed licences outside of the Discovery Islands for two years. Consultations with First Nations and industry for the salmon farms in the Discovery Islands will inform a final decision on them, expected in January 2023. While this process is underway, DFO will not reissue licences for Atlantic Salmon facilities in the area.