What’s next for British Columbia aquaculture?

Cermaq Canada operation in Ahousaht Territory, west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Cermaq.
Cermaq Canada operation in Ahousaht Territory, west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Cermaq.

September marked the arrival of autumn and, also, the change of phase in the discussion framework established by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans of Canada (DFO) for its plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in British Columbia. On one side the producers of Atlantic salmon, on the other the advocates of wild Pacific salmon, and in the middle a government to which all parties publicly thanked for their understanding, but which, actually, seemed to satisfy none of them completely.

The "alternative production methods that minimize or eliminate interactions between farmed and wild salmon" referred to by DFO would in practice mean the use of enclosed or semi-enclosed net pen systems. A technology that works well in other countries, but which the industry is beginning to test against the clock in B.C. forced by what the BC Salmon Farmers Association called an "ambitious timeline set out".  Meanwhile, from the other side, no one seems to trust the biosecurity of these systems and is betting that they will fail, and fish farms will be eliminated. And, in between, the First Nations Finfish Stewardship Coalition declares itself "cautiously optimistic".

At the end of October and with phase 2 underway, the polarization continues. Following Minister Murray's latest statements, those who seemed to applaud her most are now wary, and those who were more cautious then, more confident. All indications are that we still have some heated debates to watch in the fall.

Adapt or perish

"Wild Pacific salmon are at risk of disappearing forever if we don't act", said Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard in the press release in which the government announced its engagement towards a plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in British Columbia. "We will continue to chart the course forward for aquaculture in British Columbia, one that will support the ecologically sustainable growth of the industry, create jobs, and help keep our waters and marine ecosystems protected", she added.

In search of this greater sustainability, one of the options proposed is the creation of what has been called "enhanced performance licences" which, according to the government's proposal, "would provide an incentive for companies to meet higher standards of performance to gain the security of a longer term licence". In their view, this approach would encourage the industry to invest in partnerships and new technologies and to demonstrate a steady increase in environmental performance that would minimize or eliminate interactions between wild and farmed fish.

"Adapt or perish, now as ever, is the inexorable imperative of nature". It was H.G. Wells who wrote this sentence, but it could have been Canadian DFO. Adapting or perish seems to be the way forward for salmon farming in British Columbia, to complete the transition from open net pen systems to closed or semi-closed systems or lose their licenses.

As for the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA), when asked, they tell us they don't have a comment at this time regarding the dual-stream licensing approach. Nevertheless, they previously informed that the industry is testing floating and semi-closed containment systems. "Semi-closed systems provide increased biosecurity and welfare for both farm-raised and wild salmon – and are a first step towards the development of in-water closed containment farming technology", they said. According to them, semi-closed containment technology separates farmed fish from the ocean environment by surrounding the traditional salmon farming net system with an impermeable barrier that prevents sea lice and harmful plankton from entering the pen.

On the opposite side, speaking to Stefan Labbé for the local media Coast Reporter, Dan Lewis, executive director of Clayoquot Action, called closed-in-water containment an industry fantasy and technology that doesn't exist. According to him, the way to eliminate interactions between wild and farmed salmon is land-based technology. The BCSFA, for its part, insists that the ocean-based semi-closed containment systems (S-CC) and closed containment (CC) farms will therefore prevent sea lice infestations, virus transfer from the wild, and escapes. Moreover, they point out that these production systems will also avoid the massive energy requirements of land-based CC facilities.

"No other federally regulated sector in BC is facing such upheaval"

This sentence can be read in the report on the impact of licensing on the industry that the BC Salmon Farmers Association. That report was submitted prior to this summer's DFO announcement, but it seems that the feeling is the same, given that they referred us to it when we have now asked them about the status of the license renewal. The industry seems to feel under pressure and has described the proposed framework as "challenging, given the ambitious timeline set out". However, in their official statement following the framework announcement, they said they were encouraged that the federal government is relying on reconciliation and peer-reviewed science as the basis for planning.

