Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced a two-year renewal of licences for marine finfish aquaculture facilities outside of the Discovery Islands.

“I have mixed opinions about the announcement. I think there’s some good things and there are some not so good things,” said Stan Probosczc, senior scientist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “They received a license for two years based on these conditions and those conditions are rules that the salmon farms need to follow. Part of the problem is, we actually don’t have a copy of those rules yet.”

Cermaq Canada has reassembled most of the Raza Island fish farm and is waiting the go ahead to put nets back in the water – Photo courtesy Stan Proboszcz

He has seen draft copies.

Probosczc identified the spread of parasites from farmed to wild fish as a key concern.

“We really know through observation over  years and years, that the industry really isn’t able to control the parasites on their farms. So that’s something we’re really gonna have to watch.”

He added, “I think this is good progress towards their federal promise to transition the industry out of British Columbia by 2025.  I think the industry probably will not like this decision. It’s going to make their industry quite a bit more uncertain.”

Ruth Salmon, Interim Director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, says the industry is highly regulated and DFOs own science concluded that salmon farming and wild salmon can coexist. – submitted photo

Ruth Salmon, Interim Director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said, “While we were encouraged that the licenses had been renewed,  significantly longer term licenses are really needed to encourage further investment in innovation and technology.”

She said that while the government says is it is looking looking for investment in innovation, short term licenses do not encourage investors.

“We remain committed to work with government, including our First Nation partners and their voices have been heard in this. That’s very encouraging. I think together we can secure a bright future for salmon farming in British Columbia.”

“I think it’s a positive first step because it gives us an opportunity to work with both levels of government  including first nations, our partners that we work with on a path forward. So I think industry is encouraged by that.”

Details of a draft plan framework for transitioning from open-net pen salmon aquaculture will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

In its press release yesterday, DFO explained, “The transition plan will rely on input from the Government of British Columbia, First Nations, industry, local governments, stakeholders, and British Columbians. Consultations will run until early 2023. The feedback received during these consultations will be instrumental in the development of the final transition plan, expected in Spring 2023.”

While the press release uses the phrase ‘transition from open-net pen salmon aquaculture’ in three places, Ruth Salmon is encouraged by the fact it does not actually state the farms must move onto land.

“They talk about a transition plan that involves innovation and reduces interaction with wild salmon. They don’t actually say ‘land.’ So I think until we see that that framework and  how they’re defining transition. I think we probably can’t assume what it might look like,” she explained.

Sea lice on a wild salmon smolt. DFO imposed a 3 lice per fish threshold on salmon farms, after which they must take remedial action – Photo by Tavish Campbell

On April 22, a federal court ruled that former Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan breached the rights of B.C. salmon farmers to procedural fairness when she ordered them to phase out operations in the Discovery Islands by June 2022.

Consequently, DFO will now conduct consultations with First Nations communities and current licence holders in the Discovery Islands on the future of salmon farm licences in this area. These consultations will inform a final decision expected in January 2023.

If the licenses are renewed, one of the first farms to go operational could be at Raza Island, just off the northern tip of Cortes. Cermaq Canada has reassembled the site and is poised to put its nets back into the water.

“The good news is  first nations and governments will be at the table together.  This is the kind of process that we were hoping for before in the discovery islands. That didn’t happen. The first time a minister Jordan made her decision it was a decision without a consultation with all stakeholders, all parties, all first nations. Now they realize that’s an important step to take. We’re pleased by that,” said Salmon.

Proboszcz added, “The kicker there is that they did not renew those licenses during that consultation process. That’s really good news in my opinion.  The announcement said that they’re gonna make a final decision on the Discovery Islands in the beginning of 2023. That means that there’s no Atlantic salmon that are gonna be going into those farms anytime soon, which is great news.”

He believes that Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray did not make the announcement at a public presentation because no matter what she said, some people were going to be upset.

“I think these are positive indications that this government is going in the right direction on this issue, but we’re gonna have to continue to watch both the industry and the government.”

Proboszcz was on the steering committee of the first five risk assessments that the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) made of fish farms.

When he testified before the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, Stan Proboszcz suggested that DFO covered-up some of its own research when it concluded fish farms pose ‘minimal risk’ to wild salmon. He believes they reduced the number of science risk assessments from 10 to 9 because the evidence indicated sea lice harm wild sockeye. – submitted photo

He alluded to some of the recent testimonies that a number of scientists and environmental leaders made before Parliament’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.

(Nine pro-industry scientists responded through an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail.)

“There are components of Fisheries and Oceans Canada that have been suggested to have an alignment with industry or a potential industry bias,” said Proboszcz. “If that’s the component that is monitoring the industry,  coming up with these conditions of license we still could be facing internal problem within the federal government and particularly some people in the aquaculture management branch of DFO.  They really still need to be watched over the next several years until that 2025 deadline is up.”

Top image credit: Inside one of the pens at the now decommissioned Barnes Bay Fish farm, off Sonora Island. – Photo courtesy Stan Proboszcz