BC's Expensive Fish Farms

Briony Penn

On the afternoon of February 10, 2015 a whale watching boat docked at Port McNeill, BC, packed with 48 Malcolm Islanders from the small village of Sointula.
They weren’t whale watchers;  these were shrimp fishermen, fishing lodge operators, First Nations people, residents, members of local organizations, and biologist Alex Morton, who were coming to an open house of Grieg Seafood – the company that is proposing an expansion of two salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago that would set a precedent of replacing shellfish tenures with finfish. The reason the islanders were delivered by a whale watching boat was because the meeting was scheduled at the time when the ferry only carries dangerous cargo.

Some might argue that the residents were the dangerous cargo. According to Gord Curry of Living Oceans Society, the islanders, determined to have their voices heard, found their own transportation to Port McNeill and delivered their message loud and clear: No more open net salmon farms; closed containment systems are the answer. Locals pointed to the Namgis First Nation down the road that has set up the first land-based closed containment systems in the region and has been delivering farmed salmon for nearly a year with no risk to wild salmon. The open house was intended to be a little tête-à-tête with industry representatives, but it quickly changed into a town hall meeting where people voiced their concerns collectively.

The same calls of alarm are echoing around the coast as the industry is poised to expand open-net salmon farming four-fold. With the recommendations of the $26 million BC Cohen Commission (tasked to find answers to the disappearing Fraser sockeye in 2012) still mostly unimplemented, the increasing volatility of viruses and other pathogens, the declining efficacy of sea lice drugs, the slashing of federal regulations to allow indiscriminate use of new chemicals to fight the lice, and the continued muzzling of government scientists, there are reasons to be concerned.

On the lower Vancouver mainland, Stolo First Nation activist Eddy Gardner is gathering steam encouraging groups to boycott Costco, Walmart, and other stores with his online Farmed Salmon Boycott kit with easy instructions for anyone to get started to stage your own boycott. The Change.org petition to ban salmon feedlots is at 106,000 and rising.

Back in Port McNeill, Curry pointed out the obvious to officials, given that one of the recommendations of the Cohen Commission was to put a moratorium on salmon farm expansion in the Discovery Islands – south of the Broughton-Archipelago – to assist the Fraser sockeye migration: “It isn’t a stretch of logic that what’s good for Fraser salmon is good for Knight Inlet salmon.” And that is what’s at stake with the Grieg applications: a safe migratory route for the Knight Inlet salmon, and the loss of productive shrimping grounds. Fishermen of Sointula who rely on that productivity stand to lose their livelihoods with no compensation.”

Fish Farm Expansion
Meanwhile, over on the west side of Vancouver Island, Clayoquot Sound fish farm watchers, like Clayoquot Action’s Bonny Glambeck, continue to tussle with the planned expansion of two new Atlantic salmon feedlots in Millar Channel and Herbert Inlet. There are currently 21 fish farm sites in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and Cermaq, a big player in the Sound, wants to add another farm to Millar Channel, which already suffered major die-offs from infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus (IHNV) in 2012, and from an algal bloom in 2014.

Herbert Inlet is at the gateway to the Moyeha River, one of the last intact watersheds on Vancouver Island, through which spawning fish enter and smolts leave. According to Glambeck, the issue is simple: “Salmon populations are crashing in pristine watersheds – coincidentally where all the fish farms are. So why wouldn’t we be implementing everything we learned from the Cohen Commission before we start expanding this industry? The recommendation of Cohen was not to have farms on migration routes and Herbert Inlet, for one, is on a migration route.”

One of Cohen’s recommendations was for DFO to review and change the siting criteria and analyze all current licenses to meet the new criteria. According to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), it is now poised to release its new licencing regulations and will be open for business. DFO will now be evaluating new marine finfish aquaculture applications (other than the Discovery Islands area and the north coast where the provincial 2008 moratorium is in place) “through the lens of environmental sustainability and engagement with First Nations and other stakeholders.”

In an effort to expand the social licence for fish farming, DFO set up the Aquaculture Management Advisory Committee (AMAC). Craig Orr, long-time advocate with Watershed Watch, was invited to serve on the committee but quickly dropped out, claiming it was “a sham.” He stated, “In particular, that there wasn’t a broad enough science input into AMAC. DFO said that their own scientists would be the only representation. The Cohen Commission specifically identified that DFO’s science mandate was too narrow and conflicted in terms of them wanting to expand the industry and that is exactly what they are doing now.”
DFO refutes these allegations. It claims the federal government respects the 2008 moratorium in the north and that it takes a “science-based approach to the management of aquaculture in British Columbia, including consideration of both DFO and non-DFO research.”

Glambeck also turned down a seat on the advisory committee which hosts seven industry reps, two industry associations, two local government reps, seven First Nations and, ostensibly, three environmental non-governmental organizations’ (ENGOs) representatives. No ENGOs have accepted the invitation. Why? The advisory committee is tightly controlled, as are the questions that come before it for review.

Fish Virus and Sea Lice
One of the independent scientists whose questions and research have been rejected by the Science Advisory Secretariat is Alexandra Morton, who has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals like Science and posts monthly updates on her work with viruses and sea lice. She has been continuously testing for one of the most dangerous viruses, Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA), a strain of which hit Chilean fish farms with devastating results in 2007-2009. The Cohen Commission revealed evidence of strains of ISA in farms from Clayoquot Sound (reported by a DFO lab). As Morton attests, “We have learned from the Cohen Commission that several government labs have produced positive tests for the ISA virus in BC. Last fall the Canada Food Inspection Agency made an announcement that they couldn’t find ISA virus on the coast. I’ve asked them to detail their methods but they won’t provide them. I continue to do work with the eastern lab [that tested positive results for ISA in supermarket-bought fish] and I hope to publish the results.”

