Feds finally torpedo B.C. salmon farms

Ottawa's decision to ban open net-pen salmon farming in BC by 2029 is a reckless move that endangers thousands of jobs and exacerbates food insecurity. 

Ottawa’s fisheries minister Diane Lebouthillier punched the torpedos-away button with her announcement Wednesday that Canada will ban open net-pen salmon aquaculture in BC coastal waters by June 30, 2029.

She hailed it all as “a responsible, realistic, and achievable transition.”

But the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance ripped it as “irresponsible, unrealistic, unreasonable and unachievable.”

And it cited a report that estimated the removal of current BC salmon farms could double the cost of retail salmon in Canada. 

The industry added in a news release: “Instead of embracing a balanced pathway towards economic opportunity, increasing healthy and affordable home-grown food, recognizing an exceptional level of Indigenous collaboration and economic reconciliation and incrementally greater environmental protection, it has embraced a position that reflects unaccountable and extreme activist voices.

“The objective is irresponsible because it threatens 5,000 highly paid and skilled jobs in coastal British Columbia (the youngest agri-food workforce in Canada and 500 of these jobs held by Indigenous people) during a time of economic stagnation. These jobs were considered ‘essential’ to Canada only a few years ago. 

“It also threatens the very investment and operations infrastructure built up over 45 years of production that will provide the foundation on which to successfully build and attract new aquaculture technologies.”

Lebouthillier is renewing, for five years, 66 current salmon-aquaculture licences. But she also announced in Ottawa: “After July 1, 2024, only marine or land-based closed-containment systems will be considered for salmon aquaculture licences in coastal British Columbia.”

Lebouthillier said Ottawa “recognizes that such systems are likely to come with increased investment costs.”  To support potential investors, she offered nine-year licences to successful closed-containment production applicants.

ButBC government report  in 2022 said regulatory uncertainty, high capital cost, and low returns on investment are primary restraints on alternative forms of salmon farming in BC

Nobody has proposed any plan to build a large-scale new system in BC and big land-based aquaculture systems in Nova Scotia and Florida have to date been big money losers. 

A Norwegian company that uses closed-containment aquaculture in the ocean proposed in 2023 to introduce the practice to BC, but nothing has been heard of that since. (Its system has solid barriers separating the fish from the surrounding ocean water. It circulates seawater through the closed containers and extracts any waste products.) 

Our aquaculture industry said bluntly on Wednesday: “The (federal) objective is unrealistic because transferring the sector to closed containment by 2029 is logistically impossible.

Anticipating Ottawa’s decision, the BC Salmon Farmers Association had said: “The idea that 70,000 tonnes of BC salmon can be produced on land in five years is unrealistic and ignores the current capabilities of modern salmon farming technology, as it has not been done successfully to scale anywhere in the world.

“This plan will lead to further increased food prices, heightened food insecurity across North America, and it will be a disaster for rural British Columbia and the First Nations striving to build a future with salmon farms in their traditional territories.”

Columnist John Ivison of National Post had this to say on X (formerly Twitter): “Death of another resource industry: the decision to force the West Coast salmon fishing industry to take its pens out of the water will kill it. The return on investment does not justify spending the billions needed to build on-land facilities.”

And he also wrote: “The reality is that the decision . . . is a death sentence for an industry that employs thousands of people, sustains a number of impoverished First Nations communities and generates more than $1 billion in revenues as British Columbia’s largest agricultural export earner.”

Our own Stewart Muir noted: “BC’s largest agricultural export sector (salmon farming) has been cancelled.”

Ottawa had already shut down 19 salmon farms in BC waters, in the Discovery Islands and the Broughton Archipelago. 

Lebouthillier did note Wednesday that “a number of First Nations, coastal communities, and others in British Columbia rely on open net-pen salmon aquaculture for their livelihood and prosperity.”

She then said Ottawa will release a draft aquaculture transition plan by the end of July, that would include measures to “support First Nations, workers, and communities in this transition.”

Not all First Nations support ocean salmon aquaculture, but 17 nations in B.C have current agreements with salmon-farming companies. 

Dallas Smith, spokesperson for the Coalition for First Nations for Finfish Stewardship in BC, said Wednesday the coalition will continue to fight for salmon aquaculture and the role of First Nations in it. 

There's 5,000 people who depend on employment from this sector right now,” said Smith, acting chief for the Tlowitsis Nation. “Five hundred of them are directly employed in remote First Nations communities.”

The Kitasoo Xai’Xais Nation on the central BC coast — which began farming and processing salmon in the late 1980s, and sells smoked salmon across Canada — also protested.

“This is a political decision that is not based on science or fact,” said Isaiah Robinson, deputy chief councillor and director of Kitasoo Xai’Xais economic development. “It  is based on the unscientific demands of white, privileged, urban activists who fearmonger with false data to build anti-fish farm narratives.”

Before the federal torpedo hit on Wednesday, observer Emily DeSousa wrote of the Kitasoo Xai’Xais aquaculture: Before salmon farming, employment rates were dire, hovering at a mere five percent in the 1970s due to the collapse of the commercial salmon fishery in 1969. 

“The community struggled with social issues, like high suicide rates among young men, which they attributed to complex factors such as unemployment, assimilation, land theft and colonization.

“Today, however, employment rates in the nation are 99 percent, something Isaiah Robinson, elected councillor in the Kitasoo Xai’Xais Nation, credits to salmon farming.”

While renewing current aquaculture licences, Lebouthillier said these licences “will come with stricter conditions to ensure improved management of sea lice on farmed fish, robust reporting requirements for industry, and additional monitoring of marine mammal interactions. These conditions will strengthen protections for wild species and the marine environment, while ensuring aquaculture facilities can operate safely during this transition period.”

Federal fisheries scientists have said that salmon farms actually pose “minimal risk” to wild salmon, but opponents have challenged that finding and insist that sea lice from fish in salmon farms do threaten wild salmon.

The Kitasoo Xai’Xais are adamant that their farms present no environmental danger, and the nation has a long history of environmental protection. Among other things, it declared in 2022 a Marine Protected Area in Kitasu Bay. 

Douglas Neasloss, Kitasoo Xai’Xais chief councillor and stewardship director: “Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s sustainable, that there’s still something left for the next generation. That’s really important.”

And the Kitasoo Xai’Xais have visited Scotland, another leader in ocean salmon-farming, and where a study of Scottish salmon farms found that they have nothing to do with declining wild salmon stocks. 

Author Dr. Martin Jaffa told BC’s SeaWest News in 2023: “If the salmon farms and sea lice in European waters have no impact on wild stocks here, one can expect them to be the same in the Pacific Northwest.”

The BC Salmon Farmers Association has published a 617-page study of salmon aquaculture in BC Among other things, it notes: “Sea lice levels at most farms
have been below the regulated management threshold; all farms that exceeded the threshold initiated management measures to reduce sea lice.”

One more slap from the industry at Ottawa’s plan: “It threatens the approximately 400 million salmon meals produced by the B C. sector . . .  and would add the equivalent of 150,000 cars to Canadian roads through increased carbon emissions due to air freight for foreign-sourced salmon.”

And the salmon farmers association fears that Ottawa will simply drive investment to places with lower regulatory standards and less stringent environmental monitoring.

“Those salmon will be grown elsewhere. The demand is not going to go away.”

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