Predatory Delay: Fish Farms Deadline Looms

Wild salmon ain’t got time for industry shenanigans

Dan Lewis

Wild salmon running a river

A wild salmon running a river | Photo courtesy of Clayoquot Action

Way back in 2019, the federal Liberals pledged to “transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”

In 2022, former Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray renewed licences for only two years, since anything longer would have kept feedlots in the water past the transition deadline. Her draft transition plan was ready a year ago, but it never saw the light of day. Instead a new Minister (Diane Lebouthillier) was appointed, and the transition has been in limbo ever since.

All fish farm licences in BC will expire on June 30 this year. Industry has been lobbying hard for six-year licences. Longer licences would lock in up to six more years of pathogens, parasites, and pollutants. What is needed instead is maximum one-year licences, long enough to allow the companies to grow out and get out.

Sea Lion stuck at Cermaq farm

Sea Lion stuck at one of Cermaq’s salmon farms. Photo: Jeremy Mathieu

In April, the Province approved several seabed tenure expansions in Clayoquot Sound. While they were at it, those licences were extended into the 2030s, well beyond the transition deadline. This, after Premier Eby stated in December last year that the social licence for salmon farming in BC waters “has expired.”

Extending tenures and licences past 2025 creates an expectation from industry that they’ll be allowed to continue operations. If governments then try to legislate fish farms out as promised, the stage is set for judicial reviews – of which there have been two since the Discovery Islands fish farms were removed. Industry won the first review, but wild salmon have just won the second.

Premier Eby stated in December last year that the social licence for salmon farming in BC waters “has expired.”

The DFO’s Aquaculture Management Division began to back-pedal on the transition mandate a few years back, with weasel words creeping in such as “progressively minimize or eliminate interactions between salmon open-net pens and wild salmon.” Nobody is worried about these creatures kissing each other through the nets. The issue is the spread of pathogens, parasites, and pollutants from fish farms into the marine environment. The solution is simple: remove fish farms from the ocean. All that is needed is a transition plan so workers do not pay the price for protecting wild salmon.

A diver inspecting the outflow of a semi closed fish farm

A diver inspecting outflow of a semi closed fish farm | photo: Clayoquot Action

There is talk of “technological innovation” to protect wild salmon. Of course, DFO isn’t willing to admit that such tech does not exist anywhere in the world. After ten years of tinkering, the Norwegians have produced no in-water system with zero discharge of pollutants – and their wild salmon continue to decline. In exchange for tech experimentation, the BC industry has many demands, including six-year licence durations, subsidies for new tech, and bail-outs for technological failures that cause farmed salmon deaths.

As wild salmon lawyer Sean Jones said during a webinar this year, “Predatory delay is a tactic we’ve seen in other industries. Everybody knows that environmental change is needed, but industry wants to delay the implementation of necessary changes so it can continue to profit from those very environmental harms.”

A fish farm worker dumping dead salmon during a die off

A worker dumping dead salmon during a die-off | Photo: Clayoquot Action

The Department of Fisheries is legally obliged to implement the precautionary principle in order to protect and restore wild salmon. That means minimizing any risks we can. There are many stressors Canada can’t control, or that would take decades to produce results (like reducing carbon emissions or restoring old clearcuts). But fish farms can be removed with a stroke of the pen. And as we’ve seen on the east coast of Vancouver Island, when fish farms are removed, wild salmon bounce back in astonishing abundance. What are we waiting for?

Meanwhile, First Nations lead the way. The Broughton Area Nations successfully removed 17 feedlots from their territories. The shíshálh Nation asked Greig Seafoods to remove all eight farms from their waters. And the First Nations of the Discovery Islands asked former Minister Bernadette Jordan to remove 15 facilities from their waters, which she did in 2020. These Nations are not alone. 120 First Nations want these polluting feedlots removed in order to protect wild salmon.

This is about aboriginal fishing rights. Governments do not have the power to interfere unilaterally with existing rights, including activities such as fishing. Which they would be doing if they do not remove salmon farms from BC waters by 2025 as promised, because the farms are pushing wild salmon towards extinction.

A black bear catching a salmon

A black bear catching a salmon | Photo: Clayoquot Action

What about Indigenous rights and title? Fish farming is a transboundary issue, making borders of any kind irrelevant. ’Na̱mg̱is Chief Homiskanis (Don Svanvik) said in Tofino last fall: “You don’t have the right to extinct something … I’ll die on the hill with you defending your rights and title … but you don’t have the right to kill our fish … because there’s no way you can stop the fish from going into other territories … and there’s no way you’re going to stop the disease and lice from coming out of there … so we all have to lock arms and keep the fight going with everybody to get the fish farms out.”

Washington State banned fish farms in 2022, leaving BC as the only jurisdiction on the west coast of North America still allowing fish farms in the ocean. And 75% of British Columbians want them removed. The fact that the feds promised to remove salmon farms is a good first step. But now it’s up to us as citizens to create the pressure needed to force our governments to stand up to this polluting industry. As former Minister Joyce Murray said: “When it comes to protecting wild salmon, failure is not an option.”

Two wild salmon running a river

Two wild salmon running a river | Photo: Clayoquot Action

Dan Lewis is a founding director of Clayoquot Action.

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