Fish farmers, critics see support in report

Salmon farmers in B.C. said Wednesday they are confident research will prove their fish are healthy and pose no risk to wild stocks.

The three-volume Cohen Commission report concludes many factors are contributing to the decline of Fraser River sockeye runs, but recommends more research into the role of salmon farms and suggests the industry could see a freeze, or closure, of some areas.

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"The recommendations around further research, especially around the Discovery Islands area, were not unanticipated. ... We would be willing to do the research in order to satisfy lingering concerns," said Clare Backman, Marine Harvest Canada spokesman.

"We believe the risk is low to zero. We have done a lot of work on fish health," he said.

Although there are numerous farm sites in the Discovery Islands, run by three companies, only nine farms are currently operating, Backman said.

Stewart Hawthorn, Grieg Seafood B.C. managing director and B.C. Salmon Farmers Association board member, said Justice Bruce Cohen wants to apply precautionary principles and salmon farmers are happy to go along.

"We know that the fish on our farms are healthy and Justice Cohen has acknowledged the impressive data we made available," Hawthorn said. "We are committed to protecting the marine environment and our iconic wild salmon, and we support the call for further research in this small farming area."

However, biologist and activist Alexandra Morton, who has researched diseases on fish farms and fought against expansion of the industry, was celebrating the report.

"He is saying they should prohibit salmon farms on Fraser River sockeye migration routes.

That's huge," she said.

"What I gather from this is that there's not enough research from DFO to make any conclusive remarks, but he says mitigation should not be delayed in the absence of certainty."

Information on farm diseases, released at the Cohen hearings, is pointing to viruses percolating on the farms, Morton said.

Every British Columbian should now lean on their MPs to follow through on the recommendations, Morton said.

There should also be pressure on MLAs as many licences are coming up for provincial renewal and the province recently approved a new farm in Clay-oquot Sound, she said.

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said Cohen's report is under review by provincial staff.

"I am looking forward to understanding all the different stressors he has identified and to further dig into what he has identified with sockeye migration routes, and in particular the Discovery Islands and how the precautionary principle for the Discovery Islands should be rolled out," Letnick said.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs is urging government to immediately act on wild salmon protection.

"DFO is in a conflict of interest and needs to immediately freeze fish farming and put the wild salmon policy into effect," said UBCIC vice-president Chief Bob Chamberlin.

"A historic, foundational piece of the B.C. economy has been cast adrift amid government indifference, disease transfer and other impacts from open net cage fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago," said Chamberlin, who is also Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw Tribal Council chairman.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, UBCIC president, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper has eviscerated protective legislation and must not now ignore the call by Cohen to ensure sustainability.

Kelly Roebuck of Living Oceans, part of a coalition that made presentations to the Cohen Commission, is pleased a number of their recommendations on habitat damage and aquaculture were apparently accepted.

But Watershed Watch Salmon Society fisheries biologist Stan Proboszcz is disappointed the report stops short of recommending transition to closed containment and that there is not a general order to get all farms off migration routes.

"Since the hearings ended, new pathogen results suggest elevated risks to wild salmon and these pathogens may be linked to open net-pen farms," he said.

"This risk would be mitigated by immediately removing the farms from the migration routes of wild salmon."

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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