A petition that challenges the legal authority of the provincial government to regulate fish farms on the West Coast is scheduled to be heard today in the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
If successful, the responsibility for managing fish and fish habitats could be returned to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, effectively nullifying 20 years of provincial aquaculture regulations.
Marine biologist Alexandra Morton has spent almost a decade studying the impact of fish farms on the wild salmon population of B.C.
She joined forces with the Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society as well as groups representing commercial fishermen and wilderness tourism operators to file the petition after discovering that the current regulatory framework may be unconstitutional.
In 1988, the DFO delegated the management of salmon in ocean-based pens to the provincial government in a memorandum of understanding.
According to Ms. Morton and her fellow petitioners, the DFO was not authorized to cede responsibility because navigation and fish management remain the jurisdiction of the federal government.
Ms. Morton blames the current organization for the lack of action taken to protect wild salmon stocks. "Because the responsibility is split between two agencies, nothing gets done. It lets both sides off the hook," she said.
She also questions the science upon which the memorandum of understanding was based. "The 1988 MOU is based on the premise that fish farms have no impact on the marine environment."
Current scientific research indicates that the devastating sea-lice epidemics in wild stocks are the result of ocean-pen salmon farms.
That's a position, Ms. Morton noted, that the DFO has consistently refused to accept. "As soon as any federal government scientist says 'You know what, [fish farms]do have impact,' this whole regulatory house of cards falls," she said.
The petition seeks a declaration by the court that the current B.C. aquaculture regulations are beyond the provincial government's authority and, as a result, any move to renew licences to fish farms operating in B.C. would be invalid.
The application requests a ruling to prohibit the granting of any licence renewals.
The lawyer representing the petitioners, Gregory McDade, announced the action earlier this year, saying that the federal government's legal responsibility for ocean fisheries dates back to the British North America Act of 1867.
He will argue that the lack of protection of wild salmon stocks from damage caused by fish farms is an abdication of constitutional responsibility.
Ms. Morton said on Friday that her greatest concern is that the petition will not be heard.
"It's very possible we'll get an adjournment. I'm so anxious that we get a chance to deal with it because otherwise, honestly, I have very little hope that in the next 10 years there will be any wild salmon left."
Asked if they would be applying for an adjournment, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands said the matter remained with their legal counsel and it would be inappropriate for them to comment on a case currently in front of the courts.