A moratorium on salmon farming along British Columbia's North Coast has been put in place because of concerns about the potential impact on wild salmon stocks.

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This young pink salmon is infected with sea lice. ((Courtesy of Alexandra Morton/Science))

The provincial government won't allow any fish farm applications or issue any licences for coastal waters north of Klemtu, which is north of Port Hardy, Agriculture Minister Pat Bell announced Thursday.

"This is in response to an urgency around ensuring that part of the province, that has not had finfish aquaculture, is protected until we get this worked out [and] figure out how we move forward," Bell said.

Salmon farms in B.C. are concentrated on northern and western Vancouver Island. They remain controversial largely because of the potential impact on wild salmon of parasitic sea lice found in salmon farms.

Last year, a legislative committee recommended a ban on fish farming in all coastal waters north of Vancouver Island.

'I consider this a very significant decision. This is not something I took lightly.' — B.C. Agriculture Minister Pat Bell

Bell's decision Thursday didn't go that far, but he did suspend all fish farming in areas near the mouth of the Skeena River, where three applications were pending.

"I consider this a very significant decision. This is not something I took lightly," he said.

New Democrat MLA Robin Austin said the government's decision is a huge step forward.

"This is a victory for everybody who cares about protecting wild salmon and I think it's also a tacit recognition of the fact that fish farms do indeed cause economic or environmental damage to wild salmon," said Austin, the NDP fisheries critic.

Group wants whole North Coast closed to fish farming

The T. Buck Suzuki Foundation, a B.C. group that advocates the protection of the environment and fish habitat, also applauded the decision.

"The [wild salmon] stocks from the Skeena [River] and the Nass [River] will not be coming into contact with net-cage salmon farms in the region. I think that's quite significant," said foundation spokesman Des Nobles.

Nobles said although the moratorium is great news, he wants to see the whole North Coast closed to open-net cage salmon aquaculture.

Bell said while the moratorium is in place, his ministry will work with First Nations on a new way to manage fish farming — one that balances the economic and environmental impacts.

"This is, I think, a pretty major signal to First Nations, to the environmental community and to the industry that the industry is going to look different down the road," Bell said.