Changes to Fisheries Act could harm Fraser River salmon
Keven Drews, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, October 31, 2012 8:03PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, November 1, 2012 12:02PM EDT
VANCOUVER -- Fisheries and Oceans Canada should cap the production of farmed salmon in British Columbia's Discovery Islands and issue no more licences because a "likelihood of harm" exists for migrating sockeye, says a B.C. Supreme Court justice.
In his three-volume report on the future of the sockeye fishery released Wednesday, Justice Bruce Cohen focuses 11 of his 75 recommendations on the province's salmon-farming industry, addressing issues like government management, the siting of open net-pen farms and the need for more research.
Cohen said he made the recommendations even though little scientific research exists related to the interaction between wild sockeye and farmed salmon, noting farms can potentially introduce exotic diseases and exacerbate endemic diseases.
"Disease can cause significant population declines, and, in some situations -- for example, if a disease were to wipe out a vulnerable stock of Fraser River sockeye -- such effects could be irreversible," wrote Cohen.
"I therefore conclude that the potential harm posed by salmon farms to Fraser River sockeye salmon is serious or irreversible."
The industry quickly downplayed critical sections of the report, while critics called for even tougher regulations.
"We know that the fish on our farms are healthy -- and Justice Cohen has acknowledged the impressive data we made available," said Stewart Hawthorn, a spokesman for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, in a statement.
"We are committed to protecting the marine environment and our iconic wild salmon -- and we support the call for further research in this small farming area."
But Will Soltau, a spokesman for the Living Oceans Society, said in a statement his organization looks forward to new criteria for siting salmon farms.
"Many of the farms in the Broughton Archipelago will likely have to be moved," he added.
Cohen's much-anticipated report, "The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye," was released after almost a year and a half of public hearings. His commission was called in November 2009, when only 1.4 million of an estimated 10 million sockeye returned to B.C.'s rivers and streams.
While Cohen found there was no "smoking gun," no single event or stressor, responsible for the decline between 1992 and 2009, he found Fraser River sockeye faced a "likelihood of harm" from disease and pathogens on farms, especially in the Discovery Islands, located northeast of Campbell River, B.C., between Vancouver Island and the province's mainland.
To address the potential problem, Fisheries and Oceans Canada should no longer be mandated to promote the industry and farmed salmon as a product but should act in accordance with its paramount regulatory objective of conserving wild fish, he said.
When siting salmon tenures, he said, the department should consider the proximity of those farms to migrating sockeye.
By March 31, 2013 and every five years after, the department should also revise its criteria for siting farms along the migration routes of sockeye, using the latest scientific information, said Cohen.
In the Discovery Islands, the department should not issue any new open net-pen licences, cap production and limit the maximum duration of a licence to one year, starting immediately and at least until Sept. 30, 2020, said Cohen.
If the minister determines open net-pen farms pose more than a minimal risk to Fraser River sockeye, the farms should be ordered to cease operations, he said.
On Sept. 30, 2020, the minister should also prohibit open net-pen farms in the Discovery Islands, unless he or she is satisfied those farms pose at most a minimal risk to migrating sockeye, the report said.
Cohen said the department should continue collecting fish data from the industry, farmed-fish samples for research purposes as a licence condition, and grant non-government scientific researchers timely access to fish-health data.
Randy Kamp, the parliamentary secretary to Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, said the government hasn't allowed any increase in productivity of farmed salmon in the Discovery Islands area for several years, but declined to commit to any moratorium.
"I'm not in a position to do that before the minister and the government has a chance to carefully review this report with its recommendations," he said.
Stan Proboszcz, a biologist with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said in a statement he has concerns with the report because it doesn't recommend a transition away from open net-pen salmon farms to closed-containment operations.
"Since the evidentiary hearings ended, new pathogen results suggest elevated risks to wild salmon and these pathogens may be linked to open net-pen farms," said Proboszcz.
"This risk would be mitigated by immediately removing the farms from the migration routes of wild salmon."
Alexandra Morton, an industry critic who participated in the inquiry, said more research on viruses is underway.
"The Fraser sockeye have been declining for the past 17 years, exactly the duration salmon feedlots have occupied the Fraser sockeye migration route," she said in a statement.
"We have a situation here and the Province of B.C. is going to have to figure out whether they are going to come out for or against wild salmon."
The industry issued its own response to the report, saying with only nine farms in the Discovery Islands, the area represent a small portion of its overall production, and members are willing to work with others to collect and evaluate new information.
"Our members are committed to farming responsibly -- and that commitment will continue as we move forward in light of these recommendations," Clare Backman, an industry spokesman, said in a statement.
"It's important that we continue with the important social and economic role we play in the coastal communities of B.C. while protecting our natural environment."
According to the B.C. government, 13 companies operated on 130 sites around the province in 2010, producing $499.6 million in farmed salmon, the majority of which was Atlantic.
The province is the fourth largest producer of farmed salmon, behind Norway, Chile and the United Kingdom.
The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in February 2009 that salmon farming was a fishery, and as a result it fell under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.