A federal court judge has set aside a decision by the former federal fisheries minister to close open-net pen fish farms in the Discovery Islands area between northern Vancouver Island and the BC mainland.
In a news release issued on Dec. 17, 2020, then Fisheries Ministers Bernadette Jordan ordered the closure of 19 fish farms in the Discovery Islands region, saying that all fish farm licenses would not be renewed on June 30, 2022.
During that time, no new fish of any size would be allowed to transfer to the affected farms, the news release added.
The announcement blindsided operators in the region, including four operators involved in the recent court decision: Mowi Canada West, Cermaq Canada, Grieg Seafood BC, and an unnamed company.
On Friday, Justice Elizabeth Heneghan set aside the former minister’s plans, largely due to what Heneghan describes as unfair warning to the farm operators involved, and inadequate reasons for why the closures were ordered in the first place.
TIME NEEDED TO RESPOND
After the December 2020 announcement, fish farm operators would go on to petition the courts, saying that the move would lose the companies millions as well as dozens of jobs that support communities close to the Discovery Islands.
On April 5, 2021, another federal court judge suspended the ban on restocking some of the fish farms in the region, saying that the aquaculture companies work on five-year cycles, making it extremely difficult for them to manage unexpected changes without serious losses.
Judge Peter George Pamel said the sudden closures would lead to large consequences for local communities and businesses that outweigh the evidence heard on the environmental impacts of the fish farms.
Pamel’s decision came as an injunction allowing fish farms to continue to restock their fish, and on Friday Heneghan upheld that injunction.
A multi-year study into sockeye salmon populations in the Fraser River, dubbed the Cohen Commission, reviewed some of the impacts that fish farms have on wild salmon migrating to the river.
Environmentalists and some First Nations have raised concerns that the fish farms are spreading diseases to wild salmon, and a 2012 recommendation from the commission called for the closure of the Discovery Island fish farms if they pose more than a minimal risk to migrating wild salmon.
As of 2020, nine scientific reports have been submitted through the Cohen Commission, finding that the risk of diseases spreading from farmed salmon to wild salmon are “minimal.”
“By September 2020, the common conclusion of the nine reports was that aquaculture in the Discovery Islands poses no more than a minimal risk of harm to the Fraser River Sockeye salmon,” reads Heneghan’s ruling. “DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) does not dispute this conclusion.”
The reports are another reason why Heneghan ruled against the minister’s plans to shut down the farms by June 30, saying that more reasons need to be provided as to why closures should take place on this timeline.
The federal government maintains that it will transition away from open-net pen salmon farms by 2025, but Heneghan’s ruling now clarifies that licenses can be renewed in the meantime.
Despite the federal court’s ruling, environmentalists say the move is a step in the wrong direction.
“Our wild salmon populations are on the verge of extinction,” said Andrea Morton, founder of Raincoast Research.
“Nobody ever thought the Fraser River salmon populations could get so low that there’s a quarter of a million for the entire watershed along the British Columbia coast,” she said. “There should be 30 million.”
“And it’s the same for wild fish exposed to the salmon farms everywhere in the world,” she added.
The DFO did not immediately respond to a CTV News request for comment.
With files from the Canadian Press.