The executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association says a formal consultation process for the future of the industry is welcome after years of “ad hoc” discussions over Ottawa’s pledge to end open-net salmon aquaculture.
Ruth Salmon said it will bring the industry, First Nations and the federal and BC governments together to talk about how to transition away from open-net farms.
Studies have shown open-net pens can spread disease to wild fish, though Salmon said the global aquaculture industry is changing, with new technologies that reduce interactions between wild and farmed fish without land-locking the farms.
The mandate letter for Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray tasks her with developing the plan to shift from open-net salmon farming in BC waters by 2025, while working to introduce Canada’s first Aquaculture Act.
Fisheries and Oceans announced Wednesday that open-net salmon farms may continue operating during the consultation process that’s set to run until early 2023, with the final plan to transition 79 farms expected to be released next spring.
Murray said Thursday she will be proposing a framework for the plan in consultation with Indigenous communities, the industry, environmental groups and different levels of government.
The plan “will be for a new regulatory regime that will lead to this transition to where there is little or no contact between wild and farmed salmon,” she said in an interview.
The federal government will be working closely with the province, after Premier John Horgan wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March, saying any plans to end open-net fish farming should come with supports for the industry and its workers.
It’s too early to say what the supports for coastal communities might be, since the framework is still being developed, Murray said.
New Democrat critic Lisa Marie Barron issued a statement Thursday saying consultation for moving away from open-net fisheries should have taken place years ago, when the Liberal government first announced its intention to phase them out.
“Almost three years later the important work of providing a clear transition plan for First Nations, workers, and coastal communities has not been done,” said Barron, who represents the Vancouver Island riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith.
Murray acknowledged the pledge to end open-net pen aquaculture was made in 2019, but said action has been taken since then.
There are no more farmed Atlantic salmon in the Discovery Islands, representing about 30 per cent of the volume of aquaculture industry off BC’s coast, she said.
Aquaculture operators in the area located along a key migration route for wild salmon had already begun scaling back after Murray’s predecessor announced in late 2020 that 19 salmon farms would be phased out by the end of this month.
A Federal Court judge set aside that decision this spring after three companies applied for a judicial review of the order that prevented them from restocking their farms, arguing it lacked reasons and didn’t “show an appreciation of the facts.”
In her April decision, Federal Court Judge Elizabeth Heneghan found the minister’s order breached the right to procedural fairness owed to the fish farms.
Ottawa is now undertaking a separate consultation process, which Murray said will involve talking with First Nations and fish farm operators about the possible non-renewal of the salmon licenses in the area, with a final decision expected next January.
“It’s important that we talk with people who are affected.”
The federal government will not reissue any licenses for Atlantic salmon farms around the Discovery Islands in the meantime.
For dozens of salmon farming operations outside that area, Fisheries and Oceans said their two-year license renewals come with stronger conditions, including sea license management plans and wild salmon monitoring requirements.
While the BC Salmon Farmers Association welcomes the consultation process, the industry is disappointed the license renewals aren’t longer to encourage investment in innovation, said Salmon, who is serving as the interim executive director.
“Short-term licenses really don’t give investors the kind of confidence they need to invest in Canada,” she said.
“We do need to know that the government feels there’s a future, because that aligns with investment dollars. So we’ve got all kinds of exciting ideas, but we can’t operationalize those until there is that security.”
The First Nations for Finfish Stewardship also issued a statement saying the coalition had called for longer-term renewals, but they’re thankful Ottawa has reissued licenses outside the Discovery Islands, recognizing the rights of nations that want to pursue seafood production in their territories.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2022.