Four-year reprieve for fish farms draws praise and raises concerns

A B.C. government decision to grant fish farms a four-year reprieve drew a mixed response Wednesday from the industry, First Nations and environmental organizations.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said the province will allow the farms to carry on until June 2022 and then grant tenures only to those that have agreements with First Nations to operate in their territory.

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The farms will also have to satisfy the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans that their operations have no adverse effects on wild salmon, she said.

“This new policy marks a transition to sustainable aquaculture. It protects wild salmon, it embraces reconciliation with First Nations and it provides good jobs.”

Popham said the government set a 2022 deadline because that’s when most of the fish farm licences issued by the federal government expire.

The federal government regulates the farms and fisheries, while the province issues land tenures authorizing the use of the seabed and foreshore.

Farms with tenures that expire before 2020 — including 20 in the Broughton Archipelago this year — will be renewed on a month-to-month basis. There are 120 finfish aquaculture tenures in B.C.

Environmental groups, worried that open-net pen fish farms spread viruses and lice to wild stocks, voiced concern about the government’s timeline.

“Unfortunately, that leaves wild salmon — all of the wild salmon runs of this coast — exposed to more disease and lice and predation for another four years,” said Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans Society.

B.C. Green Party critic Adam Olsen added that he had no confidence in the DFO, given its track record, to assess the impact of farms on wild stocks.

“They have got two jobs — and it’s a conflict of interest, really — to protect wild salmon and to promote aquaculture.”

Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, said the Greens would have given fish farms time to mature and harvest their existing stocks then cancelled all tenures and moved the industry on land.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, meanwhile, applauded the announcement, calling it “an initial step on the pathway to preserve and safeguard the future of wild salmon, consistent with the rights, cultural practices and economic livelihoods of many First Nations throughout B.C.”

The UBCIC said the announcement shows the province’s attention to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes the authority of First Nations’ decision-making processes.

UBCIC vice-president Chief Bob Chamberlin said open-net pen, finfish aquaculture poses “a very real threat” to wild salmon, and that a move to on-land closed containment facilities is needed to ensure that wild salmon survive.

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which oversees 14 First Nations that extend along the Island’s west coast, takes no formal position on fish farms, said council president Judith Sayers.

“But we have a definite policy that every First Nation and their chiefs make the decisions on their territory, and we don’t interfere with that,” she said.

“I certainly support informed consent of all the nations to be able to determine their own future — fish farms and whatever goes on in their territory.”

It is important for fish-farm companies to seek consent from First Nations, she said, and to work out a mutually agreeable timeline to leave if a particular nation is against the farms.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, which represents 56 businesses and organizations, was still reviewing what it called a “significant policy shift” on the management of Crown land tenures.

Association spokesman Shawn Hall said salmon farmers in B.C. have a long history of respectful involvement with First Nations.

“We would welcome a constructive dialogue with the Nations that have any concerns so we can find solutions that address those issues while supporting their people who work in the industry,” he said.

Hall said salmon farming is a $1.5-billion industry that generates 6,600 jobs in rural and coastal communities, and accounts for about 70 per cent of salmon harvested in the province.

He said that 20 per cent of people who work directly for the industry in B.C. are from First Nations. “Farming responsibly is the key, with the health of wild fish, environmental stewardship and consultation with First Nations and communities at the forefront.”

Hall said the industry has evolved in terms of things like choosing the best sites for salmon farms, and dealing with such issues as sea lice.

“We’ve invested millions of dollars addressing issues that have come up since we first put nets in the water over 30 years ago.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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