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Ottawa set to stop open-net salmon farms in B.C., giving the industry 5 years to transition

June 17, 2024
An Atlantic salmon is shown at a fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. on Oct. 31, 2018.JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Globe and Mail: The Liberal government intends to move ahead with its 2019 campaign commitment to put an end to open-net salmon fish farms in coastal B.C. waters but the industry has been given five years to adapt to the plan, three sources say.

The federal cabinet made the decision last week and an announcement is expected on Wednesday in British Columbia, the sources say. The exact details, including a transition plan for the operators and fish workers, were not shared with The Globe and Mail. The Globe is keeping the sources confidential because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The sources said the government will renew the licences for open-net fish farms for another five years, which matches the business cycle from hatchery to harvest, and then the industry must dismantle its open-net pens and move to land-based operations.

Fish farms are controversial in B.C. because of the dangers they pose to wild salmon, including parasitic sea lice that can attach to young fish as they make their way to the ocean from the lakes and streams where they were born.

Conservationists and most Indigenous groups had mounted a public-relations campaign to push the government to honour the Liberal campaign promise in the face of intense pressure from the fish-farm industry. During the 2019 federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to phase out ocean-based pen farms in B.C. by 2025, because of the risks to the health of wild Pacific salmon.

A senior government official, one of the three sources, said the five-year time frame demonstrates that Ottawa is being responsible in helping the $1.5-billion salmon fishing industry adapt to a land-based operation.

It was unclear over the past year which direction Ottawa would take. Last June, the government suddenly shelved the release of a draft transition plan toward land-based production.

At the time, newly appointed Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier was non-committal about when the plan would be released and the sources say she was looking for a practical solution to protect the livelihood of workers affected by the decision to stop granting licences for open-net farms.

Chief Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, said he regards the move to honour the Prime Minister’s commitment as a huge win, although he is concerned about the long phase-out period.

“It shows there is a demonstration of leadership to fully embrace legislative tools to safeguard the environment and the salmon,” Mr. Chamberlin said in an interview Sunday.

Tony Allard, chair of Wild Salmon Forever, a B.C.-based conservation group that wants to move fish farms out of the Pacific Ocean, said he was optimistic that the Prime Minister would meet his campaign promise “given its importance to the province.”

In an letter last fall to the Prime Minister, Mr. Allard pointed out polls that show a large majority of British Columbians support moving open-net fish farms to land. Canada stands alone on the Pacific coast for allowing ocean-based fish farms, which mostly produce Atlantic salmon.

However, the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has warned that the province could lose more than 4,700 jobs and up to $1.2-billion in economic activity annually if the open-net industry cannot continue.

Tim Kennedy, president of Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, testified before the House of Commons fisheries committee last fall that fish farms are not an ecological threat.

“Modern hatchery operations have substantial biosecurity and operational systems in place that simultaneously prevent disease and dramatically improve hatchery efficiency in water and electricity use,” he said.

He argued at the time that escapes from fish farms are nearly zero and that “sea-lice levels on all farms are actively monitored and a range of new sea-lice treatment methods are routinely deployed to keep sea-lice levels under control, particularly during wild-salmon migration seasons.”

In March, the fisheries committee released a report, accusing the department of favouring the “interest of the salmon-farming industry over the health of wild fish stocks.” Mr. Kennedy called the findings “unbalanced and prejudicial.”

In a late September letter to Ms. Lebouthillier, Mr. Kennedy urged her to keep the remaining ocean farms. “It is critical that these farms remain because of the foundational supply-chain infrastructure and investment ecosystem that they support.” There are currently 57 salmon farms on the Pacific coast.

In February, 2023, former federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray, an MP from B.C., stopped the renewal of licences for 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms in the Discovery Islands. The decision on the Discovery Islands farms was challenged in court.

However, Federal Court of Canada Justice Paul Favel recently rejected a bid by salmon-farm operators and two First Nations to review Ottawa’s decision.

Justice Favel ruled that the decision not to renew the licences for farms around B.C.’s Discovery Islands met the “requirement of the duty to consult” and “did not breach the operators’ rights of procedural fairness.”

Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Harriet Solloway recently announced that she is launching an investigation into allegations that senior federal fisheries officials attempted to silence scientists involved in research related to the threat of open-net fish farms to Pacific salmon.

Ms. Solloway was responding to concerns raised by Mr. Allard of Wild Salmon Forever.

Ms. Solloway wrote in the April 23 letter, obtained by The Globe, that department officials may have seriously breached the values and ethics code for the public sector “by attempting to silence scientists through reprimands, to dissuade them from communicating with the media and the public about their research.”

She also wrote that she is looking into whether the officials under review attempted to obstruct or influence the testimony of department scientists before the House fisheries committee.

With reports from Ian Bailey and The Canadian Press

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Chief Bob Chamberlin. This version has been updated.