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Under questioning at the House of Commons fisheries committee in late October, newly appointed Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier was non-committal about when the plan would be released.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Conservationists and Indigenous groups are fearful that the Liberal government is stalling on its pledge to phase out British Columbia’s open-net salmon farms in the face of pressure from the fish-farm industry.

During the 2019 federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to phase out ocean-based pen farms in B.C. by 2025, because of the risks to the health of wild Pacific salmon. But in June, Ottawa suddenly shelved the release of a draft transition plan toward land-based production.

Fish farms are controversial in B.C. because of the dangers they pose to wild salmon, including parasitic sea lice that can attach to young fish as they make their way to the ocean from the lakes and streams where they were born.

Under questioning at the House of Commons fisheries committee in late October, newly appointed Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier was non-committal about when the plan would be released.

‘’We need to continue to have conversations with people working in the field. They are asking for conversations,” she told MPs. “We will continue to work on the transition plan but it will be responsible.”

Ottawa struggles to keep election promises in remaining parliamentary time

Concerned that the government is walking back its campaign pledge, a coalition of conservationists and Indigenous groups wrote to the minister on Nov. 1, calling on her department to stop approving applications for production increases on open-net fish farms.

“This leaves us with the incongruous situation in which the industry is investing in expansion as your government consults concerning the transition plan that is supposed to put an end to open-net pen salmon farming,” they wrote in the letter obtained by The Globe and Mail.

“We ask that you instruct your department to cease granting approvals for licence amendments and that you issue a statement clearly advising the industry of your intention to honour the promise made to Canadians by your government, that open-net salmon farms will be transitioned out of B.C. waters by 2025.”

B.C. First Nations, representing 123 Indigenous bands opposed to ocean-based fish farms, are meeting with Ms. Lebouthillier Tuesday to press her to honour the government’s commitment. They will also meet opposition MPs.

The minister’s office declined to say Friday when the transition plan will be unveiled and whether the department will stop approvals of licence amendments.

NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron, who sits on the fisheries committee and represents a Vancouver Island constituency, said she is worried that the government has become beholden to the fish-farm industry.

“These farms are polluting the marine ecosystems with sea lice and pathogens,” she said in an interview. “It is clear that industry, which has a profit at stake and which are all not Canadian companies, have a big say with this Liberal government about how we are going to move forward.”

In an Oct. 23 letter to the Prime Minister, Tony Allard, chair of Wild Salmon Forever, pointed out polls that show a large majority of British Columbians support moving open-net fish farms to land.

Canada stands alone on the Pacific coast for allowing ocean-based fish farms, which mostly produce Atlantic salmon. “Washington State recently banned open-net pen salmon farms, relying on Canadian science documenting their harm to wild Pacific salmon,” he wrote.

In an interview, Mr. Allard said he fears that the Fisheries Department is stalling work on the transition plan, making it impossible for Ottawa to meet its 2025 deadline.

“Wild fish just are not a priority with this department,” he said. “Have we forgotten what happened to the cod in Atlantic Canada and how the Liberal government of the day vowed that we would never do this again?”

Tim Kennedy, president of Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, told The Globe that the transition plan should not result in the elimination of open-net fish farms by 2025, given the economic effect on workers and coastal communities.

“The activists are fighting against an industry from 20 years ago – they have never recognized improvements and the sector has moved on, modernized, will continue to modernize and address challenges and is now considered to be one of the most sustainable, eco-friendly food-production sectors in the world,” he said.

In an Oct. 30 letter to the House fisheries committee, Mr. Kennedy said that fish farms are not an ecological threat.

“Modern hatchery operations have substantial biosecurity and operational systems in place that simultaneously prevent disease and dramatically improve hatchery efficiency in water and electricity use,” he said.

He argued that escapes from fish farms are nearly zero and that “sea-lice levels on all farms are actively monitored and a range of new sea-lice treatment methods are routinely deployed to keep sea-lice levels under control, particularly during wild-salmon migration seasons.”

In March, the fisheries committee released a report, accusing the department of favouring the “interest of the salmon-farming industry over the health of wild fish stocks.”

Mr. Kennedy called the findings “unbalanced and prejudicial.”

In a late-September letter to Ms. Lebouthillier, Mr. Kennedy urged her to keep the remaining ocean farms. “It is critical that these farms remain because of the foundational supply-chain infrastructure and investment ecosystem that they support.”

There are currently 57 salmon farms on the Pacific coast. In February, then-fisheries minister Joyce Murray, an MP from B.C., announced that she would not renew licences for 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms in the Discovery Islands. The decision on the Discovery Islands farms is being challenged in the courts.

Dallas Smith, who speaks for the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, opposes the closing of fish farms by Ottawa in traditional waters.

“We will choose if, when, and how the salmon-farming sector operates in our waters. That is our right, just as it is the right of other Rights-holder Nations to remove fish farms from their territories,” he said in a statement.

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