BC Fish Farms to Expand Despite Trouble

Rather than a powerhouse of economic development for hard hit rural communities, the foreign-owned fish farms crowding BC's coast are ecologically unsustainable and barely profitable.

by Laurie MacBride and Suzanne Connell, Georgia Strait Alliance

Despite abundant evidence that it's the wrong thing to do, in September the BC government lifted the seven-year moratorium on new salmon farms.

The government justified the decision by saying new "science-based" regulations will protect wild salmon and marine habitat from fish farm impacts, and that the move will create up to 12,000 new jobs over the next decade.

But the decision was based on ideology, not science. The BC government's own Scientific Advisory Group made recommendations against the province's approach to aquaculture waste management (though the government withheld these from public release until two weeks after the lifting of the moratorium). And in another report released in June, federal Fisheries scientists concluded that BC's new aquaculture waste management regulation will not adequately protect marine habitat and has no valid basis in science.

As for the "jobs" claim, it's worth noting that worldwide, fish farms have expanded but the number of people they employ has decreased. There's no reason to think it will be any different in BC, especially since the same foreign-owned multinationals control the industry here. Only one of the "big five" companies operating in BC is Canadian.

As well, prices and net profits for fish farm companies have plummeted – for example, the world's leading company, Nutreco (which owns Marine Harvest Canada, one of BC's big five) saw its net income for the first half of 2002 down 86% from the first half of 2001. So if the BC government is hoping to bring new prosperity to the province, it appears to have made a very poor business decision.

What's the context for the lifting? Throughout Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago, fish farmers are fighting an epidemic fish disease called Infectious Hepatopoeitic Necrosis (IHN). On the North Island, rampant kudoa (soft flesh disease) in fish farms has caused sales and prices to plummet, resulting in major layoffs. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, toxic algae blooms, almost certainly exacerbated by waste from fish farms, have caused massive die-offs of farmed fish. And perhaps most sobering of all, sea lice associated with fish farms appear to have caused a massive blow to wild salmon stocks.

The beginning of the end for wild stocks?

It's even worse than we predicted. The sea lice epidemic at fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago last year appears to have caused an unprecedented, near-total collapse of pink salmon runs in seven rivers in the Broughton Archipelago, putting the pinks in these rivers at risk of extinction.

By late September — long after the run of spawning pink salmon should have been finished — the results from counts conducted by the area's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) patrolman showed a drop from 3.6 million fish in 2000 (the brood year of these fish), down to just 57,220 this year, a drop of 98%. One of the rivers has had no returns whatsoever. DFO had predicted a high return this year.

Biologist Alexandra Morton did extensive research on sea lice on the pink smolts (juveniles) in the Broughton last summer, and found that as they passed the fish farms on their migration out to sea, the smolts became infested with lice at levels that pink salmon experts said were lethal to smolts. These were the same fish that should have returned to spawn this summer.

She warns that next spring these runs of pink salmon are extremely likely to become extinct, if the offspring from the few that managed to spawn have to pass lice-infested farms on their way out to sea. The only way to save the pinks, she says, is to fallow all the farms along their migration route, before next spring's smolts have to pass by.

Worse still, she has continued to research sea lice occurrence on pinks throughout the central and north coasts this year, and has found that everywhere there are fish farms, pinks have elevated levels of sea lice. (This should not be surprising, since the same thing occurred in Ireland and has devastated wild fish there.) That means this year's smolt run may also have been infested with sea lice, on its way out to sea – which would spell disaster for pink salmon in the seven Broughton Archipelago rivers.

Siting: good news, bad news

In September, the provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) took an uncharacteristic step in getting tough with a fish farm company that had thumbed its nose at the law. After more than six months' delay, MAFF laid charges under the provincial Fisheries Act against Omega Salmon Group, for putting fish into a farm at Kent Island (north of Port Hardy) before receiving approval for the site. The charges carry a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine per day that the fish were illegally in the pens. To add to the company's chagrin, DFO has since ordered the fish removed and turned down the application for the site, since the area has a sustainable population of abalone (currently endangered).

On the disappointing side, the provincial government has approved a new site at Humphrey Rock in the Broughton Archipelago, despite strong opposition from local First Nations and the fact that the site is on an important wild salmon migration route. The application is currently being assessed by DFO.

The province is also putting pressure on the Regional District of Comox Strathcona to back down from its position opposing fish farms in Bute Inlet (Quadra Island area). Although the Regional District (whose local foreshore zoning does not allow salmon farming) rejected three site applications from Heritage Aquaculture just last year, there is now intense pressure from the province and industry to allow salmon farming in Bute Inlet. For example, the province recently invited a proposal for one of the sites, despite the fact that the Regional District has already turned other applications down.

As well, the provincial government has indicated that it may add areas of coastal waters to the jurisdiction of the Agricultural Land Reserve and designate marine areas under the "Right to Farm" Act. These moves would severely restrict the ability of local communities and local governments to determine what industrial activities are appropriate in their communities. Local governments would no longer have the ability to enforce bylaws aimed at restricting disturbances in communities (including the discharge of firearms at fish farms), and these disturbances could become legally protected.

To sign a petition against these proposed changes go to www.georgiastrait.org on the Internet.

Disrespect for dialogue

In late September, the Georgia Strait Alliance joined several other conservation groups, the BC Aboriginal Fisheries Commission, DFO and MAFF in co-sponsoring a three-day First Nations Salmon Aquaculture Summit. The event was meant to provide an opportunity for a diverse group of people to hear expert speakers and engage in meaningful dialogue on a contentious issue.

But we have to wonder just what the BC government means by "meaningful dialogue." On the final day of the Summit, just as delegates were attempting in good faith to develop common recommendations, John van Dongen, Minister of Agriculture, Food & Fisheries released an "opinion editorial," enumerating his reasons for lifting the fish farm moratorium. The lengthy piece dismissed all the concerns raised over the three days of the Summit and its timing showed complete disregard for serious concerns raised by First Nations and other delegates.

Consumer power

In the last week of October, chefs, scientists, fishermen and conservation groups joined from both sides of the border to announce the launch of an international markets campaign targeting BC farmed salmon. The goal of this campaign, coordinated by the Coastal Alliance for Aqua-culture Reform, is to educate consumers and retailers about the environmental and potential health risks associated with farmed salmon. Georgia Strait Alliance's role in this initiative is to build support for this campaign within our region.

We are asking retailers and consumers to do an easy thing: Make a public commitment to stop buying and selling farmed salmon until it's safe for us and safe for the oceans. Coastal Alliance for Aqua-culture Reform has sent information to more than 2,000 grocery stores and restaurants along with a request that they stop selling farmed salmon. So far 50 stores and restaurants have joined the campaign, including leading chefs in San Francisco and Portland.

The power of informed and active consumers is perhaps the greatest tool of all, holding great promise for reforming the fish farm industry even in the absence of adequate government monitoring, enforcement or political will.

* Watch for Georgia Strait Alliance's new "Diner's Guide," appearing soon on www.georgiastrait.org

[From WS December 2002/January 2003]

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