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Murray reaffirms shut-down of Discovery Islands fish farms

Fisheries minister forced to revisit decision, but decision now stands
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray reaffirmed original order to have salmon farms removed from the Discovery Islands. | Nelson Bennett

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray has reaffirmed her predecessor’s decision not to renew federal licences for salmon farms in the Discovery Islands.

Murray announced by press release Friday afternoon that 15 licences will not be renewed.

But there were originally 19 licences that were cancelled. It's not clear what the decision is on the other four licences. DFO media relations did not immediately return calls to BIV News to clarify the status of the other licences.

Michelle Franze, communications director for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said the association only learned about the decision this afternoon when DFO posted a press release.

"We still never got an official notice from government," she said. "We just saw the news release. We never got official confirmation from government before it was publicly announced. Needless to say everyone's pretty angry."

The decision is devastating for coastal communities, said Diane Morrison, chairperson of the BC Salmon Farmers Association and managing director for Mowi Canada West.

"The irresponsible decision to deny these licences will have destructive impacts on our employees, First Nations whose territories we operate in, and the future of our sector in this province," she said.

"As a sector, we saw the elimination of nearly a quarter of our farms in a single announcement. This resulted in companies laying off hundreds of employees from well-paid careers in a region of Canada that is struggling to attract and retain its youth. The federal government has turned their backs on coastal communities."

The decision to evict all open-net salmon farms in the Discovery Islands by June 2022 was made in 2020 by Murray’s predecessor, Bernadette Jordan.

While salmon farmers have largely complied with the order (all but two of the 19 fish farms in the region have had all fish removed), they won a judicial review that challenged the original order.

A Federal Court last year found Jordan’s order lacked procedural fairness and the order was set aside.

As Jordan’s successor, Murray was forced to review the decision and held a round of consultations with the salmon farming industry, First Nations and other stakeholders.

In the meantime, Murray informed salmon farmers they did not have to decommission their farms until she made a final determination – expected in January – a moot point for many of them, since they have already removed most of the farms from the area.

Two small operations were allowed to continue to grow out their harvest.

The decision to phase out salmon farms in the Discovery Islands was based on a recommendation by the Cohen Commission, set up in 2010 to investigate the 2009 collapse of Fraser River sockeye returns, and vigorous opposition to the industry by First Nations.

That commission found no one smoking gun that might explain the decline in Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks, but did acknowledge open-net salmon farms could pose a risk to wild salmon, through the transmission of diseases, particularly in the Discovery Islands, which is a wild salmon migratory route.

The Cohen Commission recommendation was that, as a precaution, all open-net salmon farms should be removed from the Discovery Islands region by 2022, unless science could demonstrate that salmon farms posed no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon.

That’s precisely what the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) found -- minimal risk. Prior to Jordan’s decision not to renew federal licences for salmon farms in the Discovery Islands, the CSAS released a peer reviewed science “response” that looked at all the available science on nine fish pathogens. It concluded that open-net salmon farms posed no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon.

More recently, the CSAS also released a peer reviewed response on sea lice. It found the association between sea lice in farmed salmon and wild salmon to be “statistically insignificant.”

Despite those assurances from scientists, some First Nations in the Discovery Islands are vigorously opposed to open-net salmon farms. Others support salmon farming.

The Laich-kwil-tach First Nations (the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai) expressed disappointment with Murray's decision.

“First Nations from the coast are trying to find their feet when it comes to reclaiming what was taken away from them by the federal government," said Dallas Smith, spokesman for the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship.

"Whether it’s creating marine protected areas or deciding whether they want to host fish farms, coastal nations are trying to take back their inherent rights to manage their traditional waters. This was not about protecting the sector or the companies operating in it – this was about the sovereignty of the Laich-kwil-tach Nations and their right to decide for themselves whether salmon farming, or any other resource, is the right fit for their marine plans.

"Unfortunately, the decision was once again taken away from them by a government located 5,000 (kilometres) away from their territories.”

The First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance praised the decision, however.

“Minister Murray made a strong decision today and demonstrated great leadership advancing the DFO primary objective of environmental protection and safeguarding of B.C. wild salmon,” said alliance chairman Bob Chamberlin.

About 25 per cent of Atlantic salmon production has been lost since the Discovery Islands farms were shut down. The salmon farming industry in B.C. is now waiting to hear what the Trudeau government plans to do with the industry more broadly.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ordered a "transition" for the salmon farming industry in B.C. The minister is to have a plan for this transition in place by 2025.

But transitioning to either land-based farming systems or other hybrid approaches requires investment from the aquaculture industry, and the federal government's decision is likely to result in a decline in investment in the aquaculture sector, said Brian Kingzett

"This decision will also significantly reduce the sector’s ability to attract required investments for clean technology and innovations to evolve the sector," he said. "This means we cannot support the federal government's commitment to transforming the sector as we continue to experience uncertainty and reckless decision-making by Ottawa."

(This story has been updated with reaction from stakeholders.)

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