The federal Fisheries Minister is delaying a decision on closing the remaining ocean-based salmon farms in British Columbia, after pressure from First Nations and the fish-farm industry.
Joyce Murray had been expected in June to release a transition plan to move open-net fish farms out of B.C’s coastal waters, to land-based farms.
But on Wednesday her office issued a statement saying it was extending a consultation on the future of the remaining open-net salmon farms off the coast of B.C. throughout the summer.
“To respond to requests from First Nations, industry and stakeholders, we are extending consultation on the open-net pen aquaculture transition to all interested parties through the summer,” the minister’s office said in a statement.
Ms. Murray’s mandate letter from the Prime Minister, setting out the priorities while in office, instructed the Fisheries Minister to work with the B.C. government and Indigenous communities “on a responsible plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”
The delay to the publication of the transition plan follows meetings this week in Ottawa between representatives of fish farms and senior staff from the Prime Minister’s and ministers’ offices.
Simon John, Chief of Ehattesaht First Nation, which has a salmon farm run by Norwegian company Grieg Seafood in ocean water in its Vancouver Island territory, was among those in Ottawa for the meetings.
Mr. John expressed his concern that the farms would be closed after he was told Ms. Murray was “about to cancel 50 per cent of salmon farming licences.”
He told The Globe and Mail he thought it should be up to his community to decide whether to close the fish farm in their territory. Mr. John said although the fish farm currently employed a handful of people from his community, it had the potential to create more jobs in future.
“We welcome the decision by the minister to delay her decision on the renewal of the salmon farm licences and extend her consultations,” Mr. John said in a statement. “However, unlike her previous decisions, we implore the minister to listen to the scientific evidence from her department and respect the input from Indigenous communities like ours and the decisions we’ve made.”
Andreas Kvame, CEO of Grieg Seafood, which has 14 salmon farms in B.C., was at the meetings with ministers’ staff in Ottawa this week.
He said his company has suggested “many innovations and solutions to minimize interactions with wild salmon.”
“Canada has the opportunity to be a leader in sustainable aquaculture, which would benefit the environment and economic future of our rural communities on the East and West Coast,” he said. “In order for the transition to be successful, we need investment certainty.”
The battle over the future of ocean-based salmon farms off the coast of British Columbia has intensified this year.
In March, chiefs from Indigenous communities throughout B.C. came to Ottawa to make opposing arguments about whether open-net salmon farms should be able to continue off the coast or be closed and moved to tanks on land.
Seven chiefs representing more than 50 B.C. First Nations met with ministers and NDP and Conservative politicians to argue for the closing of B.C’s remaining open-net salmon farms – representing a multimillion-dollar industry – to protect wild salmon and Indigenous peoples’ traditional way of life.
They argued that captive fish are passing on diseases and sea lice to wild salmon, and jeopardizing their survival. They said the dwindling of the wild salmon population is also threatening the welfare of killer whales, eagles, grizzly bears, wolves and other wildlife that rely on them for food.
Another group of B.C. chiefs refuted claims that farmed salmon were harming the wild Pacific salmon population and called for Ms. Murray to be stripped of her responsibility for deciding the future of salmon farms.
Earlier this year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced it would not renew the licences of fish farms in the Discovery Islands in B.C., thus phasing out the farms. The move was welcomed by Chief Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, who said closing the Discovery Islands fish farms was “a vital first step to protection of the dwindling B.C. salmon stocks.”
The federal Fisheries Department has been carrying out a consultation on the future of around 80 open-net pen farms off B.C.’s coast.
Tony Allard, chair of Wild Salmon Forever, a B.C.-based conservation group, which wants to move fish farms out of Pacific waters, welcomed the extension to the consultation, saying “it is much better to do this properly.”
“The government of Canada has been preparing this transition for four years now and has done precious little actual planning,” he said. “It is better to delay a few more months to get it right.”