Advocates press DFO to move faster on plan to phase out B.C. fish farms

Click to play video: 'Coalition pressures Ottawa on open-net fish farms'
Coalition pressures Ottawa on open-net fish farms
A coalition of First Nations, tourism operators and scientists is calling on the federal government to honour a promise made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to eliminate open-net fish farms from B.C. waters. Troy Charles reports. – Sep 27, 2023

A coalition of First Nations, tourism and hospitality operators and scientists is calling on the federal government to move faster on a pledge to remove open-net salmon farms from the B.C. coast.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the 2019 election to phase out the controversial Atlantic salmon fish farms in B.C. by 2025.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) was ordered to have a transition plan ready by 2023, but there is no indication whether it’s in place.

Click to play video: 'More B.C. First Nations sign on to group opposing open-net fish farms'
More B.C. First Nations sign on to group opposing open-net fish farms

At a press conference in Vancouver Wednesday, the coalition argued the wild Pacific salmon economy is on the verge of collapse, making elimination of the farms critical.

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“We want to ensure the new minister of fisheries and oceans understands that there are 123 First Nations in B.C. that support the removal, that the broader economy of B.C. that relies on healthy and abundant wild salmon stand with First Nations in that support,” First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance Chair Bob Chamberlain said.

“And its time we start to reach out and touch the opportunities we can to safeguard wild salmon, and fish farms are certainly one of those biggest stressors and impacts that must be dealt with.”

There are currently 57 salmon farms operating in B.C. Last February, the DFO closed 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms in the Discovery Islands.

Click to play video: 'Ottawa to shut 15 salmon farms off B.C.’s coast to protect wild fish'
Ottawa to shut 15 salmon farms off B.C.’s coast to protect wild fish

But activists and First Nations say it’s not enough, and that the facilities put the survival of wild Pacific salmon and other ecological niches that rely on them, and more than 100,000 jobs at risk.

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“Canada promotes the ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’ brand to the world. we are known for spectacular shorelines and pristine forests,” Jeneen Sutherland, executive director of the Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. said.

“If salmon were to disappear, the super, natural british columbia brand and the tourism industry would crumble. As a keystone species slamon are integral to healthy, intact ecosystems. Without salmon, our forests, seas and wildlife would be decimated. Tourism livelihoods depend on wild salmon.”

The B.C. salmon farming industry disputes any connection between aquaculture and the challenges wild salmon are facing.

“That is patently incorrect. We have the amazing amount of science that shows we are not a risk to wild pacific salmon, we are continually innovating, we have stepped up to the plate to say we will continue to innovate,” Brian Kingzett, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association told Global News.

“Some of the highest returns of salmon during the last three decades have been during the period that we have been salmon farming, but we are continually used as a convenient scapegoat.”

Kingzett said climate change, which is pushing salmon further and further north in search of cooler water, and habitat destruction are the true cause of salmon stock decline.

Click to play video: 'Victory in the fight to eliminate open-net fish farms'
Victory in the fight to eliminate open-net fish farms

He said the industry was not afraid of on-land production, but no one has yet shown how to do it in an economically viable way in B.C.

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Ending open-net farming would kill the industry, he said, along with its many contributions to the economy.

“Farmed salmon is B.C.’s biggest agricultural export, as well as selling 95 per cent of all the salmon that is consumed in Canada, we employ about 5,000 people in northern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland,” he said.

“We are critical in many of the rural communities in which we work and we’re critical to a number of indigenous communities because all of our farms are done in partnership with First Nations.”

The scientific connection between fish farms and the health of wild salmon remains hotly debated, with groups on both side citing conflicting research and studies.

Click to play video: 'Federal fisheries says it will now test farm salmon for viruses'
Federal fisheries says it will now test farm salmon for viruses

“There have been some assessments from DFO that suggest minimal risk and there’s also been science since that main assessment that has been suggesting that there may well be risk from the viruses and sea lice from the farms,” former Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray said in February, as the government shut down the Discovery Islands farms.

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The former minister went on to say there were many stressors on wild salmon, including climate change, habitat degradation and both regulated and illegal fishing.

In a statement Wednesday, the DFO did not provide a clear answer on the status of the transition plan, stating it “continues to engage with partners and stakeholders on the development of a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in British Columbia by 2025.”

“To respond to requests from First Nations, industry, and stakeholders, the Government extended the consultation period to all interested parties to allow sufficient time to be meaningfully engaged,” it added.

Consultations are ongoing with Frist Nations, the B.C. government, the salmon farming industry and environmental groups, it added.

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