Report calls for freeze on fish farms off Vancouver Island

Salmon farm development in the Discovery Islands should be frozen and existing farms should be shut down if they pose any risk to wild stocks, says a massive report by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.

However, fish farms are one of many stressors and there is no smoking gun explaining the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon, he said.

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The Discovery Islands, in a narrow passage near Campbell River, are on the migration path for young salmon and Cohen highlighted concerns about the potential for introduction of exotic diseases and pathogens.

“Salmon farms in the Discovery Islands should immediately be capped at current levels,” Cohen said at a news conference after submitting his 75-recommendation report to the federal government.

More research is needed, but the fisheries minister should prohibit net pens in the Discovery Islands by September 2020 unless he is convinced they pose minimal risk of harm to Fraser River sockeye, Cohen said.

“In the meantime, if there is any sign that there is a more than minimal risk, they should be prohibited immediately,” he said.

New criteria for fish farm locations should be developed, said Cohen, who is also uncomfortable with hatchery fish.

“I accept the evidence that devastating disease could sweep through the wild populations, killing large numbers of wild fish without scientists being aware of it,” Cohen said.

Any fish farms that do not meet location criteria should be promptly removed or relocated, he said. “DFO should seek to approve only the best sites to avoid the negative impacts on wild stocks, rather than the best sites to provide farmed salmon,” he said.

DFO’s first priority should be the health of the wild stocks and aquaculture should be removed from DFO’s mandate, Cohen recommended.

“When DFO has simultaneous mandates to conserve wild stocks and promote the salmon farming industry, there are circumstances when it finds itself in conflict of interest because of divided loyalties,” he said.

The three-volume report concludes that numerous stressors are responsible for the decline of the sockeye run.

“The idea that a single event or stressor is responsible for the decline is appealing but improbable,” Cohen said.

 The inquiry was called after a collapse of the run in 2009 when only 1.4 million salmon returned to spawn when 10 million were expected.

The following year, 35 million fish returned — the biggest run in almost a century — but the general trend over two decades has been a steady decline.

Changes in salmon management are needed and DFO needs to conduct more research as there is a lack of data, the report says.

Contaminants, diseases, and warming water are all stressors that act cumulatively, Cohen said.

The most troubling is the impact of climate change, he said. “The warming water is the elephant in the room that we cannot ignore,” he said.

Cohen criticized the federal government for bringing in legislative changes before he issued his report.

“My concern is that the amendments to the Fisheries Act are focused more on fisheries than on habitat,” he said.

“You can’t have healthy wild fish if you don’t have healthy habitat.”

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