Federal government not doing enough to manage risk of fish farms, environmental watchdog says

The federal government isn't doing enough to manage the risks associated with salmon farming, the federal environment commissioner says in her spring report.

Canada also not on track to meet 2020 biodiversity targets, commissioner says in spring report

Canada's environment commissioner is warning in her spring report that the federal government needs to do more to protect the environment from the risks associated with managed fish farms. (Canadian Press)

The federal government isn't doing enough to manage the risks associated with salmon farming — and is failing to set national standards to prevent fish escapes and regulate how much drugs and pesticides companies can use.

That's the conclusion of a report tabled in Parliament Tuesday from Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Julie Gelfand.

"I suggest that the department is at risk of being seen to be promoting aquaculture over the protection of wild fish," Gelfand said at a news conference.

She pointed to a number of imbalances in Ottawa's approach to salmon aquaculture, such as lax enforcement of existing regulations and the absence of a requirement to monitor the ocean floor beneath fish farms.

The report also points to a lack of clear national standards for nets and anchoring equipment — something Gelfand said is vitally important in Atlantic Canada, where escaped farmed salmon have begun to interbreed with declining wild salmon populations.

Nets are often damaged by severe storms off the East Coast, so more farmed fish escape into the surrounding water there than on the West Coast, the report says.

The commissioner also found that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans wasn't doing enough to monitor diseases and had only completed one-tenth of risk assessments for known diseases to understand the effects of salmon farming on wild fish.

As a result, the report states, the department has no way of knowing how salmon farming has affected the health of wild fish stocks.

Julie Gelfand audited how DFO manages aquaculture 2:07

Gelfand is recommending the federal government complete those risk assessments for diseases by 2020 — something it said it would do after the release of the 2012 Cohen Commission report.

In its response to the report, the department agreed, saying this commitment is part of the minister's mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The commissioner reports the department has not clearly told aquaculture companies the quantity of drugs and pesticides they can use in their operations, and isn't doing enough to confirm the accuracy of reports on drug and pesticide use sent by aquaculture companies to the federal government.

The department must do a better job of tracking drugs and pesticides used in aquaculture operations, said the report, because they can harm wild fish, especially those living on the ocean floor.

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said he met with Gelfand yesterday and accepts her findings.

"We are committed to ensuring that all of her recommendations are acted upon and acted upon quickly. And as I say, I think we have the resources and the scientific capacity, which may not have existed three or four years ago, to meet these recommendations," Leblanc told reporters.

Salmon farming takes place off both the east and west coasts. Canada is the fourth-largest producer of farmed salmon in the world.

Julie Gelfand presented her report in Ottawa on Tuesday 1:49

Biodiversity targets

The environment commissioner also tabled a report assessing Canada's efforts to meet various international biodiversity targets.

Gelfand found federal officials have been focusing too much on going to international meetings and creating national committees, and not enough on actually working to meet the 2020 biodiversity targets.

Those targets include placing 17 per cent of Canada's landmass and 10 per cent of its marine areas under protection from development by 2020. Neither of those targets has been met.

Recent reports show plant and animal species are continually under threat.

Environment Canada reported in 2017 that more than 500 plants and animals had been listed under the federal Species at Risk Act, and the list was growing.

Wild caribou roam the tundra in Nunavut. The federal environment commissioner in her annual spring report warns the federal government will fall short of its biodiversity targets, including protection of the woodland caribou. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

In 2016, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, created by the governments of Canada, the United States and Mexico, reported that some bird species populations had declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970.

Recovery strategies are being developed for species at risk but follow-up progress reports are rare, Gelfand noted.

For example, Environment and Climate Change Canada provided just one of its 143 required progress reports, while Parks Canada provided one of its seven required progress reports.

One key species the report used to highlight these delays is the woodland caribou, which is still in decline.

In her report, Gelfand notes that without strong national leadership, Canada may not meet all of its targets by 2020.

Federal Environment minister Catherine McKenna said she accepts the commissioner's recommendations and points to the recent federal budget's $1.3 billion investment in conservation.

"We've seen an increase in the number of species at risk. Climate change is a huge factor and we need to be working in species like caribou," she said. "We have action plans and we need to be working with environmentalists, with provinces and territories as well as industry."

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