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Feds move to phase out open net salmon farms in B.C.

A decision on how the farms will be removed from the Pacific will be released next spring.
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Farmed salmon are inspected at Marine Harvest Canada Inc. processing plant in Port Hardy.

Canada’s minister in charge of fisheries and oceans has temporarily renewed dozens of fish farm licences in B.C., while strengthening reporting requirements to contain pathogens harmful to wild fish.

The long-awaited decision, released Wednesday afternoon, is part of move to close all open net pen salmon farms from B.C. waters. The phase out, however, will not be immediate.

Outside of the Discovery Islands, B.C.’s remaining 79 open net pen salmon farms will be given a two-year licence. During that time, the federal government will hold a consultation process with First Nations, industry, and all levels of government.

“Wild Pacific salmon are an iconic keystone species in British Columbia that are facing historic threats,” said Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, in a written statement.

“Our government is taking action to protect and return wild salmon to abundance and ensure Canada is a global leader in sustainable aquaculture.” 

A final decision on how the farms will be removed from the Pacific will be released in the spring of 2023.

Murray was not immediately available to comment. But the ministry’s press secretary, Claire Teichman, said the decision reaffirms the minister's commitment to minimizing contact between farmed salmon and wild fish. 

“That means that after tomorrow, if you put farm fish in a pen, you might not be able to grow them,” said Alexandra Morton, an independent scientist who has worked on Pacific salmon for 30 years. 

“It’s basically ‘grow your fish and get out.’”

Bob Chamberlain, chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance — a group representing 100 First Nations opposed to open pen salmon farms in B.C. — said the federal announcement is “another inch forward on a very long journey” to secure a future for wild salmon.

“All the First Nations have food security issues,” he said, pointing to one B.C. nation that spent $750,000 on Alaskan salmon due to dwindling local stocks. 

“If we get rid of the farms, we give a chance to the fish when they get out in the ocean.”

Discovery Islands farms to see final decision in 2023

In rendering her decision, Murray has signalled the end to an ocean-based salmon farming industry that has sparked fierce claims of scientific bias and regulatory mismanagement. 

The debate has played out across industry groups, First Nations, hundreds of scientific studies and multiple levels of government. 

Even Canada’s Federal Court has weighed in, deciding in April former federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan had breached B.C. salmon farmers' rights to procedural fairness when she ordered all salmon farms out of the Discovery Islands — a decision made in late 2020 as a measure to open up a bottleneck for migrating sockeye salmon.

On Wednesday, the ministry said it will consult First Nations and fish farm licence holders in the Discovery Islands on the future of the salmon aquaculture. Those consultations will culminate in a final decision on their future in January 2023.

While that process is underway, the ministry will not reissue licences for Atlantic salmon facilities in the area, said a spokesperson for the ministry in a statement. 

“This is a very clear signal that this government is going to protect wild salmon from the salmon farm industry,” said Morton. “Life on Earth has to be given the priority if we’re going to survive.”

Describing the announcement as “an incredibly brave” decision, Morton said there still remain a lot of unanswered questions, including how the government will regulate the transfer of fish from one pen to another — something Morton said has been known to introduce pathogens before. 

“What are you going to do when your sea lice levels go over the limit?” she said. 

‘Manufacturing of a scientific debate’

Last year, UBC viral ecologist Gideon Mordecai found a debilitating virus widely seen in Atlantic salmon has been transmitting through open-water pens into wild Pacific salmon populations. 

The study, which traced the piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) through genome sequencing, found it has been continuously transmitted from open-net salmon farms to wild juvenile chinook salmon for at least a decade — underscoring how aquaculture has become a pathway to introduce novel pathogens to wild species.

The genomic sequencing estimated the virus’s introduction into wild chinook salmon took place roughly 30 years ago, the same time Atlantic salmon eggs were brought to the West Coast.

That refutes claims the virus was introduced during earlier attempts at farming Atlantic salmon in B.C. dating back to the later 1800s. 

“The really important thing is that when we sampled wild fish closer to the farms, they were more likely to be infected,” Mordecai said shortly after his research was published. 

Less than a week later, the BC Salmon Farmer’s Association shot back with a nearly 1,800-word email to Glacier Media, calling Mordecai’s science into question and stating his research team “has simply succeeded in generating alarm and uncertainty.”

“What we’re seeing here is the manufacturing of a scientific debate,” Watershed Watch Salmon Society scientist Stan Proboszcz of the back and forth. “Science cannot show with 100 per cent certainty any one thing.”

Mordecai told Glacier Media it’s not clear what science the latest federal decision is relying on.

“We know that spillover is happening,” he said. “The evidence is there that spillover is happening and it appears to be having an impact.”

Industry says salmon farms ‘good for Canadians’

In a joint statement, the BC Salmon Farmers Association and the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance said the federal decision to extend the licences and consult on the Discovery Island farms was “good for Canadians.” 

“The government’s own science evaluation process, and multiple independent peer-reviewed science processes, have concluded that salmon farms have minimal effect on wild fish abundance and that farmed and wild salmon can and do co-exist in the Pacific Ocean,” they wrote. 

Timothy Kennedy, president and CEO of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, said Canadians need “climate-friendly, affordable salmon” at a time food costs are rising. 

“While we are encouraged that licences have been renewed, we genuinely needed a six-year licence term that reflected our production cycle,” he said. 

The two industry groups said farm-raised salmon is the most popular seafood in Canada, with 97 per cent of salmon produced in the country originating from farms.

Despite calls from some scientists and Indigenous leaders, none of the federal commitments made so far have pointed to a transition to land-based aquaculture, according to BC Salmon Farmers Association spokesperson Michelle Franze in the lead up to the decision.

Franze said that transition requires new technology, and to make that shift, the industry needs certainty it can continue to exist in B.C.

About 4,700 B.C. jobs are at risk, she said.

Executive director of Clayoquot Action Dan Lewis said eliminating interactions between wild and farmed salmon would require land-based technology, which is “already up and running.”

“Canada will be left behind if we experiment with technologies that don’t exist such as in-water closed containment which is an industry fantasy,” he said.

Policing the DFO police

As consultations continue over the course of the two-year licence extension, Morton says more oversight needs to be placed on the aquaculture management division of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

The salmon scientist has filed dozens of freedom of information requests over the years, which together, helped convince Canada's privacy commissioner to release a DFO report buried for the past decade. 

First published by the Globe and Mail, the 2012 report documents the first cases of PRV in farmed salmon — including symptoms of jaundice and anemia, both associated with the disease.  

“It’s the classic example of regulatory capture,” said Morton. “They are pretending these viruses aren’t causing disease in wild salmon.” 

“This has to stop.” 

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