Feds water down transition plan for fish farms

Eric Plummer, March 9, 2020

Atlantic salmon are farmed in the ‘Namgis Nation’s land-based Kuterra facility north of Campbell River. A commitment from the federal government has pledged for other closed containment operations on the B.C. coast. (Living Oceans Society photo)

Campbell River, BC — 

From a pre-election pledge to a post-vote mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Liberal government has softened its stance on moving fish farms out of the water.

The party’s campaign platform included a commitment to “work with the province to develop a responsible plan to transition from open net pen salmon farming in coastal waters to closed containment systems by 2025.”

But after the October election that earned the Liberals a minority government, this transition plan appears to have lessened in urgency. Now the government will “create a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025,” according the prime minister’s mandate letter to Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan.

On Feb. 28 Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns rose in the House of Commons to highlight this delay in action.

“The Liberals promised they would move to on-land, closed containment salmon farms on the B.C. coast by 2025,” said Johns, who is the NDP’s critic for fisheries and oceans. “Now they’re saying they won’t even have plan until 2025. B.C. wild salmon and workers can’t wait five years. The transition needs to get started now to save Pacific wild salmon.”

While many wild salmon stocks have declined on the B.C. coast, aquaculture production has grown steadily – representing a threefold increase since 2000 to 90,000 tonnes. Since 2014 the harvest of farmed salmon has surpassed commercial fishing, but the aquaculture industry’s growth has also brought multiple concerns among many West Coast residents. Most notable are how farmed Atlantic salmon - which are the species of choice in aquaculture – are affecting wild Pacific stocks with sea lice and viruses that spread more easily amid high densities of fish.

During a Council of Ha’wiih Forum on Fisheries in early February, Hesquiaht fisherman Constance Charleson expressed concern with the industry.

“I have a hard time with fish farms,” said Charleson, who has previously worked in aquaculture. “We had to sanitise our boats three times. But I’ll tell young something, those larvae didn’t die, they stayed alive in our pumps.”

“Hupacasath has no Atlantics in our territory, and we’d like to keep it that way,” noted Hupacasath fisherman Tom Tatoosh during the fisheries forum.

As the federal government, the province and First Nations work on a transition plan from the current industry standard of ocean-based net pens, on-land systems appear to be the alternative getting the most consideration. State of the Salmon Aquaculture Technologies, a report released by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 2019, notes how land-based farms that use recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) address many concerns from coastal communities about the fish farm industry.

“Strong local support will be built on the system’s ability to improve environmental performance across nearly all measures,” states the DFO report. “Protection of wild salmon, addressing concerns in recreational and commercial fisheries, and avoiding other marine spatial conflicts will substantially address the opposition to salmon aquaculture.”

During the Council of Ha’wiih on Feb. 4 Karen Wristen, executive director for the Living Oceans Society, highlighted the potential for Vancouver Island to adopt land-based, closed-containment fish farms. Currently the ‘Namgis-owned Kuterra facility north of Campbell River grows 370 tonnes of Atlantic salmon annually - a relatively small volume compared to the 90,000-tonne salmon farming industry on the B.C. coast.

But outside of Canada land-based aquaculture is growing, including this year’s launch of Atlantic Sapphire in Florida, which has the capacity to produce 30,000 tonnes in its first year of operation. Around the world over half a million tonnes of salmon are being raised completely on land, with operations in China and Denmark that each have a 2,000-tonne capacity in annual production.

“This is massive investment that’s happening in closed containment salmon farming,” said Wristen, noting that aquaculture companies with a stake in the B.C. coast aren’t among those exploring land-based systems. “Mowi, Grieg, Cermaq, they’re not investing in this, and there’s a reason for that: they are heavily invested in their ocean tenures in Norway. They charge millions for an ocean tenure there - unlike what Canada does - so it makes no sense for them to invest in a technology that’s going to render their tenure valueless.”

Floating closed containment systems also exist, which use the surrounding ocean water while fish are walled inside a facility. Cermaq plans to bring such a system to B.C., according to the DFO’s recent aquaculture report. The study also notes that land-based closed containment is not without environmental and social considerations.

“Depending on how land-based RAS is developed, local direct and indirect economic opportunities may be lost so coastal communities will raise concerns,” states the report. “There has been some local opposition to the recent large proposed facilities in the U.S. on the basis of water resource concerns or potential noise issues.”

Currently Cermaq and other aquaculture companies rely on land-based systems to raise their Atlantic salmon for the first year and a half, before the fish are transferred to the ocean. In its response to DFO’s aquaculture report, the BC Salmon Farmers Association said that closed containment on land will be part of the industry’s future “alongside ocean-based farming.”

“[The report] highlights that land-based recirculating aquaculture system technology requires the use of large amounts of land, water and power, and thus has a significant environmental footprint,” said Executive Director John Paul Fraser in a statement issued by the BC Salmon Farmers Association in February. “It also notes the technology has not been proven on a commercial scale, and needs to overcome challenges with fish quality, fish health, broodstock development and environmental impacts before being viable.”

Moving farms out of the water could result in lost employment for remote coastal communities, but Wristen emphasized that Vancouver Island poses attractive locations for land-based facilities.

“Don’t be told that the salmon farms are going to go away. There are people looking right now for land to start one here on the island,” she told the Council of Ha’wiih. “What has been proved by the ‘Namgis Kuterra experiment is that when you’re growing salmon in closed containment you want brackish water, not fresh water. So in fact what you need is a location somewhere close to the ocean, so that you can get clean ocean water to grow your fish.”

As part of a partnership with Cermaq, the Ahousaht First Nation has dozens of its members employed in fish farming. During the recent fisheries forum Ahousaht representative Kiista acknowledged the ongoing concerns about the industry, but said the agreement is maintained for the benefit of the First Nation’s people.

“We do have people that do work in that industry, what are we going to do if we shut them down? How are we going to compensate those people that are working?” he asked. “T’aaq-wiihak, I’ve got to be honest, they’re not giving us a fair living, they’re not. So what else are we going to fall back on? We have to have some way of compensating our people to have a fair living.”

“We respect things that you have to say against aquaculture, we ask that you respect us for our agreement,” continued Kiista. “It’s not a perfect agreement, we have our tussles - but yet it’s not for us personally, it’s for our people.”