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Mowi begins smolt cull and layoffs at B.C. fish farms

Federal government forcing open-net salmon farms in Discovery Islands area out of business
Cutline: Fish farm salmon smolts euthanized. | Mowi

Close to one million Atlantic salmon smolts were euthanized last week and the first layoff notices were issued to Mowi’s B.C. salmon farm workers in preparation for the shutdown of Discovery Islands open-net salmon farming ordered by federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan.

A total of 10 million eggs, fry and smolts will likely need to be destroyed in the coming months, and many more layoff notices will be going out. Mowi (formerly Marine Harvest) estimates it may have to lay off 170 people – about 30% of its B.C. workforce.

The federal government is targeting the Discovery Islands area first because it was identified in the Cohen Commission of Inquiry as the region of most concern for wild salmon, because so many Fraser River sockeye funnel through the islands as they migrate to open ocean.

But salmon farms in other regions of coastal B.C. are also in the crosshairs of both the Justin Trudeau and John Horgan governments. Both support the “transition” of all open-net salmon farms in B.C.

While that transition is ostensibly to land-based systems, most attempts at land-based fish farming in B.C. have failed, so the only transition that appears likely in B.C.’s salmon farming industry is a transition of jobs and investment dollars to other salmon farming regions, including Atlantic Canada, where salmon farming is a growing industry supported by both federal and provincial governments.

All 19 Discovery Islands open-net salmon farms must be out of the water by June 2022. Mowi owns the bulk of them.

Because Atlantic salmon take three years to grow from egg to harvest maturity, Mowi’s culling and layoffs have already started. “We’re not allowed to transfer any new fish into the Discovery Islands,” said  Dean Dobrinsky, Mowi’s human resources director. “We’re only allowed to harvest out what is already there. We can’t add fish to existing sites because that requires a variance to the licences that we have for the maximum allowable biomass.”

Only eight of Mowi’s Discovery Islands salmon farms are currently stocked. Eight others were fallowed. And now they can’t be restocked, as per Jordan’s order. So the 925,000 smolts that had been raised for the fallowed farms had to be euthanized.

The Discovery Islands account for about 25% of B.C.’s farmed salmon production. A recent RAIS economic analysis estimates that shutting down Discovery Islands salmon farms will result in the loss of 1,500 jobs, $21.5 million in tax revenue and $20 million in spending on services and supplies.

Mowi said it was blindsided by Jordan’s December 17, 2020, announcement that all Discovery Islands open-net salmon farms must be removed by June 2022.

But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said the company shouldn’t be surprised. BIV has been unable to get an interview with Jordan. But in a written statement, DFO suggests the industry should have been prepared for the order to vacate.

“Those in the region and those involved in the sector would have known for months prior, if not years, that a final decision would be made by December 2020 regarding the future of the farms,” DFO said in a statement to BIV. “The Cohen Commission recommended this over a decade ago, and the licences in that area were only ever renewed on a yearly basis as a result.”

The Cohen Commission recommended that by September 30, 2020, the federal fisheries minister “should prohibit net-pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands unless he or she is satisfied that such farms pose at most a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon.”

And that’s what Jordan’s ministry found: minimal risk.

The DFO conducted a risk assessment based on peer-reviewed scientific studies of nine pathogens to determine what the risks might be of disease transfer from farmed salmon to migrating Fraser River sockeye.

It concluded that “the transfer of these pathogens pose a minimal risk to abundance and diversity of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon in the area.”

So if the DFO concluded there was minimal risk, as per the Cohen Commission’s guidance, why would salmon farmers assume they would still be shut down, as DFO is now suggesting?

John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said Jordan’s decision was based on politics, not science.

Some coastal First Nations in the region are opposed to fish farming, as are Vancouver-based environmental organizations and the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

“This decision is really isn’t about policy and process – it’s about politics,” Fraser said. “It’s about partisanship and punishment to curry favour with voters in the Lower Mainland.”

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