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Officials are calling for an investigation into whether Canada is enforcing pollution laws around salmon farms in British Columbia.

BC Salmon Farmers Association for The Globe and Mail/bc salmon farmers association The Globe and Mail

Officials at an environment commission established under the North American free-trade agreement are calling for an investigation into whether Canada is enforcing pollution laws around salmon farms in British Columbia.

In a statement released Thursday, the Secretariat of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation said there are grounds to investigate complaints "that Canada is failing to effectively enforce fish habitat protection and pollution prevention provisions … in relation to salmon aquaculture operations authorized by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in coastal B.C."

The CEC's three-member governing council – which is made up of the highest-ranking environmental officials of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. – now has until Aug. 12 to vote on whether to accept the secretariat's recommendation.

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The council almost always accepts such recommendations, but occasionally rejects or limits the scope of inquiries. CEC investigations probe issues to create factual records, not to find fault or assign blame.

The recommendation was made despite objections from Dan McDougall, assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada, who wrote to the CEC responding to submissions from four groups complaining about how Ottawa has been regulating B.C. salmon farms.

Mr. McDougall told the CEC it should not undertake an investigation because the issue is already under scrutiny in two pending court cases in B.C.

"The Government of Canada is concerned that proceeding with the BC Salmon Farms submission process would result in the duplication and/or interference with these domestic legal actions," he stated.

Mr. McDougall was referring to legal actions brought by Alexandra Morton, an independent researcher and environmental advocate, and by Robert Chamberlin, chief of the Kwicksutaineuk Ah-kwa-mish First Nation on Vancouver Island. Ms. Morton has applied to Federal Court for an order declaring the Minister of Fisheries did not have the authority to allow allegedly diseased fish to be transferred from one farm to another. And Chief Chamberlin is going to the Supreme Court of B.C. over claims that wild salmon in the Broughton Archipelago have been put at risk by fish farms.

The CEC Secretariat said the complaint before it should proceed to investigation, however, because the inquiry will focus on Section 36 of the federal Fisheries Act, which "prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances into water frequented by fish."

Environment Canada spokesman Danny Kingsberry said in an e-mail Thursday: "Canada remains of the view that the CEC Secretariat should terminate the submission [by the four complainants] as it has been advised of a pending legal proceeding."

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The complaint to the CEC was made by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, in the U.S., and by Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society and Kwikwasu'tinuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation, in Canada.

Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said he's encouraged by the secretariat's recommendation.

"I don't know about Canada but I don't think the U.S. has ever voted against a formal investigation that's been recommended … so I'm pretty hopeful that that's going to happen," he said. "It's going to shine some light on the problem and … anything that helps put the pressure on Canada to clean up its industrial aquaculture I think is a good thing."

Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said his organization does not object to an inquiry.

"We have a strong commitment to the communities where we farm, and we are confident in our sustainability practices, and that the CEC process will at the end of the day reflect that commitment to a healthy environment," Mr. Dunn said.

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