Cautious approval for transition from open-net salmon farming

Written By Tom Davis

When salmon farming first appeared on the B.C. coast, it drew limited attention – most British Columbians knew little about it. Of those who did, some thought pen-reared salmon could replace a declining wild salmon commercial fishery, protect jobs and even aid salmon recovery. 

In reality, there was little science 30-plus years ago about how wild and farmed salmon would interact in the marine environment.

The years since have seen protests, counter-protests, lawsuits, and public acrimony between advocates and opponents of open-pen salmon farming, with both sides pointing to science, economics and rights and title to fortify their positions.

The controversy has divided Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

“The topic of salmon farms is contentious, and the battle for its future is being fought between the B.C. and federal governments, municipalities, the sector, First Nations, activists, and outsiders who do not hold rights or title in the areas impacted by these decisions,” Dallas Smith, a Tlowitsis Nation member and spokesperson for the coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, wrote in letter to the Campbell River Mirror this spring.

The coalition represents 17 coastal nations with interests in aquaculture operations, which by its own estimates, total $83.3 million in economic activity per year.

Other First Nations factions have long called for an end to open-net salmon farming, citing the negative impacts of sea lice from aquaculture populations on wild salmon species. “We know for certain that moving salmon farming onto land in closed pens will have a positive impact on salmon populations,” First Nations Summit political executive Robert Phillips said in 2020.

Groups opposed to open-pen salmon farming cite studies showing the detrimental effects of aquaculture operations – including excessive sea lice – on migrating wild species. Conversely, some farming advocates say technological improvements have reduced sea lice and antibiotic to manageable levels, and cit government findings which concluded farmed salmon posed a “minimal” risk of transferring sea lice to wild Fraser River salmon populations.

These opposing positions are central to the debate over fish farm re-location.  

“Phased-in” transition

All this and more led to last month’s announcement by federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray on the next steps to transition B.C.’s salmon aquaculture industry away from open-pen nets to eliminate interactions between farmed and wild species.

Wild pacific salmon in British Columbia are facing historic threats and the government is taking actions to protect and return wild salmon to abundance, Joyce Murray explained in a ministry release.

“We will transition the salmon aquaculture industry … while reducing or eliminating interactions with wild Pacific Salmon.”

Joyce Murray

“Working together with First Nations, the province, industry and British Columbians we will transition the salmon aquaculture industry to one which leads with new technology, while reducing or eliminating interactions with wild Pacific Salmon.”

Murray said the transition away from current open-net pen salmon farming must be “progressively phased in.” The ministry will share the draft framework for transitioning with the public in the coming weeks. 

Ongoing consultations

Meanwhile, ongoing consultations with stakeholders and British Columbians will contribute to the final transition plan. Consultations will run until early 2023.

As part of the transition process, licenses for marine finfish aquaculture facilities outside of the Discovery Islands will drop from a six-year renewal period to two years and will require standardized reporting, sea lice management plans and wild salmon monitoring. The industry will continue to operate during this phased in transition away from open-net pen salmon farming.

An industrial salmon fish farm in Tofino, B.C. is being prepped for new fish. [Photo Shutterstock]

On the other hand, license renewal for Atlantic salmon finfish aquaculture in the Discovery Islands will not be renewed, pending discussion with regional stakeholders, including First Nations and current license holders. A final decision following this consultation is expected in January 2023.

The latter consultation is a response to an Apr. 22 federal court ruling that over-turned a decision by Bernadette Jordan, Murray’s predecessor, to shut down fish farms in the Discovery Islands. The farming industry challenged Jordan’s decision, and the court ruled the minister had failed to properly consult industry.

Wild-West Start

Net pen fish farming began in B.C. in the 1970’s in what is described as an experimental phase. Also characterized as a wild-west show, there were numerous salmon escapes, lax oversight and business failures. 

Fish farming grew rapidly, and the BC Salmon Farmers Association formed in 1984. A decade later, the industry growth was so fast, governments imposed a six year moratorium on new farms to understand its impacts on the environment. 

B.C. salmon farming is now controlled by a small number of international corporations.

Bill Pirie of Walcan Seafood remembers those early speculative and experimental days. His company has provided contract services to growers for about 35 years.  

“Many of the controversial issues have been dealt with.” 

Bill Pirie

“The industry has provided quality jobs and a sense of vitality for many rural communities,” Pirie said, adding, that salmon farming has become “a very sophisticated and technical business, where many of the controversial issues have been dealt with.” 

Pirie said he was pleased the Minister is providing a significant period for consultation. “There is room for a wild salmon fishery and a healthy farming industry,” he said. 

Not everyone agrees.

Early opposition has grown

Lynn Hunter from Victoria was the NDP MP for Saanich and the Gulf Islands from 1988 to 1993, and a long-time opponent of fish farms.  

In an interview with Northern Beat, Hunter cast back to the original concerns about salmon farming, which focused on “pollution and farm waste” impacts on the sea floor under and adjacent to the penned sites. 

