Discovery Islands fish farms can be restocked, federal judge rules

Discovery Islands fish farms can be restocked, federal judge rules
Two aquaculture companies operating on B.C.'s coast can restock their salmon farms in Discovery Islands, a federal judge has ruled.

Two aquaculture companies operating on B.C.’s coast can restock their salmon farms in Discovery Islands, a federal judge has ruled.

Mowi West Canada and Saltstream were recently granted an injunction in federal court, permitting them to apply for licences and ultimately transfer young fish to three stocking sites in Doctor Bay, Phillips Arm and off Hardwicke Island.

“It is a bit of good news. It’s a relief for the employees we were starting to lay off, certainly a relief for local businesses and for our communities,” said Mowi Canada West spokesperson Dean Dobrinsky.

The transfer of live fish between hatcheries and saltwater sites – and between saltwater sites – has not been allowed in the region after federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan ordered 19 fish farms in the Discovery Islands to close by June 2022, citing risks to wild salmon stocks.

After the order was announced in December 2020, the two companies filed a judicial review, arguing that not being able to transfer fish would lead to millions of dollars in financial losses, unemployment in the region and ultimately the death of 1.18-million salmon smolts. They also argued their restocking applications should be considered under the same criteria that existed before the minister’s order.

RELATED: Fish farms and conservationists tussle over transfers in court

In a decision released on April 5, Justice Peter George Pamel agreed with Mowi West Canada and Saltstream’s position that not being allowed to transfer young fish would lead to serious economic hardship in the region.

“The harm to Mowi and Saltstream, as well as their employees, their families and other businesses in the community, in particular, First Nations businesses, will be real and substantial if the injunction is not granted,” wrote Pamel, later adding: “Given how Canadians are looking to navigate the realities of the global pandemic, these factors outweigh the public interest factors.”

Pamel later pointed out that Atlantic salmon farming is a lengthy five-year process that isn’t capable of dealing with unexpected challenges without serious consequences.

“Raising and harvesting each generation of Atlantic salmon involves a five-year cycle, with long-term planning and a number of constantly moving parts, making it extremely difficult if not impossible without serious consequences to deal with unexpected upheavals in an operator’s operational and regulatory matrix,” wrote the judge.”

The federal government argued that Minister Jordan’s order was not subject to a judicial review, something Pamel disagreed with. It also had argued aquaculture operators in the Discovery Islands should have known – and been prepared – that changes were being considered following the release of the Cohen Commission’s Report in 2012.

RELATED: Major B.C. salmon farm seeks court intervention in Discovery Islands ban

However, Pamel wrote in his ruling that while aquaculture in the Discovery Islands could pose a risk to wild salmon in the region, it hasn’t been “established” that the risk from allowing the transfer of fish into three sites is great enough to weigh against granting the injunction.

“I do not think the evidence shows that the transfer of fish is a neutral operation in relation to environmental concerns, however, little effort has been made before me to address the specific ‘harm differential’ involved in transfer operations; it may well be that it is impossible to assess,” he wrote.

Local First Nations say irreparable harm has already been done to wild salmon stocks and that even one more round of Atlantic salmon in the farms is too much.

“It’s a sad day for the courts, the Federal Court Decision was pretty much off the mark on this one,” said Homalco First Nation Chief Darren Blaney. “It means another cycle of sea lice and disease out in the waters when our salmon are going through and I don’t know how much more the salmon can take.”

Pamel later stated that the only evidence shown to him is that salmon aquaculture in B.C. poses “no more than a minimal risk” to wild salmon.

A spokesperson for the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard told CHEK News that Minister Jordan is aware of the ruling.

“We are aware that the court has granted an injunction with respect to fish transfers to aquaculture facilities in the Discovery Islands. We will take the necessary time to review the ruling before determining next steps,” the spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.

A Mowi West Canada spokesperson told CHEK News they are pleased with the ruling and “hopeful that Minister Jordan will approve the transfer licenses now that the injunction has been granted.”

RELATED: ‘People are scared’: 1,500 jobs at stake after federal fisheries decision to close fish farms

Mowi West Canada owns 10 farms in the area, representing about 30 per cent of their operations in British Columbia.

A separate court action filed by Mowi West Canada and Saltstream – along with two others – appealing the minister’s order banning fish farming in the Discovery Islands is still working its way through the courts.

Meanwhile, Kilian Stehfest, marine conservation specialist with David Suzuki Foundation, said in a press release that the decision “overturns the will of First Nations in the area” and puts wild salmon at risk.

“This decision undermines the minister’s phase-out plan, overturns the will of First Nations in the area and puts declining wild salmon populations at risk. It is critical that Fisheries and Oceans Canada exercises its authority to reject any applications for the transfer of fish into the Discovery Islands despite this decision,” said Stehfest.

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With files from the Canadian Press

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the Cohen Commission’s final report in 2012 recommended the removal of all fish farms in the Discovery Islands. In fact, the report made recommendations that could have led to farms being shut down by September 2020 if they were found to pose “no more than a minimal risk of harm to wild sockeye salmon populations.”

Nicholas PescodNicholas Pescod

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