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B.C. Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham provides an update about fish farms in the province during a news conference in the press gallery at the Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday June 20, 2018.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

The B.C. government wants Ottawa to provide assurances that open net-pen salmon farms will not harm wild salmon, giving both the aquaculture industry and the federal government four years to meet its new criteria.

Under its new policy announced on Wednesday, the province will not renew or issue tenures for ocean-based salmon farms unless two conditions are met: The operator must obtain consent from the local First Nations; and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans must certify that the operation will pose no risk to the province’s declining wild-salmon stocks.

A guarantee of ‘no harm’ will be difficult to provide, a leading salmon scientist warns.

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Brian Riddell, head of the Pacific Salmon Foundation and a Canadian representative on the Pacific Salmon Commission, said great progress is being made in studying the impact of fish farms on wild salmon stocks. “Four years from now, we’ll have more data. But will we have consensus from the scientists about ‘no harm?’ I doubt that,” he said. “You are asking to prove a negative here.”

Although the science on the impact of fish farms on wild salmon is inconclusive, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told a news conference that finfish aquaculture is one of the factors contributing to the decline of salmon runs on the west coast and she is not satisfied that federal regulators have addressed that in their management of the fishery.

“Fish farms are unique, with impacts that are very difficult to contain. We acknowledge that many factors are affecting wild salmon - and one of them is fish farms.” She said Ottawa has not placed the health of wild salmon at the center in its approval of 120 salmon farms in west coast waters.

The province is breaking new ground by requiring industry to obtain consent from First Nations. Although the policy does not take force until June, 2022, farm eviction notices could some sooner in the Broughton Archipelago.

The province has been engaged in talks since December with Indigenous leaders in the region off the north coast of Vancouver Island, where there is entrenched opposition to fish farms. There are currently 17 farm tenures in the archipelago that are being renewed on a month-by-month basis, which could be cancelled as a result of those negotiations.

Chief Robert Chamberlin of the Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, calling it tangible action on the government’s commitment to obtain free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people to resource development in their communities.

But he said it is too early to say if his community will be able to evict the fish farms from their territories sooner than the June, 2020, date set by policy. “It should have happened four years ago. I’m focused on the outcomes for our process and what that will deliver, we’ll see in due course.”

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association says their industry contributes $1.5-billion to the economy each year and directly or indirectly employs 6,600 people in rural, coastal communities.

Jeremy Dunn, spokesman for Marine Harvest Canada - which holds 12 tenures in the Broughton Archipelago - said his company is eager to finally be invited to the table to negotiate with the First Nations. He acknowledged the strong opposition but said: “We are hopeful we can find an agreement,” he said.

Green MLA Adam Olsen, whose party is supporting the NDP minority government, said he was disappointed that the government isn’t moving faster to push the aquaculture industry into reforms.

“There is a lot of potential opportunity here to transition away from open net-pen fish farms,” he said. “Instead we are heel-dragging, frankly.”

But Mr. Dunn said the new rules in B.C. won’t encourage the industry to invest in the on-land fish farms that the Green Party wants to see.

"At this point, there is no business case for a large scale, land-based operation on northern Vancouver Island,” Mr. Dunn said, “and not a huge interest for Marine Harvest to invest more in B.C., given the uncertain business climate.”