Justin Trudeau

Trudeau government backpedals on election promise to phase out B.C. open net salmon farms by 2025

Conservation groups say wild stocks can’t wait any longer for ocean-based salmon farms to be removed, while a new federal study finds land-based fish farming technologies are ready for commercial development in B.C.

Following an outcry from the salmon farming industry, the Trudeau government has backed away from its election campaign commitment to phase out open net pen salmon farming on B.C.’s West Coast by 2025. 

Jane Deeks, press secretary for Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, confirmed in an email to The Narwhal that a transition plan will be developed by 2025 but open net pen salmon farms will not be removed by that date. 

“Our government is working on a responsible plan to transition the industry away from open net-pen salmon farming in B.C., and we have committed to developing this plan by 2025,” Deeks said in an email in response to questions from The Narwhal.

“Our government will not impose drastic, systemic change on Canadian communities,” Deeks said. “We believe that the best policies come from meaningful engagement with those who will be directly affected.” 

Stan Proboszcz, science and campaign advisor for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, called the recasting of the Liberal government’s election promise “borderline deceitful.”

“I think it’s quite slippery to now hear from the minister, after the election, after they’re in power, that there’s a new re-interpretation of the promise … that now they’re just going to come up with a plan to remove farms by 2025,” Proboszcz said in an interview.

Wording became ‘murky’ after election

The Liberal Party’s campaign platform said a re-elected Trudeau government “will work with the province to develop a responsible plan to transition from open net pen salmon farming in coastal waters to closed containment systems by 2025.”

But when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued mandate letters for his ministers in mid-December, Jordan was instructed to work with the B.C. government and Indigenous communities “to create a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.” 

All mention of closed containment systems had vanished, leaving the phrasing open to interpretation.

“Going into the election we were all pretty clear what the promise was,” Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans Society, an ocean conservation organization based in Sointula, B.C., said in an interview.

“There’s no question that the language became somehow murky and ambiguous when the mandate letter was issued.” 

The salmon farming industry was quick to condemn the Liberal’s promise to phase out open net pen farms by 2025, saying it would cause “undue stress and pressure” for almost 7,000 families who depend on salmon farming for their livelihoods. 

Alf-Helge Aarskog, chief executive of Mowi ASA, the world’s largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon, said he was confident Trudeau’s re-election would not affect the company’s operations in B.C., where it employs 600 people and farms about 45,000 tonnes of salmon a year.

“We work with any government there is and I’m sure when [Trudeau] puts his mind to it, this will not be an issue,” Aarskog told the industry publication Intrafish

Mowi, formerly Marine Harvest ASA, garnered media attention days before Christmas when up to 20,000 of its Atlantic salmon, a species not native to Pacific waters, escaped from a pen in Queen Charlotte Strait following an electrical fire.

Federal NDP fisheries critic Gord Johns (Courtenay-Alberni) said the Liberal government has done nothing to respond to the escape “except that they’re going to come up with a plan.” 

“When people raised concerns they answered that these fish are docile, that they wouldn’t make it up our streams and that the sea lions would eat them,” Johns said in an interview. 

“That’s the kind of response that people just don’t find acceptable for foreign exotic species being released into our natural environment, in areas where there’s migrating Pacific salmon.” 

The escape heightened fears that farmed salmon — which can be infected with sea lice and diseases such as piscine orthoreovirus, a highly contagious virus linked to a host of fish health problems — will affect rapidly declining wild salmon stocks.

Highly contagious virus found in majority of Clayoquot Sound salmon farms: report

Following the escape of hundreds of thousands of salmon from an open net pen farm in 2017, the state of Washington committed to phasing out all open net pen Atlantic salmon farming operations by 2025. 

The state also stopped hundreds of thousands of salmon infected with an Icelandic strain of piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) from being transferred to the farms, saying wild salmon could be at risk. 

Both Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association maintain the piscine orthoreovirus is no cause for concern. 

In B.C., infected fish are still transferred to ocean pens even though a June 2018 DFO study suggested “migratory chinook salmon may be at more than a minimal risk of disease from exposure to the high levels of PRV occurring on salmon farms.” 