As we said at the beginning, everyone seems to find a message of support for their cause in the government's announcement. But they say that it's good fishing in troubled waters, and in the middle of this turmoil, it appears that advocates for wild Pacific salmon are also taking Minister Murray's statement about protecting wild salmon as an endorsement of their own theories. In Stefan Labbé's article for the Coast Reporter mentioned above, Bob Chamberlin, president of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance (a group representing a hundred or so First Nations opposed to open-pit salmon farms in B.C.) said the federal announcement is one more step on a very long road to securing the future of wild salmon. In his view, eliminating fish farms is giving the fish a chance when they get out into the ocean.

Just over a month and a half after those words, the BCSFA was replying to statements issued to the Vancouver media from salmon farming advocates, and especially those of Bob Chamberlin, saying they "are contrary to data and evidence". In a strongly worded statement, Ruth Salmon, Interim Executive Director at the BC Salmon Farmers Association, blasted Chamberlin's claims saying that he has severely misrepresented historical data and relied on speculation to try to prove his unwavering belief that there is a link between wild salmon returns and salmon farms. "However, the facts are there is no causative link, let alone a correlation, related to salmon farm activity and salmon returns", she said.

"The facts – that never receive the same exposure from media as the criticisms – have not once supported these allegations", said Salmon then. "Our sector follows peer-reviewed science regarding any potential interactions with wild salmon. Multiple comprehensive scientific reviews have failed to show any links between salmon farms and negative impacts on wild salmon", Michelle France, BCSFA spokesperson, now assures to WeAreAquaculture. We tried to reach Mr. Chamberlin but did not get a reply from him.

Salmon run in a Canadian river of British Columbia. Photo: Adobe Stock.

Not all First Nations are against aquaculture

Who to believe when each side presents arguments based on science? B.C. public opinion doesn't have it easy, but, indeed, flashy headlines always get more attention. "As there is no independent or government body prepared to champion the sector, and address misinformation in the media, the debate continues to be polarized", Michelle France tells us. "Also, fear-based/sensational pseudo-research tends to attract the attention of media vs. industry or government research that is more neutral", she continues and gives us the example of CSAS reports showing that salmon farms present less than minimal risk.

The truth is that seen from the outside, in the local media the whole issue looks like an open war between salmon farmers and First Nations, when the reality has many more paths and nuances, starting with the most obvious one: not all First Nations are against salmon farms. The Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS) brings together those nations that consider salmon farming a path to self-determination and reconciliation.

We said at the beginning that in its statement in response to the announcement of the new framework, the FNFFS said it was "cautiously optimistic", however, it also makes clear what its main concerns are regarding the new framework. The first is "the short time frame for engagement with First Nations". The second is "the First Nations Fisheries Council's facilitation of First Nations engagement sessions and workshops in the consultation process".

According to it, taking into account the weight of the potential impact that this transition plan will have economically and socially on their communities, and also the busy fishing season ahead, the consultation process should be extended until 2024, "to ensure proper, respectful engagement for each Nation occurs".

Moreover, it is also highly critical of the decision that it is the First Nations Fisheries Council (FNFC) that is facilitating the engagement sessions for Tier 1 and 2. "We cannot trust that an impartial process will occur, as the FNFC's stance against salmon farming is well known", it said, and announced that they will continue their own communication, planning, and transition engagement with member Nations, industry, provincial and federal governments "to ensure a fair transition process takes place".

Short deadlines for too serious consequences

That the transition can be carried out in the time frame set by the government is especially important for its success. When in June the DFO renewed the licenses temporarily, Timothy Kennedy, President and CEO of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA), said: "While we are encouraged that licences have been renewed, we genuinely needed a six-year license term that reflected our production cycle". That term, 5 to 6 years, is the minimum to grow salmon from egg to harvest, "a licensing term that at minimum reflects the life cycle of the fish would provide minimum certainty for those fish to be grown to harvest size with the current ocean pen systems", Michelle Franze from the BC Salmon Farmers Association explains.  The industry needs time because the stakes are high.

According to the BCSFA, the license renewal process in BC will determine the fate of the remaining 4,700 workers and $1.2 billion in economic activity generated by the sector in BC, as well as the additional $200 million in economic activity and 900 jobs across the country. In the report highlighting this, they also pointed out the important involvement of salmon farming in remote coastal communities, its commitment to First Nations, and its contribution to social and environmental goals.

