Will Canada stop open net-pen salmon farms in British Columbia?

So claims a report citing government sources, which also states the government will give the industry five years to transition to land-based operations.
Cermaq Canada operation in Ahousaht Territory, British Columbia, Canada.

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

Photo: Cermaq.

The Canadian liberal government intends to continue its 2019 campaign pledge to end open-net salmon farms in British Columbia's coastal waters. So says local media The Globe and Mail, which cites three confidential government sources assuring the federal cabinet made the decision last week and the official announcement is expected this Wednesday.

According to the same sources, before that happens, Ottawa will renew the licenses for open-net fish farms for another five years, confirming rumors that already in February spoke of a possible extension of the duration of salmon licenses in BC when they expire on June 30, 2024, just twelve days from now. From that moment on, always according to information obtained by The Mail and Globe, "the industry must dismantle its open-net pens and move to land-based operations."

The BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA), which has received no correspondence from the federal government on the matter, has said that the forward plan reported in the article does not reflect what Minister Lebouthillier has publicly stated about it and that, if confirmed, it could result in the loss of more than 6,000 jobs.

Government will renew licenses for open-net fish farms for another five years

Fish farms are controversial in British Columbia because of the dangers detractors say they pose to wild salmon. Conservationists and many - but not all - Indigenous groups have been waging a public relations campaign for years, lobbying the government to fulfill its campaign promise to phase out ocean fish farms in British Columbia by 2025. If the news is now confirmed, this phase-out would finally come by 2029.

Sources quoted by The Globe and Mail said the government will renew licenses for open-net fish farms for another five years, the minimum business cycle from hatchery to harvest for salmon, and also the minimum demanded by the BC salmon industry since talk of the transition plan began. Two years ago, after Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) temporarily renewed the licenses, Tim Kennedy, President and CEO of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA) was even talking about six years.

A senior government official - one of three sources who have broken the news - now said the five-year timeline shows Ottawa is being responsible in helping the CAD 1.5 billion (EUR 1.01 billion - USD 1.09 billion) salmon industry adapt to a land-based operation. And this is perhaps the biggest takeaway from this news, that the much-talked-about transition plan will, according to this information, lead not to the use of marine closed or semi-closed containment systems - which some companies such as Cermaq have already implemented - but to land-based systems.

A move to land could result in the loss of more than 6,000 jobs

The British Columbia salmon industry, which recently expressed disappointment at the court's rejection of its appeal against the closure of the Discovery Islands farms, has responded to The Globe and Mail's report. In a statement posted on its website, the BC Salmon Farmers Association said the plan forward reported in this article does not reflect the "realistic, responsible and achievable" approach that Canada's Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier has publicly spoken about.

The BCSFA, which has remarked it has not received any correspondence from the federal government on the licensing decision, added that such a plan is not supported by the science, including that of the government's own scientists, who have repeatedly stated that salmon farming in British Columbia poses no more than minimal risk to wild Pacific salmon.

The Association, which has described the information as "unsubstantiated claims," has also said that a move to land would significantly affect the sector and could result in the loss of more than 6,000 jobs. The BCSFA added that such a decision on fish farming in BC will also have ripple effects in Atlantic Canada, as it will send a clear message that Canada is not a country in which to invest.

Producing 70,000 tons of BC salmon on land in five years is not a realistic idea

Precisely the heavy investment required for the installation of a land-based salmon farm is one of the disadvantages that Fisheries and Oceans Canada itself described in its 'Feasibility Study of Closed-Containment Options for the British Columbia Aquaculture Industry' which, in its Conclusions and Next Steps section, goes so far as to describe this possibility as "non-profitable," at least in the short term.

"The analysis showed that RAS technology is marginally viable from a financial perspective, but that it presents a higher level of risk compared to net-pen systems," says the DFO feasibility study. Nevertheless, it also notes that, as with most emerging or developing technologies, once wider adoption is achieved within the industry, capital, and operating costs can be expected to decrease.

If the news reported by The Globe and Mail is confirmed, the question now is whether five years is enough time to achieve it. The BC Salmon Farmers Association is convinced that it is not. "The idea that 70,000 tonnes of BC salmon can be produced on land in five years is unrealistic and ignores the current capabilities of modern salmon farming technology, as it has not been done successfully to scale anywhere in the world," expressed the Executive Director of the BCSFA, Brian Kingzett.

Moving to land could mean moving BC's salmon industry to the U.S.

In a previous interview with WeAreAquaculture, Kingzett himself explained the difficulties that, due to its orographic and infrastructure characteristics, the relocation of the salmon industry to land in British Columbia would have. "We're a remote rural area. We simply don't have enough power. Like just we don't have an electrical grid to do everything on the land. We’re high slope terrain. We don't have a lot of flat areas," he explained then. Who would invest under those circumstances, he wondered, and his answer was clear. "If we moved to land, those farms are going to be located probably in the U.S.," he predicted at the time.

BCSFA's Executive Director said then that these land-based farms would move to where the market is and where the feed is, and added, "We have just already all these incredible logistics to service our remote sites." If the news is now confirmed, Brian Kingzett believes, "This plan will lead to further increased food prices, heightened food insecurity across North America, and it will be a disaster for rural British Columbia and the First Nations striving to build a future with salmon farms in their traditional territories."

The industry association recalled that fish farms contribute over CAD 1.2 billion (EUR 813.99 million / USD 873.78 million) to BC's economy annually, employ over 6,000 direct and indirect jobs, and are the province's largest agricultural exports. Moreover, every farm operates in partnership or agreement with the First Nations in whose territories they operate.

While, as said, the federal government has not yet released a decision, the BC Salmon Farmers Associaton hopes that not only will it be released very soon, as the remaining licenses expire on June 30, 2024, but that it also will take into consideration all of these factors, defend BC jobs, advocate for meaningful economic reconciliation with the First Nations that support salmon farms, and stand up for rural coastal communities.

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