British Columbia

'They are still using the ocean as a toilet': NDP Fisheries critic proposes removing fish farms from oceans

The federal NDP critic for Fisheries and Oceans is proposing legislation that would overhaul fish farming in Canada, by moving open-net fish farms from the ocean to land. It’s all in an effort to stabilize and grow dwindling wild sockeye salmon numbers.

Fish farmers believe it would wipe out the industry

NDP Fisheries critic Fin Donnelly would like to see all aquaculture operations moved to land. (Clayoquot Action)

The federal NDP critic for Fisheries and Oceans is proposing legislation that would overhaul fish farming by moving open-net fish farms from the ocean to land in an effort to stabilize and grow dwindling wild sockeye salmon numbers.

"The impact to wild salmon has been a huge concern," MP Fin Donnelly said to All Points West host Jason D'Souza.

"I want to see healthy watersheds, healthy fish populations."

Reports have shown that wild sockeye salmon that come into contact with fish farms are more likely to be introduced to a number of problems, including parasitic sea lice — which attach themselves to the fish, weakening and sometimes killing them — and the piscine reovirus (PRV). 

PRV affects salmon's ability to swim upstream, which makes it harder for them to return to their spawning grounds.

"There's got to be a better way to raise these fish and to protect our wild salmon," Donnelly said. 

"The most plausible solution I've heard is to adopt a new technology called RAS [recirculating aquatic systems], which has been developed out of the United States and implemented here in Canada."

Fisheries critic Fin Donnelly says that although he's witnessed improvement in the open-net fish farm industry, things still need to change to protect wild salmon. (CBC)

The idea is to build large tanks that are filled with circulating water to recreate the ocean's environment.

Donnelly recognizes that open-net fish farmers have made improvements over the past 15 years, but that "essentially, they are still using the ocean as a toilet" to dilute some of the problems involved with sea farming, like pesticides and sea lice. 

"With farming in general, it's always disease management. When you put farms in water, it gets even harder to control diseases," Donnelly said. 

He believes that on-land facilities offer farmers the opportunity to better control their environment and mitigate the risks to wild sea life, specifically sockeye salmon.

"You'd put thousands of people out of work"

Open-net fish farms are a large industry on Vancouver Island and Shawn Hall, spokesperson for the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, says that mandating on-land closed-containment farms would, effectively, be legislating the industry out of business.

"You'd put thousands of people out of work. These are real people … supporting their families," said Hall.

Hall says that moving the farms onto land also comes with environmental consequences, such as clearing and paving land for the tanks, as well as the use of electricity to circulate water.

Donnelly is aware that closed-containment farms come with some concerns.

"With all industry, we're going to have an environmental impact … That's a legitimate concern and one that's going to be looked at," said Donnelly.

One report says that wild sockeye salmon that come in contact with farmed salmon are more likely to contract the piscine reovirus, which affects salmon's ability to swim upstream. (CBC)

Industry not ready for large scale

Hall admits that on-land fish farms are potentially the future of the industry, but doesn't believe the industry is ready for large scale operations.

"Make no mistake about it, there's a lot of work going on for the potential for on-land aquaculture being part of the solution. And our members are actually world-leading experts … but mandating that as a wholesale move right now would shut the industry down," said Hall.

Hall agrees that open-net fish farms have had challenges with parasites and diseases, including toxic algae outbreaks, but says his industry has evolved over the past 30 years and believes open-net fish farms can operate in an environmentally friendly and responsible way.

"There just aren't enough wild fish out there to feed a hungry human race. If we are going to eat fish, we need to farm it. And we farm it responsibly here," Hall said. 

With files from All Points West

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