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Opponents hope B.C. mirrors Washington state Atlantic salmon farm ban

BC reacts to Atlantic salmon ban
WATCH: B.C.'s salmon farming industry is assessing the impact of a decision made just across the border. Washington state senators voting to ban Atlantic salmon fish farms from their waters. Paul Johnson has more.

A move to ban Atlantic salmon farming off the coast of Washington state is sewing division north of the border.

The Washington State senate voted 31-16 on Friday to eliminate the farms; if the bill is signed by Governor Jay Inslee, they will be phased out by 2025.

Biologist and long-time fish farm opponent Alexandra Morton is cheering the move, arguing it will have a positive effect on wild Pacific salmon.

“My main concern with salmon farms is that they amplify pathogens,” argued Morton.

“So sea lice, viruses, [and] bacteria simply pour out of these facilities at levels that the wild salmon are just not built to survive.”

A study Morton co-published with an SFU biologist in December found that rates of piscine retrovirus (PRV) rose from about five per cent to upwards of 40 per cent in wild salmon migrating past farms.

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Washington state’s move came after thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon escaped in August when a fish farm collapsed in the San Juan Islands. The state had already put a moratorium on new licences in the wake of the disaster.

But B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association executive director Jeremy Dunn said fears of a Washington-style disaster here in B.C. are overblown.

“We do things differently here in B.C.,” he said. “Our farmers have done the responsible thing and invested millions of dollars in technology and practices that have radically reduced escapes to the point over the last decade, fewer than 100 fish have escaped from B.C. salmon farms each year.”

Dunn argued that B.C. fish farms, which he says employ 6,600 people and contribute $1.5 billion to the economy, are subject to regular third-party inspections and are up to global standards.

“It’s unfortunate the state of Washington allowed its salmon farming equipment to get to such a state. And that the company that bought it out of bankruptcy didn’t have time to invest and upgrade it to modern standards.”

As for viral infection, Dunn has previously said that PRV is common in both wild and farmed salmon, and that it does not cause illness. The association points to research by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans which has shown the virus has failed to induce disease or mortality in B.C. fish.

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However Morton is hoping the Washington ban spurs B.C.’s government to make changes to the province’s fish farming industry.

Twenty of B.C.’s 115 fish farms’ tenure expire this June, many of them in First Nations territory, which Morton said presents Premier John Horgan with a big decision.

Bob Chamberlin, Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation Chief and Vice President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), agrees. He said the B.C. government has agreed to have an engagement process based on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

“The Pacific salmon treaty negotiations are underway, and I can’t see how this will not factor into those discussions. If a government is making responsible to decisions to safeguard such a sacred species as salmon, how could the British Columbia government not follow suit?”

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Chamberlin said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is supposed to have a precautionary principle under the Fisheries Act, something he feels is being disregarded amid concerns about diseases in fish farms.

“It’s time for the precautionary principle to be made real, stood up, embraced, and then enacted, and look to see this industry evolve, like every other industry has, to land-based closed containment,” he said.

“And that is where Canada can continue the enjoyment of employment from this industry, and at the same time do what’s right for wild salmon.”

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-With files from Kyle Benning