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The NDP has pulled ahead of the Liberals in three northern ridings, according to a new poll that found fish farming has emerged as a key election issue.

The survey in North Coast, Bulkley Valley-Stikine and Skeena ridings showed 48 per cent of decided voters favour the NDP, opening a significant 10-point lead over the Liberals, who have 38 per cent of the decided vote. The Green Party has only 6 per cent.

The poll, conducted by McAllister Opinion Research of Vancouver, is to be released today.

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The three ridings, all located in the Skeena River watershed, are currently held by the Liberal Party, which won by substantial margins in two of the ridings in the 2001 election. But the Liberal grip on the northern ridings appears to be in jeopardy, in part because of a controversial plan to expand fish farming at the mouth of the Skeena River, which is a major producer of wild salmon.

In Bulkley Valley-Stikine in 2001, Liberal candidate Dennis MacKay took 59 per cent of the vote to 22 per cent captured by the second-place NDP candidate. Mr. MacKay's main challenger this time is New Democrat Doug Donaldson.

In North Coast, Liberal Bill Belsey took 45 per cent of the vote in 2001 to edge out the NDP candidate, who captured 38 per cent. A small shift in the vote this time could lead to Mr. Belsey's defeat by the NDP's Gary Coons.

In Skeena, Liberal Roger Harris had a significant margin of victory in 2001, taking 65 per cent of the vote compared with the NDP's 20 per cent. Mr. Harris is being challenged now by New Democrat Robin Austin, and a turnaround in this riding would amount to a major shift in Liberal fortunes in the north.

The poll, commissioned by the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society on behalf of the Friends of Wild Salmon, found that 72 per cent of respondents were strongly or somewhat opposed to allowing open-net salmon farms on the North Coast.

"These findings reinforce that salmon farming is a key political wedge issue up here -- it cuts across urban and rural lines, political party lines and is a major concern for first nations and commercial and sports fishermen," said Andrew Williams, a teacher in Terrace and the chairman of the Friends of Wild Salmon.

The poll found that 83 per cent of respondents felt that the spreading of disease and sea lice from fish farms to wild stock at the mouth of the Skeena River is the major concern.

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The poll was based on a random sample of 600 adults, between April 21 and 23, with 200 sampled in each of the three ridings.

Out of a population of 100,000, a sample of 600 has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Within ridings, the sample size of 200 has a margin of error of plus or minus 6.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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