The B.C. government will keep a moratorium on new salmon farm tenures in place while it gets feedback from the public and First Nations on recommendations made by the Minister of Agriculture's Advisory Council on Finfish Aquaculture.
But if one of the recommendations is followed when 20 fish farm tenures come up for renewal in June is followed, it could spell the end of some fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago.
The advisory council was set up in 2016 to advise the provincial government on salmon farming, the goal being to determine if the industry is socially and ecologically sustainable and to address the potential threat they pose to wild salmon stocks.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham briefly addressed the report in a Thursday April 5 press conference. She had little to say about the recommendations made by the advisory council, and said her government will be seeking feedback from the public on the report.
Her government is also having direct consultations with First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago, where salmon farms are most highly concentrated and most highly contested.
While the federal government is responsible for licensing fish farms, the provincial government is responsible for tenures.
The advisory council makes a number of recommendations, including the formation of a science advisory council, made up of non-government scientists, to address the “conflicting science” related to sea lice, viruses and other pathogens, and the extent to which they may have negative impacts on wild stocks.
While the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) generally agrees with the council’s recommendations, it says one of them “unworkable.”
The recommendation in question is: “Acknowledge and incorporate First Nations’ rights, title and stewardship responsibilities in all aspects of fish farm governance, including tenuring, licensing, management and monitoring in a manner consistent with the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).”
That recommendation is troublesome, the BCSFA says in a press release: “While salmon farmers agree collaborating with local First Nations when working on Crown land is crucial and have a long track record of doing so, as currently drafted the recommendation that would require Crown tenure holders to acquire First Nation agreements as a condition of continuing operations at existing business sites is unclear and would be unworkable in practice."
While some salmon farms in B.C. do have First Nations consent and cooperation, many in the Broughton Archipelago do not.
Moreover, there are overlapping territorial claims, and there have been instances where one band council approved fish farms, only to be replaced by a band council that opposes them.
“As it’s written, it just seems very unclear and unworkable because you are investing millions of dollars into an area that could have started with support and, before the tenure renewal, a change of leadership would change their direction,” said Ian Roberts, a spokesperson for Marine Harvest.
The Marine Harvest Port Elizabeth fish farm has been occupied in recent months by First Nations who say the company does not have their consent to operate in their traditional territory.
In October 2017, Popham sent a letter to Marine Harvest threatening not to renew the company’s tenure, when it comes up for renewal in June. Of the 20 tenures up for renewal in June, Marine Harvest has 11.
Asked if the her government will follow the recommendation on getting First Nation consent when making decisions on renewing tenures in June, Popham suggested it would.
“They’re going to be part of the process,” she said of the recommendations. “But also, very importantly, the process that we’re undergoing right now with the seven nations within the Broughton Archipelago are critical to those outcomes.
“So of course this report is important information for us to consider and we will be considering that recommendation as well, but I don’t want to interfere with the process that we’re undergoing with the nations at this time.”
The advisory council was composed of a range stakeholders from opposite ends of the spectrum – from the BCSFA to the David Suzuki Foundation. It also included a number of First Nations and fisheries scientists.
The report acknowledges a gulf of differing opinions among advisory council members, but reached consensus on one key point: “All council members believe that wild Pacific salmon should come first and the precautionary principle needs to apply.”
Premier John Horgan has made it clear in the past his government plans to follow the direction of the Cohen Commission, which recommended that salmon farms be located away from salmon migration routes.
Popham also reiterated support for the idea of moving to land-based fish farming.
“We’ve committed to the idea of moving ocean-based farms onto land,” she said. “I don’t know how that will actually play out, but I can tell you that the technologies around the world are progressing and we’re keeping a close watch on that.”
The problem with land-based fish farms is that, to date, none have turned a profit.
The advisory council notes that the financial viability of land-based fish farms remains “challenged,” and adds that the full environmental impacts of land-based farming – higher energy use, fresh water use and waste treatment – “have not been fully investigated.”
Some of the other recommendations being made by the advisory council include:
• relocating some salmon farms;
• area-based management that would include identifying appropriate geographic areas for fish farms, and maximum densities; and
• locating fish farms in waters with low salinity that might reduce the number of sea lice in farmed fish;
Some wild salmon stocks in B.C. – notably coho, Chinook and steelhead – have suffered dramatic declines in recent years, while others, like pink and sockeye salmon, have yo-yoed between record highs and lows.
Fish farms have been identified as one the many possible factors that could be having an impact on wild stocks.
Salmon farming in B.C. generates $1.5 billion in economic activity in B.C. and directly employs 3,000 people, according to economic analysis released last month by the BC Salmon Farmers Association.