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Fisheries minister tight-lipped on timeline for B.C. salmon farm transition

Conservation group worries ‘slippery language’ in discussion document could signal the federal government is walking back commitments to transition salmon farms out of the water in coming years

The federal government is using “slippery language” in its proposal for a fish farm transition that casts doubt on whether it is going to protect wild salmon, says a B.C. conservation group.

In December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray in her mandate letter to develop a plan to transition away from open net pen farms by 2025, reiterating a 2019 campaign commitment. On July 29, the federal department launched a new consultation outlining the government’s options

After reading through the proposal, Stan Proboszcz, a senior scientist with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, worries the government may be “losing its resolve.”

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Murray told The Narwhal in an interview that the government wants to keep farmed salmon away from wild salmon, but she isn’t setting any deadline.

“I’m not pre-judging that,” she said when asked when the last open net pen farm would be removed from B.C. waters.

“The key here is that we are developing a transition away from open net pen salmon aquaculture and my goal is to greatly minimize or eliminate interaction between farmed and wild salmon,” she said.

Many wild salmon populations in B.C. have experienced dramatic declines in the face of numerous threats, from habitat destruction to climate change. Salmon farms, which can be breeding grounds for pests and viruses, are seen as an added burden, particularly to juvenile salmon migrating from their home streams out into the open ocean. 

The commitment to transition away from open net salmon farms was made in response to growing concerns about the threat they posed to wild salmon.

“We need to take action on the things we can manage and the risk from aquaculture is one of them,” Murray said.

The government is also aiming, however, for “long-term growth of sustainable aquaculture in B.C.”

Open net pen salmon farm BC Tavish Campbell
Salmon farming, which can pose a particular risk to juvenile salmon migrating out into the ocean, is big business in B.C. In 2020, the province exported $566 million worth of farmed Atlantic salmon. Photo: Tavish Campbell

Murray’s comments about minimizing interaction between farmed and wild salmon, rather than eliminating it entirely, are similar to the language the government used when it outlined its options. But that’s another red flag for both Proboszcz and Bob (Galagame’) Chamberlin, the chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance.

Chamberlin said it suggests salmon farms could remain in coastal waters.

The government has said the transition could involve incentivizing the adoption of technology to protect wild salmon. 

Semi-closed containment systems are mentioned as one option — a shift from the Liberals’ 2019 campaign pledge to transition the industry to fully contained systems. If the Liberals had kept their promise, this would have forced industry to adopt practices that completely separate any farmed salmon from wild salmon.

One type of semi-closed system that was developed in B.C. and has been used by Grieg Seafood has barriers that can be put in place during periods of wild salmon migrations and removed at other times to allow the ocean water to flow through the farm. While a fully contained system would be permanently cut off from fresh waters, the bottom netting of this semi-closed system remains open to the ocean at all times.

On its website, Grieg Seafood said the semi-closed system helped to reduce sea lice levels on the farms. 

The company plans to install semi-closed systems at all three of its Esperanza Inlet farms early next year, a spokesperson said in an email to The Narwhal.

Cermaq, meanwhile, stopped a trial of another type of semi-closed containment early after a technical issue led to the deaths of fish in the farm.

“[Semi-closed containment system] is immature technology under development, therefore it is not surprising when you are trialing new technology you will run into challenges,” Peter McKenzie, Cermaq’s director of fish health, said in a press release about the trial cancellation last year.

Cermaq did not respond to a request for comment by publication.

But Chamberlin said “it’s too late” to be trying out new technologies with wild salmon already in “dire straits.”

“It’s time to start making substantive changes to protect what little wild salmon we have left,” he said.

wild juvenile salmon in B.C.
Sea lice, which occur naturally in the ocean, can be amplified by salmon farms and pose a risk to juvenile wild salmon swimming past. Grieg Seafood says its semi-closed containment system reduced sea lice levels on its farms during trials. Photo: Tavish Campbell

The federal Fisheries department also proposes a number of new regulatory tools and metrics to manage the salmon farming industry going forward, including enhanced monitoring of wild salmon and co-ordinated approaches to disease and sea lice treatment.

“They can make regulations all that they want, but if there are no consequences, as is the case today, other than a strongly worded letter on file, they’re useless,” Chamberlin said.

The government notes salmon farming is important for both food security and economic reasons.

In 2020, $566 million worth of farmed Atlantic salmon was exported from B.C., making it the province’s top agriculture, seafood, food and beverage export that year. 

Wild salmon, meanwhile, are vital to First Nations food security across B.C. as well as to wildlife, like bears, eagles and wolves, and to the health of the trees and plants that grow along the riverbanks.

Importantly, all First Nations that rely on wild salmon, both in coastal and inland areas, are being consulted on the transition plan for salmon farms.

“All the interior nations are finally going to be able to express their point of view on fish farms and impacts and infringement to their Aboriginal rights,” Chamberlin said.

While some First Nations support salmon farming in their territories, Chamberlin said more than 100 First Nations across the province want to see the farms transition out of the water.

The public will soon be able to provide input on the salmon farm transition plan through an online survey until September.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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