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Diane Lebouthillier arrives for a cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on July 26.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Ottawa’s new Fisheries Minister is being urged by conservationists to maintain a federal commitment to phase out British Columbia’s remaining ocean-based salmon farms, in the face of pressure from the fish-farm industry and some First Nations.

Diane Lebouthillier, who took over the ministry from Joyce Murray in this week’s cabinet shuffle, is wading into an intense battle between the fish-farming industry and conservationists over the future of commercial salmon farming in B.C.

Conservationists and some First Nations chiefs argue that ocean-based salmon farms are harming wild-salmon populations and should be closed or moved to tanks on land. But the fish-farming industry and other First Nations chiefs want to keep the farms open and say there is no conclusive scientific evidence that they are passing on diseases to wild salmon.

The head of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA) said he hoped that the appointment of a new minister would lead to a “reset” and further growth in the industry.

Last month, the alliance published an open letter to the Prime Minister attacking Ms. Murray over her handling of the B.C. fish-farm issue and plans to close more farms.

“We look forward to working with Minister Lebouthillier to focus on the opportunities across Canada to grow Canada’s seafood farming production to benefit rural, coastal and Indigenous communities that have many of the same needs as the small communities in the minister’s riding,” said CAIA president and chief executive Tim Kennedy.

“We hope this is an opportunity for a reset – to really work collaboratively and to listen to the coastal and Indigenous communities on the ground to hear their solutions and build from the bottom up,” he added.

Ms. Murray’s mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in late 2021, setting out the priorities while in office, instructed her 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.”

On Friday, Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, called on the new Fisheries Minister to press ahead with the Prime Minister’s instruction to phase out these types of salmon farms, despite opposition from the industry.

“Minister Lebouthillier must continue the path charted by her predecessor to ensure that the precautionary principle is applied to fish farms and wild-salmon interaction in British Columbia,” he said.

“First Nations across the province rely upon wild salmon and we look forward to this government upholding their application of Supreme Court law by including First Nations in fish farm transition planning – to ultimately remove the farms from Pacific waters by 2025.”

Tony Allard, founder of Wild Salmon Forever/Wild First, said open-net salmon farms, based in the ocean, had been closed in California, Washington State and Oregon, and B.C. was lagging behind.

He said there was widespread support in British Columbia for closing the salmon farms off B.C’s coast. If the government failed to deliver on its promise to close them, he said, it could turn into an election issue for the Liberals.

“The government has mandated this transition twice. I am confident that they will deliver,” he said. “She [the new minister] will have her work cut out for her though.”

In June, Ms. Murray suddenly shelved the release of a transition plan to move open-net fish farms out of B.C’s coastal waters, to land-based farms. Her office issued a statement saying it was extending a consultation on the future of the remaining open-net salmon farms throughout the summer.

The delay to the publication of the transition plan followed meetings in Ottawa between representatives of fish farms and senior staff from the Prime Minister’s and ministers’ offices.

One aim of the extended consultation was to explore further how to support First Nations with salmon farms in their territory as they transition to alternative sources of income and jobs, such as eco-tourism, and other forms of aquaculture that would not pose a risk to wild salmon.

Ms. Lebouthillier is the third minister to take over responsibility for the transition plan. Her appointment was welcomed by Grant Cumming, the North American CEO of Grieg Seafood, which has 14 salmon farms in B.C.

“As she herself comes from a region largely dependent on the fishing industry, we are optimistic that she will understand the importance of salmon farming to rural and Indigenous communities, as well as to the Canadian economy and exports,” he said.

Simon John, chief of Ehattesaht First Nation, which has a salmon farm run by Grieg Seafood in its Vancouver Island territory, welcomed the new minister, saying there were many important issues to discuss.

“We really hope there is a new desire to work together to build better, more sustainably driven, local management of the waters in places like the Ehattesaht so we can create good jobs in our communities,” he said.

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.

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