In order to bring attention to the severity of the problem, Morton launched a lawsuit with Ecojustice last December, based on a 2007 confidential memo in which the provincial vet in charge of farmed salmon told the minister that BC is at low risk from ISA because BC doesn’t import live salmon eggs. He wrote that memo at the time when his colleagues in DFO were filing reports on the importation of 28 million live Atlantic salmon eggs into BC. As Morton recounts, “I asked the College of Veterinarians to investigate twice and they refused, so I went to Ecojustice.” [Update: In May, the Federal Court of Canada handed down the decision that “DFO has been unlawfully allowing the salmon farming industry to transfer farmed salmon into marine net pens that are carrying diseases with the potential to “severely impact” the wild fishery at an international level.” See www. alexandramorton.typepad.com

Morton’s early research focused on the sea lice issue. As she notes “The salmon fish farm industry is in a drug war with sea lice that they are losing around the world. There is a myth in BC that says sea lice are not a problem here, but it is not true. They are currently using drugs to suppress them …. But a life on drugs never works. Companies are certainly looking for new drugs.”

In response to diseased fish invading Norwegian sportfishing waters and apparently intractable sea lice drug problems, the Norwegian parliament is tightening up their water regulations. Unfortunately, that sends Norwegian companies to the wild frontier of BC where licenses and rents are virtually free, regulatory oversight is minimal, government compensation is provided in case of die-offs from disease, and the government accommodates industry expansion.
In Norway, salmon farm licenses cost $1.69 million dollars each. With 1,400 of them, substantial revenues are generated. Compare that to DFO’s proposed flat fee of $100 per license which will come into effect in 2015 for 115 federally-listed aquaculture licences.

The Numbers
BC takes $2.50 per tonne of produced farmed fish. With 787,000 tonnes produced annually, that means about $2 million is coming in – not much considering it costs $6.3 million to run the BC Aquaculture Regulatory Program, $54 million to run the Sustainable Aquaculture Program, and $6.5 million is spent on regulatory research. The province, under the new federal/provincial harmonized Aquaculture Application, now just handles the renting of Crown seabed under a farm, a role which the Stolo’s Eddy Gardner refers to as the “slum landlord of the coast.” He has a point: Industry rents farms at a little over $700 per hectare per year. With a total of 4,575 hectares, that brings BC another $3.3 million in annual rent.

The BC Salmon Farmer’s Association argues that their industry “provides 6,000 direct and indirect jobs while contributing over $800 million annually to the provincial economy.” It is hard to know where those numbers come from. In their recent Fisheries and Aquaculture Sector report, BC Statistics counts only 1,700 people as employees of either finfish or shellfish farms (at least 20 per cent are in shellfish). The report notes both forms of aquaculture contribute a total of $61.9 million to the GDP (from $496 million in direct sales of farmed fish and shellfish).

According to the government report, the multiplier for the aquaculture sector is 7.83 jobs per $1 million of direct sales of salmon sold, which at $496 million means there are, at most, an additional 3,883 jobs. But the numbers seem high. The award-winning environmental reporter D.C. Reid, in his Fish Farm News and Science, claims he could only find 795 actual employees of all fish farms in BC.

Regardless of which set of data one uses, aquaculture doesn’t come close to the economic benefits of sport fishing. This sector contributes $325.7 million to GDP, $936 million in gross revenue with 8,400 direct jobs, according to BC Stats. The government uses an 11.36 multiplier effect in the sports fishing sector, for 10,633 additional jobs. This is an industry that is detrimentally impacted by fish farming. If you add the data for the commercial capture fishery, which still generates $102 million to the GDP and 1,200 direct jobs, plus the subsistence fishery for First Nations, aquaculture – which threatens all three – is blown out of the water in terms of jobs generation.

One figure the BC Salmon Farmer’s Association doesn’t like to talk about is the number of taxpayer dollars its members get from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for their diseased fish. Last year, after weathering an injunction against releasing compensation figures, D.C. Reid reported payments of $2.64 million to Cermaq Mainstream for 959,498 diseased salmon at its IHN-infected Clayoquot Sound farms and $201,000 for infected equipment and supplies. Grieg Seafood’s open-net operation in Sechelt received $1.61 million for 312,032 IHN-diseased fish and $152,000 for infected equipment and supplies. Adding BC figures to those in Atlantic Canada, Reid said, “Here’s the bottom line: In little more than a year, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency paid fish farms almost $50 million taxpayer dollars for diseased slaughtered fish across Canada.”

Why is the federal government catering to three foreign companies which employ few people, bring relatively few dollars into the economy, and cause high administrative and legal costs – let alone the incalculable ecological damage of devastated wild stocks that create far more jobs and economic benefit?

If Canadians are not benefitting, who is? The shareholders of Marine Harvest, who are mostly European and American banks.

So is there any good news on the horizon? When Marine Harvest failed to honour their agreement with ENGOs to do a full-fledged land-based closed-containment pilot project, the Namgis First Nation set up their own and the first harvest took place last April. (See Focus, July 2014). Other First Nations are exploring Namgis’ lead.

Morton is “heartened to see more and more scientists ending up speaking out. It wasn’t our original role, but if you are the person who is on the ground with your hands on these fish and see the effects that the viruses and sea lice have on them, if you don’t stand up then who will?


Briony Penn, PhD has been reporting on the environment since 1975 and has completed a biography of Ian McTaggart Cowan.
This is an abridged version of the original, published in Focus, March 2015.

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