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Fish farms get OK from a good source

Those in the know are likening John Fraser of the Pacific Salmon Forum to Richard Nixon, which will probably give Fraser a bit of a jolt. But they mean it in a good way. Nixon was a commie-hater, paranoid about Red China's intentions in the 1970s.

Those in the know are likening John Fraser of the Pacific Salmon Forum to Richard Nixon, which will probably give Fraser a bit of a jolt.

But they mean it in a good way. Nixon was a commie-hater, paranoid about Red China's intentions in the 1970s. He reflected Americans' general attitude exactly.

Then he went to Beijing and opened diplomatic relations. In the context of the times, he was the only person who could pull that off.

Which raises Fraser's Pacific Salmon Forum report. Released this week, it's the product of a four-year probe into the most vexing, dismaying wildlife issue in B.C.'s history -- the collapse of the salmon stocks.

If there was ever anyone who would come down on fish farms over the slightest prospect of damage to wild salmon, it would be Fraser. He's a former federal fisheries minister and environmental ambassador who has headed different reviews of salmon issues. He's been defending salmon for years.

So did he recognize fish farms as a threat and call for a shutdown?

He did no such thing.

The forum recognizes concerns about sea lice migrating from the pens and killing juvenile wild salmon. It calls for vigilance and strict limits. It recommends going slowly and carefully forward.

But it doesn't call for a shutdown of the industry.

That's the finding with the most immediate, direct impact in the report, which is a lot heavier on science and a lot lighter on politics than the aquaculture committee report that New Democrat MLAs put together in 2007. That study recommended moving the industry to closed containment, meaning the fish would be raised in solid tanks rather than net pens.

That would stop the industry in its tracks and require a multimillion-dollar retooling.

The forum is curious about closed containment, but notes problems: Waste management dilemmas, CO2 buildup, energy supply problems, siting issues and the fact it's not working on a commercial basis anywhere in the world. "The forum has no information at this time that shows closed containment is a viable option," the report notes.

One of the most compelling points in favour of salmon farming is the steady jobs created on the rural coast. But most would disappear if closed containment was mandated. "A complete transition to closed containment would require moving farmed salmon production from rural coastal communities to more urban areas where reliable hydro-electric power is available," the report noted.

The forum skeptically suggests giving the idea a look. But the report is emphatic on the issues behind the drive to closed containment.

Yes, fish farms probably increase sea lice on wild salmon. Yes, that can be harmful. But there's an equally strong affirmation that the risk can be managed and the industry can have a positive future.

The report might be the final word on the tiresome "my science versus your science" fish farm argument that has prevailed for years, which the forum said has created conflict, mistrust and confusion.

But on the bigger issue -- what's wrong with the salmon and what can we do about it -- there is lots more to talk about. Despite 30 years of salmon enhancement projects, a drastic curtailment of the commercial catch and gradual recognition of the need for habitat protection, the salmon counts are still down.

Too many reasons to list here, but the main one is that humans compete with salmon for the same environment. And humans usually win the competition.

A new department with sole power to decide anything to do with salmon habitat is one solution offered by the forum. But that's just a start. The bigger job is to restore public confidence -- now almost irretrievably lost -- that government in whatever form can do anything good for the salmon at all.

Just So You Know: Healthy Living and Sports Minister Mary Polak has made her breakout move. She signed a ministerial order this week repealing the 25-year-old Venereal Disease Act Treatment Regulation. It takes effect March 31. Consider yourself warned.