Johns said the Trudeau government’s revised commitment to develop a plan by 2025 is “simply not good enough.” 

“It’s not acceptable. Our wild salmon simply cannot wait. We have had a catastrophic year.”

Last year’s Fraser River salmon returns were the lowest in recorded history, Johns noted. Only 300 chinook returned to Clayoquot Sound last year and Skeena River salmon were “decimated,” he said. In the Alouette River in Maple Ridge, 60,000 chum were expected last year but only 500 returned. 

“We have a government that is not dealing with it as the crisis that it is,” Johns said. 

“We have a salmon emergency taking place in British Columbia, and this will be the government that will watch our salmon go the way of our Atlantic cod. It will be under their watch, because inaction is something that will lead to it.”

New study says land-based farming is viable now

Deeks said a federal study on salmon aquaculture technologies, released on Feb. 4, six months after it was promised, is a crucial step for developing an “evidence-based and responsible” transition plan.

The 64-page study, State of Salmon Aquaculture Technologies, evaluates four approaches for farming Atlantic salmon. 

It concludes that both land-based fish farming and hybrid approaches — keeping fish in land-based containment systems past the smolt-stage and then growing them to market size in the sea — are technologies ready for commercial development in B.C. 

Floating closed containment systems need two to five more years to review while offshore production systems will take five to 10 years to evaluate, the study found.

The study, which examines the economic, environmental and social impacts of the four technologies, will inform the government’s plan for phasing out open net pen farms, Deeks said. 

“We recognize the value that new technologies can bring to help ensure aquaculture is done in the most environmentally sustainable and economically viable way.” 

Johns pointed to the federal government’s failure to act on recommendations made by the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, saying it erodes British Columbians’ trust that Ottawa will actually have a plan in place by 2025.

Among its recommendations, the Cohen commission said the government should remove from DFO’s mandate “the promotion of salmon farming as an industry and farmed salmon as a product” and DFO should “act in accordance with its paramount regulatory objective to conserve wild fish.” 

But even though the Liberal government, in its 2015 election platform, promised to act on the recommendations of the Cohen commission, Johns said Ottawa continues to play the role of a “double-agent,” retaining responsibility for both wild salmon and fish farming.

“Now we’re talking about a plan for 2025. British Columbians just don’t believe it any more.” 

Bonny Glambeck, campaigns director for Clayoquot Action, a Tofino-based conservation group that recently discovered piscine orthoreovirus on 14 out of 15 active salmon farms in the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve, including on chinook salmon farms, said the transition to land-based containment is already underway in B.C. 

Last year, the B.C. government negotiated an agreement last year with First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago — where open net pen farms are located along a wild salmon migration route — to close 17 open net pen farms over a four-year period. 

Four farms will be out of the water this spring, Glambeck noted. Ninety-five fish farm tenures will expire in 2022 and the companies that run them do not currently have protocol agreements with First Nations, as required by the new agreement, she said.

“Without that protocol agreement those tenures will not be renewed. So those farms will be coming out. And by 2023 we could see up to 102 fish farms removed from B.C. waters.” 

Government foot-dragging will only have a negative impact on salmon farming workers and coastal communities, Glambeck said. 

“We believe that the [federal fisheries] minister needs to come up with a plan quickly to support workers and communities through this transition … we need an orderly and responsible plan to take care of B.C. communities and workers who are going to be impacted by this.”

Deeks said the federal government is working in partnership with Indigenous peoples and the B.C. government, as well as with industry leaders, to find the “best paths forward.” 

“Canadians expect the government to have an informed, responsible plan to transition open net-pen salmon farming in B.C., and that is what we are working on with our partners.”

Johns said the federal government should follow the lead of Washington state and quickly transition to land-based salmon farming that keeps jobs in communities. 

“We also need to take a real hard look at the wild fishery and the importance of those jobs to the local economy. We just saw our commercial catch go from 42 million pounds — the 10-year average — to three and a half million pounds this year,” he said.

“We need to bring our wild species back to abundancy … if we wipe out our wild salmon industry the amount of jobs lost are much greater than they would be in the aquaculture industry, that’s for sure.”

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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