Something that the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship also underlines, highlighting the recognition received by DFO in the proposed framework. "Of particular interest is the federal government's recognition of the importance of our salmon farming partnerships, and how they directly impact the economic and social health of our communities in the form of good, meaningful jobs; benefit agreements with the sector; Indigenous-owned businesses working in salmon farming; and in some instances First Nations' tenure (marine lease) ownership", its statement said. And added, "We also appreciate the formal acknowledgment of our push for more Indigenous-led research, monitoring, oversight, and management of aquaculture and wild salmon conservation in our territories".

As seen, the implications of renewing or not renewing aquaculture licenses in British Columbia are too serious to rush into the process. That seems to be demonstrated by Phase 2, which is currently underway and will last until December. In Phase 1, in addition to an online survey for the public, virtual workshops were held for First Nations, Indigenous organizations, conservation groups, local BC governments and, of course, industry. "Phase 2 will provide opportunities for detailed dialogue and the exchange of ideas through workshops, roundtables, and meetings", said Fisheries and Oceans Canada. As part of this process of meetings and dialogue, Minister Murray has toured British Columbia to meet with all parties.

Changes in postures after the start of phase 2

As said, at the beginning of this process DFO referred to "alternative production methods that minimize or eliminate interactions between farmed and wild salmon" and some took those words as a statement in favor of eliminating aquaculture. On this tour, Joyce Murray has qualified her words. As reported by Rochelle Baker in the local Vancouver Sun, Canada's Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Coast Guard said her goal is to develop a pathway for existing aquaculture operations to adopt alternative production methods, so they can actually accomplish the goal of progressively minimizing or eliminating interaction between farmed salmon and the wild salmon.

Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. Photo: Government of Canada.

According to this article, Murray also said that the goal is to have the transition plan implemented next year and a new licensing system designed by June 2024. However, she did not give a final deadline for the process. "I think there was some misunderstanding that there would be sort of a dramatic change in just a very, very short time", said the Minister, who added that requiring closed-containment production methods aren't part of her mandate and that devising new farming methods would rely on the industry's creativity and investment in emerging technology.

After these words, the First Nations against salmon farming in the ocean are skeptical and disappointed. Speaking to the Vancouver Sun, the chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance said the federal process is flawed and, as it stands, they believe open net pens are not going anywhere in the next three years. "It's simply a 'go with the status quo.' They're just putting new laces on those old shoes", Bob Chamberlin stated to the local media.

Producers, on the other hand, seem more satisfied. "Salmon farming is continuously evolving, improving, and innovating, which can come as a surprise to those outside of the farming community", said Ruth Salmon, Interim Executive Director for the BCSFA, in a press release issued after the meeting with Murray, who visited several farms and a hatchery. "It was heartening to hear that the Minister is seeking to work with us to support the development of the Transition Framework. In order to successfully drive further innovation and technology adoption, there needs to be flexibility to allow for various pathways. The ecosystems in which we operate, as well as the priorities of the Nations in whose territories we operate are diverse. We need to have a full suite of tools and options available to ensure we are meeting the expectations of the Nations, protecting wild salmon populations, and providing healthy and sustainable meals", she added.

Not only Minister Murray's words, but also the latest industry news seem encouraging for the sector. In recent weeks, Cermaq Canada announced that it had completed the installation of new equipment for the second trial of its semi-enclosed containment system. In addition, the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA) reported that two indigenous companies had been elected to its board of directors. And finally, CAIA's former president, Jennifer Woodland, was appointed as the new CEO of its British Columbia operations, a significant move, as she has always identified reconciliation with First Nations as one of her top priorities. So, to the question 'What's next for British Columbia aquaculture?', amid Phase 2, the correct answer seems to be that there is hope. We shall see.

'Feds move to phase out open net salmon farms in B.C.', Coast Reporter article by Stefan Labbé.
'B.C. First Nations fear feds are backing away from a transition from open-net fish farms', Vancouver Sun article by Rochelle Baker.

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