Hope on the Fish Farm Front

When I first heard of them three decades ago, fish farms seemed an intriguing idea. Tired of the wasteful practices of the commercial salmon fisheries, I and other steelhead advocates for a short time naively entertained the idea that the growth of aquaculture might somehow reduce the pressure of net fisheries on wild fish stocks.

A conversation with a fishing guide who plied his trade in the waters off the Broughton archipelago provided my first inkling that fish farming was far from benign.

The Social Credit Party welcomed the first fish farms to BC some four decades ago. The first experiment failed. The farms pulled up pilings and left.

My guide friend told me how he couldn’t catch fish for his clients in the waters where fish farms had been located, calling them “dead zones.”

I was able to dig up lots of poop on the effluent produced by fish farms.

I discovered that one farm could generate as much effluent as a city the size of Terrace.

This effluent dropped through the netting in the net pens and killed the sea floor underneath. Here was an environmental crime of the first order, committed in some of the most valuable and richest waters on the globe.

The malignancy of fish farming didn’t stop there. The Steelhead Society had a branch in Germany in those days. Two of its members made the trip to Vancouver to talk to the society’s directors about fish farming in Norway.

Avid Atlantic Salmon anglers who had made numerous trips to the world renowned salmon rivers of that country, the German members’ assessment of the Norwegian experience with fish farming vis-a-vis its effect on wild salmon was not good.

Sea lice that infested the farms had a deleterious effect on young migrant salmon. Learning too late of this problem, Norwegian fisheries personnel routinely measured how lousy each farm was and issued hefty fines for those exceeding the lice count deemed tolerable.

The Germans also told us of escapees, those salmon that routinely escaped the net pens when the seas became rough enough to enable them to go over the cork line.

Being salmon, these fugitives often made their way to a river where, being biological entities, they spawned, thereby wreaking havoc with their unsuspecting wild cousins.

When you pen up lots of critters in a small space, be they pigs, cows, turkeys, chickens or chinchillas, you create fertile fields for disease to take root.

Drugs to combat potential plagues are always close at hand. Farmed fish, the Germans pointed out, get such dope in their feed, but despite this there are still cases of where these domesticated farm fish get infected with diseases potentially devastating to their wild relations.

These maladies contaminate the marine ecosystem where they can contaminate wild passers-by, or worse still, a disease ridden fish may escape in the manner outlined above and become a vector threatening wild salmon.

In fact, noted our German members, wild stocks in some of Norway’s famous salmon rivers had already suffered this fate.

The message from the German anglers was clear. Embracing fish farms was inimical to the health of wild fish; doing so was ultimately swapping drug laden, dyed, farm fish for wild healthful creatures while poisoning the marine ecosystem.

Despite all the problems experienced in Norway, and every country where fish farming had made inroads, BC’s myopic open-for-business government of the time bent over backwards to pave the way for the second wave of fin fish aquaculture in this province.

I was astounded as apologists and proponents of aquaculture tried to claim that sea lice and disease weren’t a problem when a quick Google search would confirm they were.

Fish farms are a blight that should never have been permitted off our coast.

That’s why an email from former Steelhead Society president and the founder of that tough little advocacy group, Watershed Watch, Dr. Craig Orr, put in me in good spirits when it landed in my in box before Christmas.

Last Friday marked the most significant milestone in Watershed Watch’s nearly two-decade battle against destructive salmon farming practices.

“[Watershed Watch] joined the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis, ‘Namgis, and Mamalilikulla First Nations, Premier John Horgan, federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Chief Bob Chamberlin, the farming industry, and many government staff in Victoria to bear witness to the announcement of the removal of Atlantic salmon farms from the Broughton Archipelago,” Craig wrote.

After nearly five months of negotiations, the parties agreed that four farms will shut down next year, two the following year, and four more two years after that. The remaining seven will close after.

The most striking outcome of the deal is the creation of an indigenous monitoring and inspection plan that gives First Nations oversight of monitoring and testing for pathogens, diseases, and disease agents during the phase-out period.

This plan bestows a regulatory role to First Nations, and is a potential game changer that will ensure no further viruses such as piscine reovirus are introduced into the waters of the Broughton, and it will allow monitoring of sea lice.

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