Canada: no more open net-pen salmon aquaculture in BC by 2029

Meanwhile, the Canadian government - which insists on talking about a "transition from open net-pen salmon aquaculture" - will renew existing licenses for five years, albeit with stricter conditions.
Canadian Fisheries and Oceans Minister, Diane Lebouthillier, and other cabinet members.

Canadian Fisheries and Oceans Minister, Diane Lebouthillier (first from left), was joined by other cabinet members as she announced the ban on open-net fish farming in British Columbia by 2029.

Photo: Diane Lebouthillier Twitter profile.

Earlier this week we wondered if it would, and we have our answer: it will. The Government of Canada will ban open net-pen salmon aquaculture in the coastal waters of British Columbia by June 30, 2029. The decision, which for being expected is no less impactful, has provoked an immediate and unanimous backlash not only from the aquaculture sector in BC and across the country but also from the pro-salmon farming First Nations and even from a fellow member of the governing Liberal party.

The Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Diane Lebouthillier - who was accompanied by the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, among other cabinet members - also announced that after July 1, 2024, only closed containment systems, marine or land-based, will be considered for salmon aquaculture licenses in coastal British Columbia, although "to facilitate a successful transition," the current salmon farming licenses in BC, which expire in 10 days, on June 30, will be extended for an additional five years.

"Responsible, Realistic, and Achievable"

"Responsible, Realistic, and Achievable: The Government of Canada announces transition from open net-pen salmon aquaculture in coastal British Columbia." That is the headline that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) chose for its release announcing what, in practice - and only a couple of paragraphs later - translated into a ban.

However, aware that "a number of First Nations, coastal communities, and others in British Columbia rely on open net-pen aquaculture for their livelihood and prosperity," the Canadian government also announced that, in the coming months, federal departments will engage with those directly and indirectly affected by this transition to discuss how best to support them.

"The government is firmly committed to taking concrete steps to protect wild Pacific salmon," the Fisheries and Oceans Minister stated. "Today, I'm announcing the essence of a responsible, realistic, and achievable transition that ensures the protection of wild species, food security and the vital economic development of British Columbia's First Nations, coastal communities and others, as we keep working towards a final transition plan by 2025," she added.

According to the release, a draft salmon aquaculture transition plan will be published by the end of July for BC, the only region where it will apply, as elsewhere in Canada the primary regulators are the provinces and territories.

Likewise, Lebouthillier also announced her intention to renew salmon aquaculture licenses for five years. However, the Minister warned that as of July 1, 2024, these licenses will come with stricter conditions "to ensure improved management of sea lice on farmed fish, robust reporting requirements for industry, and additional monitoring of marine mammal interactions."

"Irresponsible, Unrealistic, Unreasonable and Unachievable"

After the continuous disagreements with the previous head of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Joyce Murray - who ordered the closure of BC's Discovery Islands fish farms, a decision that has just been affirmed by a Federal Court - Canadian aquaculture welcomed the new Fisheries Minister with optimism precisely because of the "responsible, realistic and achievable" transition Diane Lebouthillier has always spoken of. However, the optimism and hope the industry held until earlier this week, even though the news seemed to point the other way, has faded after yesterday's announcement.

The response from both the industry in general - through the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA), the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA), the private sector supply companies to the aquaculture sector - and the production companies in particular - Mowi, Grieg Seafood and Cermaq have all issued statements -, the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, and even a fellow government party member, Liberal MP Wayne Long, have not been long in coming.

CAIA's President & CEO, Timothy Kennedy, was blunt. "Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier committed repeatedly to deliver a responsible plan that was 'realistic, reasonable and achievable'. Today, the Prime Minister and the Minister's Cabinet colleagues have thrown the Minister's commitments under the Liberal political bus and announced an objective by 2029 for BC salmon farming that is the opposite: irresponsible, unrealistic, unreasonable and unachievable," he said.

