Feds delay closure of B.C.’s open-net salmon farms until 2029

Feds delay closure of B.C.'s open-net salmon farms until 2029
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The federal government is delaying the shutdown of open-net salmon farms off British Columbia’s coast until 2029.

The government had promised to phase out the farms by next year, but Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier said Wednesday that she would allow aquaculture farms to renew their licences in what is a “responsible, realistic and achievable transition” away from the ocean farms.

The minister said while wild Pacific salmon are an iconic species that is important to First Nations, and commercial and recreational fishermen, aquaculture represents food security and it is surpassing wild fishing around the world.

“If we want to protect wild species, want to move forward, we have to use aquaculture,” she said.

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Lebouthillier said the future involves safely increasing aquaculture without harming wild salmon.

The government will soon introduce nine-year licences for closed containment salmon farm operations, either marine or land-based, the minister said during a news conference in Ottawa.

Lebouthillier has been consulting with many groups about the transition plan involving 79 salmon farms after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged during the 2019 election that his government would phase out open ocean-pen farming.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) has said about 4,700 jobs and more than $1 billion in annual economic activity will be lost if the licences can’t be renewed, while opponents say the farms can spread lice and disease to wild fish.

“So yeah, I’m pissed. This is the Liberal government’s insanity at its best,” said BCSFA executive director Brian Kingzett.

“We know that the science says the disease risk that the public hears about on social media does not stand up, but we have rich activists, and that activist voice has been heard, and the science, the reputable science that the federal government has been doing, has been largely ignored in this debate.”

Fisheries officials say they’re following the precautionary principle that states they must act against anything that might cause harm.

Meanwhile, the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance (FNWSA) is happy that there will be no more fish farms in five years but says that’s still a long way off.

“I mean let’s be clear, this process is about protecting wild salmon so if they’re going to sunset them in five years it makes no sense to allow them to plug every farm as full as they can for five years and amplify the risk to wild salmon,” said Bob Galagame Chamberlin, chair of the FNWSA.

“We will look forward to trying to find a path forward,” added Kingzett. “Five years is really one production cycle, and it is going to be interesting to see if we can meet the technology requirements that, unfortunately, the federal government is putting in front of this sector.”

RELATED: Federal court upholds decision to keep open-net fish farms out of Discovery Islands

Jonathan Wilkinson — North Vancouver MP and federal minister of energy and natural resources — and former federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray attended a news conference in Vancouver to make the same announcement.

Wilkinson said Pacific salmon were facing unprecedented threats with declines in many runs verging on collapse.

“Scientific perspectives outside of the government have in recent years been increasingly vocal about their concerns,” he said.

“It is very clear that at the present time that significant scientific uncertainty exists with respect to the impacts of open net pen aquaculture.”

But Murray said salmon farming can amplify and release parasites and alien diseases into ocean waters infecting wild Pacific salmon on their migration routes.

“This transition is an opportunity to build sustainable economic alternatives with affected communities and to support our government’s critical work and rebuilding vital salmon stocks and fisheries throughout,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

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