VANCOUVER - Critics of British Columbia's salmon-farming industry fear they could be "shouted down" and that their concerns will disappear into a "black hole" when a new committee meets to advise federal fisheries officials on aquaculture issues.
The advisory committee, which is being set up by Fisheries and Oceans Canada as part of its Integrated Management of Aquaculture Plan, is expected to hold its first meeting on Wednesday in Richmond, B.C.
The federal department began developing the plan after a February 2009 ruling by B.C. Supreme Court that Ottawa, as opposed to the province, is responsible for B.C.'s salmon farming industry.
Only three of the committee's approximately 20 seats will go to environmental groups, and that concerns Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
He said seven seats will be held by the industry, seven by First Nations, one or two by industry associations and two by regional districts.
"We think that number should be certainly bumped up, or else we're just going to be shouted down at the table," Orr said.
The advocate said that even though the industry has other avenues for consulting with the federal government, like the Finfish Aquaculture Industry Advisory Panel, Norwegian-owned companies will be well represented on the advisory committee.
He said there's not enough representation for regional districts or environmental groups.
He added he's also worried the committee will rely on science produced by the federal department and instead of what he considers "unbiased scientific advice."
"All we're saying is, make it fair," he said. "Have some (federal fisheries) scientists, have some academics, have some NGO scientists."
Diana Trager, director for DFO's aquaculture management division, said the department has developed draft terms of reference for the advisory process and the numbers set out for the committee are still only proposals.
She said the federal department is still open to change.
"For sure, the door is still open for environmental organizations to participate in the committee," she said, noting Fisheries and Oceans is also willing to review outside scientific advice.
Trager said the advisory committee is similar to other groups set up for the salmon, groundfish and herring fisheries.
Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said the industry is following the process set up by the department, and members will learn how it works by participating.
"If environmental groups are concerned about the makeup of the committee, I think they should come to the meeting and raise those concerns, so that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans can hear the concerns whatever they might be and work within the process that's already been I guess successfully managed for capture fisheries," she said.
But Orr said his organization has decided not to participate in the committee. He said he's been involved in similar processes in the past where "things get blocked."
"We don't want to get into an arena where that advice is going to go into a black hole or just give us ulcers," said Orr.