"Salmon farming in BC has been a vital sector contributing significantly to Canada's economy and food security," stated for his part Brian Kingzett, Executive Director of the BCSFA. "However, the political conditions on the licences increase the uncertainty for aquaculture in BC and Canada. This focus on unproven technology jeopardizes the sector’s ability to fulfill agreements with rights-holder First Nations and will cause further harm to our communities," he added.

In addition to the statements of the two associations, there were also statements issued individually by the salmon farming companies. Cermaq said "this decision limits any further opportunities for a modern salmon farming sector in British Columbia," and announced that it will take some time to decide its next steps. The same position was held by Mowi, which, after describing the announcement as "unfortunate" and remarking that "traditional marine salmon farming is absolutely sustainable," stated it will now take the time to examine the announcement and explore its options before taking the appropriate action. For its part, Grieg Seafood was the most concise, but also the most categorical in its statement as the company announced it will temporarily halt any investments in BC, amid new salmon aquaculture regulations.

Finally, the private sector supply companies to the aquaculture sector - including companies developing closed containment technologies, which, in theory, will benefit most from the new regulations - said they were "very concerned" about the federal government's objective. "What has been announced today does not meet the government’s commitment to a 'responsible' plan as it will negatively impact thousands of Canadians," they claimed. There are more than 1,000 different supplier companies involved in salmon farming in British Columbia.

"Salmon farming and environmental protection can coexist"

But, as said above, it is not only the industry that has taken a stand against the Government of Canada's decision to ban open net-pen salmon aquaculture in British Columbia's coastal waters. First Nations leaders also responded to Minister Lebouthillier and Minister Wilkinson's announcement on the reissuance of 5-year licenses for salmon farming, and the transition to closed containment by 2030.

At a press conference in Vancouver, the BC First Nations - who recalled that they have been in dialogue with the federal government since June 2022 about such a "responsible, realistic and achievable" transition from salmon farming - wanted to make their difference with the position of anti-salmon farming activists very clear.

"This is about community self-determination. This is about taking the opportunities for employment but spreading them into enhancement. Each of our communities has relationships with companies that we've asked them to invest in wild salmon operations within our territories, whether it be through husbandry, whether it through, be through cryogenic freezing of brewed stocks so we can continue to grow native species within our territories," said Dallas Smith, Spokesperson of the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, and acting Chief for Tlowitsis Nation.

"There is profound sadness and disappointment with the decision to prioritize the whims of so-called environmentalists over the rights of the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations. This decision is an attempt to extinguish our constitutionally guaranteed rights and titles," stated on his part Terry Walkus, Chief for Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations, noting that they have never ceded nor renounced their rights, titles, and interests, and that they will proceed to assert their sovereignty over their waters. "This will lead us to regulate all forms of equality, along with all marine activity," he continued. "Aquaculture is a means of economic empowerment and the path towards self-determination. It holds our nation from the brink of poverty that has been imposed on us by governments. The decision is unresponsive, unrealistic, and unachievable by 2025."

"The overall decision is based on wealthy millionaires, politicians, and activists. They're attempting to once again dictate our future as indigenous people," added Deputy Chief of Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation, Isaiah Robinson. "We choose to participate in this overall salmon aquaculture because we know it reduces the pressures of the wild stock and meets demand of affordability locally, producing farm-to-table food, preventing further inflations for Canadians," he continued. "The Kitasoo Xai’xais are stewards of the land and salmon farmers protecting our lands and waters for nearly 14,000 years. Salmon farming and environmental protection can coexist."

Finally, one more critical voice, this one from within the ranks of the governing Liberal Party, joined aquaculture advocates in British Columbia. Liberal MP Wayne Long called the decision "shameful" and claimed it was a sad day for the Canadian aquaculture industry and food production in the country. "As a party of science, it's difficult to understand how we haven’t followed our own scientists’ recommendations," he stated. "As a party of reconciliation, we are imposing an impossible timeline on coastal First Nations communities who choose to have salmon aquaculture to determine a realistic and responsible path for their economic futures."

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