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With scientists deadlocked about the potential risks of aquaculture, B.C.’s salmon farming industry should be shifted out of sensitive wild salmon migration pathways, federal fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson says.

The minister for Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard is signalling a policy shift, for the whole West Coast, toward the model developed by the B.C. government that resolved a decades-long conflict over fish farming in the Broughton Archipelago.

His department’s scientists cannot agree whether open-net farms of Atlantic salmon pose health risks to wild Pacific salmon. With some wild stocks in decline – particularly that of the chinook salmon – Mr. Wilkinson said he will err on the side of caution.

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That will put the federal government in compliance with a Federal Court decision that quashed a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) policy allowing fish farms to transfer salmon to open-net fish farms without testing for piscine orthoreovirus, an infectious virus found in both farmed and wild salmon in B.C.

In her Feb. 4 decision, Justice Cecily Strickland said the transfer of fish known to have diseases that can severely affect fisheries is inconsistent with federal regulations and “represents a risk of serious or irreversible harm that … is contrary to the precautionary approach.”

The ruling gave the government four months to revise its policy.

Mr. Wilkinson said his approach is to accept the possibility that risk does exist, because there is no clear consensus on the science.

“We’re not convincing people anymore, there are just these two camps,” he said in an interview.

“So we need a different approach, one that more fulsomely implements the precautionary principle,” he said. "We need to move to area-based management, which means we are actually thinking about siting of these facilities in areas where you don’t run into issues around migration pathways, areas where communities are actually interested in the economic development that comes through [fish farming] rather than in areas where those communities are very much opposed.”

That’s the model that ended up resolving a 30-year-long battle over wild Pacific salmon last December. Indigenous opponents of open-net fish farms negotiated a pact with the B.C. government, which will shut down at least 10 farms over the span of four years in the Broughton Archipelago off the north coast of Vancouver Island.

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At the time, Mr. Wilkinson joined B.C. Premier John Horgan, Indigenous leaders and representatives of the aquaculture industry, in endorsing the deal.

The Broughton Archipelago is home to roughly one-third of the fish-farming activities in B.C., and the pact means that more than half of the current production from that region will be shut down by 2023. Unless consent of the local Indigenous communities is granted, the remaining seven farms will be closed in 2023, giving the industry a four-year window to overcome long-standing opposition by allowing the local First Nations to take part in monitoring their operations.

Mr. Wilkinson said that’s a model that could resolve the conflict over the remaining open-net farms in B.C. He also intends to move ahead with a study of closed-containment farming, to determine what gaps need to be closed in order to move salmon farming on shore.

Lana Popham, B.C.'s minister responsible for fisheries, welcomed the new direction from her federal counterpart.

“There are a lot of things affecting salmon stocks and rather than getting stuck on a science-against-science debate, and not moving forward until it’s solved, we have started to take action,” she said. Expanding on the Broughton model is “absolutely do-able,” she added.

The appointment of Mr. Wilkinson, the MP for North Vancouver, to the fisheries portfolio last summer has reduced the friction between Ottawa and the B.C. government over the issue of fish farms. Ms. Popham had been sharply critical of the DFO’s lack of capacity to manage wild-salmon protection, but said having a fisheries minister who represents a B.C. riding has created a more productive relationship.

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Mr. Wilkinson has said the aquaculture industry plays an important economic role in Canada, but acknowledged his department needs to restore confidence in aquaculture environmental safety. Canada’s chief science adviser, Mona Nemer, issued a damning report in December on the need for stronger aquaculture science. But the DFO released a report earlier this month that concluded that Fraser River sockeye salmon are at minimal risk of picking up a virus from farmed Atlantic salmon as they pass through the Discovery Islands area of B.C.

The industry says salmon farming supports thousands of jobs and generates $1.5-billion in annual economic benefits for the province. However, it embraced the Broughton settlement, saying it provides a means to earn the consent of Indigenous communities to operate in their traditional territories.

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