Hunter noted, marine biologist Alexandra Morton – now Canada’s most recognized anti-farm advocate – was initially concerned about farm equipment noise and its effect on southern resident killer whales, not about disease transfer. 

Bill Cranmer from the ‘Namgis First Nation was among the first to raise the alarm linking sea lice loads on salmon smolts to farm operations in the Broughton Archipelago,” Hunter said. 

Wild B.C. salmon [Photo Watershed Watch]

Once the lice issue entered public debate, and farmed salmon were implicated in transferring lice to wild salmon, opposition to salmon farming increased rapidly. 

Hunter was highly critical of the department of fisheries and oceans, which she claims “was in a conflict of interest of massive proportions” as the manager and advocate for the farming industry.

Economic impacts

At the time, commercial salmon fisheries were in steep decline and politicians in coastal communities were desperate to find new business opportunities, Hunter said, adding that community leaders, like Port Hardy mayor Russ Hallberg, were strong early supporters of the fish farming industry.

Port Hardy remains at the epicenter of this lengthy fish farm debate. 

When previous fisheries minister Jordan announced the decision to close 19 salmon farms in the Discovery Islands by 2022, the town’s mayor Dennis Dugas publicly criticized her lack of consultation with affected communities calling the decision “a betrayal” of the government’s promise to make “science-based” decisions. 

The current provincial government strikes a balance between protection of the environment and minimizing economic impacts on coastal communities.

“We are committed to working with the federal government on an open-net salmon farm transition process that balances the protection of wild salmon, the environment and the economy, and meets our government’s commitment to reconciliation with First Nations,” B.C. fisheries minister Josie Osborne and aquaculture parliamentary secretary Fin Donnelly said in a joint statement.

The two also emphasized the need for federal support of “First Nations and communities that rely on salmon aquaculture for their livelihoods, as well as for exploring new technology and economic opportunities for the industry in these regions.”

“Salmon farming has lifted entire coastal Indigenous communities out of poverty.”

Dallas Smith

Salmon farming has lifted entire coastal Indigenous communities out of poverty, Smith of the First Nations stewardship coalition said, adding that farming has created meaningful, year-round jobs, and opportunities for First Nations-owned businesses which have increased the health and resilience of communities.

Even jubilant open-net pen farming opponents acknowledge the need to mitigate negative economic reverberations on aquaculture-reliant communities.

 “We have been waiting for this for a long time,” Wild First chairman Tony Allard said in a press release following Minister Murray’s announcement last month. “More importantly wild salmon have been waiting for this.” 

The Wild First group – a B.C. wild salmon advocacy group – has “pressed for a comprehensive approach that includes inducements for sustainable closed-containment aquaculture activities to be sited in salmon farming communities” and “to ensure no worker or community is left behind,” Allard said. 

Cautious support

Wild salmon advocates, Watershed Watch, Clayoquot Action and independent biologist Alexandra Morton were also supportive of Murray’s decision, while cautioning it “does little to protect wild salmon outside the Discovery Islands,” according to a joint press release from all three. The group also warned that enforcement of conditions on the two-year licenses will be key. 

Stan Proboszcz, science advisor for Watershed Watch, added “Not renewing factory fish farm licenses in the Discovery Islands is the only way to protect wild salmon from parasites and disease.”

Clayoquot Action’s Dan Lewis said land-based technology is the means to eliminate wild and farmed salmon interactions, which he described as “the next generation of salmon farming.” 

The Pacific Salmon Foundation is well known to B.C residents connected to salmon, salmon fishing and salmon restoration. However, the foundation has expanded beyond its salmon restoration funding role to include salmon research, data gathering and analysis.  

“The decision to not renew licenses for Atlantic salmon facilities in the Discovery Islands, pending further consultations, is a win for some of our most-at-risk wild salmon populations, including imperiled Fraser River sockeye,” a release from the foundation stated.  

Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia executive director, Owen Bird was supportive as well. “The precautionary principle should be applied to open-net pen fish farms and a transition to closed containment should take place,” Bird said, noting the “considerable evidence that there is virus and pathogen spread from farmed to wild salmon.”

The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance and the BC Salmon Farmer’s Association called the decision to renew salmon farm licenses and establish a process for aquaculture operators in the Discovery Islands “good for all Canadians,” and a “validation of the importance of the salmon farming industry to rural coastal communities.” 

But both organizations maintain government and independent research showsfarmed and wild salmon can coexist in the Pacific Ocean” and urged “greater certainty is needed.”

While reactions to the phased-in transition plans have been generally positive so far, the open question is whether this process will ultimately produce a better outcome for wild salmon, fishing interests and coastal communities in the longer term. This might be a big ask given the divisiveness generated by the sector and the decades-long cynicism built up against Fisheries and Oceans – what some critics characterize as the least functional department in the federal government.