British Columbia

Controversial Discovery Islands fish farms pose 'minimal risk' to wild salmon, DFO says

The battle to have 18 open-net fish farms removed from a critical salmon migration route is heading for more consultation after Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced the farms present little risk to wild Fraser River salmon stocks, which are in serious decline.

Feds to consult with 7 First Nations along critical migration route used by wild Fraser River salmon

Protestors hold a demonstration in front of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans office calling for an end to open-net fish farms in B.C in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia on Thursday, September 24, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The battle to have 18 open-net fish farms removed from a critical salmon migration route is heading for more consultation after Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced they present little risk to wild Fraser River salmon stocks, which are in serious decline.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan says her department will be consulting with seven First Nations communities — Tla'amin, Klahoose, Homalco, K'ómoks, We Wai Kai (Cape Mudge), Wei Wai Kum (Campbell River) and Kwiakah — that border the narrow channels through the Discovery Islands where the farms are located, with a goal of deciding whether or not to renew their aquaculture licences prior to a December 2020 deadline.

"The government is committed to an area-based management approach to aquaculture," Jordan told CBC, "and particularly these farms may not be the best fit for the location for the adjacent First Nations communities."

Last week a consortium of 101 B.C. First Nations — including five of the seven named Monday — along with commercial and sport fishing groups and eco tourism operators teamed up to demand the removal of the 18 fish farms.

The group maintains they are responsible for spreading sea lice and other pathogens to out-migrating juvenile wild salmon, contributing to the sharp decline of Fraser River salmon stocks.

A juvenile sockeye salmon with sea lice. (Alexandra Morton)

Fewer than 270,000 wild Fraser River salmon are expected to return to spawn this year, down from the many millions that used to return on an annual basis a decade ago. Many believe the stocks are on the brink of total collapse.

The chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance says the consultation announcement is a good first step but it should include First Nations on the Fraser River who depend on wild salmon.

"If it's limited to just seven nations, they are not living up to current case law in Canada, law that comes from the Supreme Court of Canada, where even the potential to infringe on Aboriginal rights triggers a duty consult," said Bob Chamberlin.

Shawn Hall, with the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said his association looked forward to participating fully in the upcoming dialogue.

"Salmon farming is part of the economic fabric of B.C. Working closely and openly with Indigenous Peoples is how salmon farmers in B.C. are working to create a shared future of economic opportunity and environmental stewardship," Hall said in a statement.

The Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance stage a "wild salmon die-in" in front of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans office downtown Vancouver, British Columbia on Thursday, September 24, 2020. The group is calling for the removal of 18 open-net fish farms in the Discovery Islands. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Monday's announcement was triggered by a deadline in the 2012 Cohen Commission report into declining Fraser River salmon stocks. Recommendation No. 19 in the report calls for the prohibition of the Discovery Islands fish farms by Sept. 30, 2020, unless there is proof they pose only a "minimum risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River salmon."

According to Jordan, nine peer-reviewed DFO risk assessments conducted into nine separate Discovery Islands fish farm pathogens found evidence that aquaculture operations should be considered safe for Fraser River salmon.

Sea lice was not one of the nine pathogens studied by DFO for Monday's announcement.

A spokesperson said past peer-reviewed science on sea lice has led to management measures to control the problem on farms, and that should be enough to meet the "minimum risk" described in the Cohen report.

But Chamberlin takes issue with DFO's science, pointing out that other peer-reviewed studies claim the exact opposite: that sea lice and viruses from farmed salmon are fatally infecting juvenile salmon as they swim through the narrow Discovery Islands channels past the open-net pens.

"I look at the Fisheries Act, at the responsibilities that Minister Jordan has. And part of that is the precautionary principle where in the absence of conclusive science, they must err on the side of caution and protect the environment and wild fish... especially with the Fraser River salmon on an extinction curve."

Chamberlin says DFO should be expediting the move from open-net fish farming to closed-containment land-based operations to protect wild salmon. 

According to Jordan, the DFO will have a plan in place by 2025 to transition away from open-net pen fish farms.

The Discovery Islands are located between Vancouver Island's mid-east coast and the B.C. mainland. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said a plan to transition from open-net fish farms to closed-containment systems would be in place by 2025. In fact, the federal government did not specify which system would be adopted by that time.
    Sep 28, 2020 2:32 PM PT

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