B.C. salmon farm operators have been given 18 months to clear out of the Discovery Islands.
The decision today announced by Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan ends a long campaign among wild salmon advocates to rid a critical migratory route of open-net pen farms.
Independent biologist Alexandra Morton, who spearheaded much of the research and activism against the farms, learned of the decision from Black Press Media.
“You told me the best news in 35 years of this fight,” she said.
“I’ve been studying these little sockeye for so long. This means they’re going to get to sea alive. This means we can start reversing that decline. I realize salmon farms are not the entire problem, but if they’re not getting to sea, nothing else is going to matter. I stand in awe of the First Nations leadership that made this happen.”
A number of factors are blamed for B.C.’s dwindling salmon populations, including over-fishing, climate change, warming waters, and increased predation. Open-net pens have the potential to act as reservoirs for naturally occurring sea lice and pathogens that transfer to out-migrating juvenile fish. Salmon farm opponents believe farms in the Discovery Islands are a leading cause of the decline.
Jordan’s decision follows three months of consultations with industry and seven area First Nations on whether to renew the 19 area licences, set to expire Dec. 18.
“The joy that’s going to happen from this result is going to be far-reaching for many salmon warriors across the province,” Bob Chamberlain, chair of the First Nations Salmon Alliance said.
Chamberlain stressed the decision has the potential for immediate positive impact, as farms in a key route in the Okisollo Channel will complete their harvests before the next out-migration.
“There is significant benefit here — I’m so happy,” he said. “We’ve had two historic low returns, and I’m not sure if people connect what that means for future generations. It means historic low salmon eggs as well. And it’s established fact that only one to four per cent of juveniles make it back as spawners. Even if there are no impacts or barriers, when these fish return we’re going to have another historic low. We’re on a very critical downward spiral, so what’s happened today will have a significant benefit right away.”
The Living Oceans Society, David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice were among the first conservation groups to also issue statements celebrating the news.
About 80 per cent of the 3 million farmed salmon currently stocked in the island group are expected to be harvested by April, according to the fisheries ministry. Currently, just nine of the 19 licenced Discovery Islands farms contain salmon.
The 2012 Cohen Commission inquiry into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye recommended the removal of all salmon farms in these narrow waterways by September 2020 if they exceeded minimal risk to wild stocks. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) risk assessments this year found the impacts were below that critical threshold, but public pressure resulted in recent consultations and today’s decision.
“British Columbians and Indigenous peoples have been very clear that they wanted to be part of the decisions of what’s done in their coastal waters and territories. We’re listening to them,” Jordan said in a telephone interview. “What we heard was they did not want [the farms] there.
“It was an extremely difficult decision for me. I know there are people whose jobs are impacted, communities that are impacted, and that’s why I did not take this decision lightly.”
The 18-month grace period allows time for the completion of the fishes’ growth cycle before harvest, but operators are not permitted to add any new stocks to the Discovery Islands sites. The farms must be fish free by June 30, 2022.
DFO will immediately begin working with the industry on a transition plan.
‘A bad time’: salmon farmers
The BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) was disapointed by today’s decision, and has previously stated they feel public opposition is mired in the belief of outdated practices that don’t account for innovations, monitoring standards and treatments put in place since the release of the Cohen Commission report eight years ago.
“This decision has significant implications and puts salmon farming in B.C. and across Canada at risk,” BCSFA spokesperson Shawn Hall said. “This comes at a bad time, during a pandemic when local food supply and good local jobs have never been more important. We have just received this decision, and will be taking some time to consider it and speak with the numerous companies and communities involved in salmon farming in the province before commenting further.”
According to the BCSFA the industry as a whole supports about 7,000 direct and indirect jobs in the province. Farmed salmon has a landed value of $772.5 million annually and is B.C.’s leading food export worth $562 million in 2019.
A recent report commissioned by the BCSFA shows the industry is poised to begin investments worth $1.4 billion over the next 30 years that could generate $44 billion in economic output and create 10,000 new jobs by 2050.
For that to happen, the sector needs to see a “predictable policy approach” to salmon farming from the provincial and federal governments.
Ottawa aims to develop a plan by 2025 to transition all open-net pens out of B.C. waters, which salmon-farm activists have interpreted as a move to in-land operations, but the industry says the ecological footprint and economic costs would be too great. Two likely options are closed and semi-closed containment systems that offer a physical barrier between farmed salmon and wild fish.
It remains to be seen how today’s decision will affect industry optimism, but Jordan said the sector will remain an important part of the federal government’s Blue Economy Strategy, as broad consultations on what that will look like begin in early 2021.
“I believe that aquaculture has a place on the B.C. coast. It employs thousands of people and is a really important part of the B.C. economy. But we want to make sure we’re working with them [industry] to make sure it’s sustainable … and those are the kind of things that will be part of the consultation process going forward.”