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Advocate, industry baffled by Liberal promise to change B.C. salmon containment

Aquatic science biologist Shawn Stenhouse releases a Atlantic salmon back into its tank during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. .
Aquatic science biologist Shawn Stenhouse releases a Atlantic salmon back into its tank during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. . THE CANADIAN PRESS /Jonathan Hayward

A Liberal promise to transition salmon farms in British Columbia from ocean net pens to closed containment systems in just over five years is being slammed as careless by the aquaculture industry but applauded by a wild salmon advocate who says the sooner the better.

Industry groups say the Liberal pledge violates government policy supporting science-based decision making, threatens thousands of B.C. jobs and appears to be an election move to court urban voters.

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“Never once, never once did 2025 enter the conversations until the Green party and the NDP made it their position,” said John Paul Fraser, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association. “This platform promise was designed for Vancouver. It was not designed for the communities where these jobs are now at stake.”

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But federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Wednesday the campaign promise reflects a precautionary approach to a divisive issue in B.C. over the protection of wild salmon.

The 2025 target will focus governments, Indigenous groups and the aquaculture industry to find ways to achieve a successful transition, he said.

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“I believe we can get there,” said Wilkinson, the Liberal candidate in the North Vancouver riding. “The technology certainly exists. We have a number of years in front of us to get to that point and I think we will, with goodwill on all sides, be able to get there.”

Fraser said salmon farming in B.C. generates about $1.5 billion annually and supports about 7,000 jobs in many coastal communities.

Industry, government and Indigenous groups were collaborating on programs and research projects geared towards innovations that address environmental concerns while ensuring aquaculture productivity, he said. Work has been underway to examine developing a hybrid aquaculture system where young salmon stay longer in hatcheries before being transferred to open net pens for shorter periods of time, Fraser added.

“Here’s why we’re shocked,” said Fraser. “First of all, there are the jobs. There’s the uncertainty this kind of thing creates and there’s the, I guess, lack of judgment. It’s going to create uncertainty and it’s going to create stagnation.”

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Wilkinson acknowledged the ongoing collaborative work between the federal government, industry and Indigenous groups involving technology, fish health and area management, but he also suggested it was reasonable to assume it was heading towards supporting closed containment.

“I think those steps were a pathway which ultimately ended with closed containment,” he said. “If you look at the steps we’ve taken that’s reasonably easy to see.”

The decline of wild salmon populations in B.C. has created tense and long-running debates over fish health between the industry and environmental and Indigenous groups.

The B.C. government, the industry and First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago region of northern Vancouver Island are overseeing work that could see up to 17 salmon farms decommissioned by 2024.

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A coalition of wild salmon support groups have convinced political leaders from the federal Liberals, Greens and New Democrats to sign pledge forms committing to support a move from open net salmon farms to closed containment in B.C. by 2025. Among those signing the pledge are NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Leader Elizabeth May, Independent candidate Jody Wilson-Raybould and B.C. Liberal MPs Joyce Murray and Terry Beech.

Mike Meneer, president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, said conserving and restoring wild salmon populations should be a priority of all parties in the election.

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“We took a position as an organization in 2018 that it is in the best interest of wild salmon to move from open net pen aquaculture to closed containment in B.C.,” he said. “We welcome any party’s commitment in this election context to move from open net fish farms to closed containment as soon as possible.”

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But Tim Kennedy, chief executive officer of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, said the industry must be allowed to continue using open net pens because it allows fish to develop in their natural habitat.

“Can you imagine the government coming out with a statement saying, ‘We require that all cattle now be raised inside all the time?’ That’s similar for us.”