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Ottawa’s fish-farm transition plan could sink industry if mishandled, businesses say

Industry awaits federal government renewal decision as 66 B.C. salmon farm licences expire this month
The Kuterra land-based fish farm had to switch from Atlantic salmon to steelhead

By the end of this month, federal Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier is expected to decide whether to renew 66 federal licences for salmon farms in B.C.

An industry that directly employs 5,000 people hangs in the balance.

Fish farm opponents and the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance are lobbying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Lebouthillier to live up to Trudeau’s 2019 election promise to “transition” open-net salmon farms out of coastal waters in B.C.

Meanwhile, salmon farmers are lobbying for six-year licence renewals to allow them to invest in technology and aquaculture practices that would reduce interactions between wild and farmed fish and reduce disease and pest transmissions.

In a recent letter, 46 conservation, community and animal welfare organizations urged Trudeau to abide by his commitment.

“Do not renew these licences for a duration past 2025 and begin the removal of salmon farms from British Columbia immediately,” the letter read.

Trudeau’s mandate to fisheries ministers has been to develop a transition plan for B.C. salmon farms by 2025. Anti-fish-farm activists understandably interpreted that to mean all open-net salmon farms would have to be out of the water by 2025.

But the original mandate has been massaged somewhat, and Lebouthillier told Ha-Shilth-Sa newspaper in December that there “will be no closure of aquaculture centres in 2025.”

The salmon farming industry and First Nations that support it are lobbying for a compromise—technology and hybrid systems that could minimize interactions and disease transmission.

They propose, for example, to rear salmon longer in land-based recirculating aquaculture systems before transferring them to open-net cages to reduce the amount of time fish spend in open water.

Technological approaches include a laser system made by Stingray Marine Solutions that zaps sea lice in salmon farms with lasers, eliminating the need for pesticides.

Such approaches would require multimillion-dollar investments. And to make those kinds of investments, salmon farmers say they need some guarantees they won’t be shut down anytime soon. They are asking for licence renewals of at least six years.

“The minister has said farms will not be moving out of the water in the near term, but we are waiting to see what the term of licences will be,” said Brian Kingzett, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association.

“We’ve been asking for a six-year licence to justify making those massive investments into B.C. They’re not going to invest unless they can see a runway that there will be some sort of return on investment, and that will allow them to invest in these new technologies.”

Sonia Strobel, CEO and co-founder of Skipper Otto, which supports mom-and-pop commercial fishers through their seafood subscription business, wants open-net salmon farms shut down. She said she believes they are a real threat to wild salmon, and fears the original mandate for transitioning salmon farms is being watered down to allow for the hybrid systems supported by industry.

“I feel really strongly that the time has passed for that kind of experimentation,” she said. “It should have happened by now.”

Those opposed to salmon farming were led to believe the Trudeau government’s “transition” plan meant a wholesale relocation of open-net salmon farms onto land, through the use of recirculating aquaculture systems, by 2025.

That would cost about $1.8 billion, according to a 2022 study commissioned by the provincial government, and so far no major investors have stepped forward with plans to build any large-scale systems in B.C.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in a 2019 report that such systems were ready for commercial development in B.C., but large land-based recirculating aquaculture systems in Florida and Nova Scotia have so far proven to be major money losers.

In Nova Scotia, Sustainable Blue was forced into receivership in April, after equipment failure led to the loss of an entire harvest of mature Atlantic salmon.

In its 2023 annual financial report, Atlantic Sapphire ASA, which developed large a recirculating aquaculture system in Florida, reported revenues of US$14 million, expenditures of US$105 million, and a net loss of US$134 million.

Meanwhile in B.C., a pioneer in small-scale salmon farming systems was forced to switch from growing Atlantic salmon to steelhead after the federal government’s closure of 15 open-net salmon farms in the Discovery Islands took down a whole supply chain that it had relied on.

Kuterra Salmon was originally co-developed by the Namgis First Nation near Port McNeill. Under an operating agreement with the Namgis, Kuterra Salmon is now operated by Whole Oceans.

Cody Smith, general manager of Kuterra, said a supply chain that served the open-net salmon farming sector in the region was also critical to Kuterra’s Atlantic salmon farming.

“The [recirculating aquaculture systems] industry really rides in the slipstream of the net-pen industry,” Smith explained.

“When that public pressure tilted the government to remove those sites, land-based producers—generally smaller producers that are looking to pioneer a new method—were also inadvertently impacted by that.

“The net-pen farmers effectively reduced their infrastructure in B.C. by 25 per cent, and that includes hatchery production. And we’re reliant on hatcheries. We lost our access to quality Atlantic salmon smolt due to that government decision.”

Cody said the recent financial troubles of large projects like Sustainable Blue are unfortunate, but that he believes there is a future for land-based salmon farming.

However, he doesn’t think shutting down the existing salmon-farming industry in B.C. will help foster land-based salmon farming.

“I think that could have some pretty tragic consequences for the province, in terms of jobs in coastal communities,” he said.

“We believe there’s a place in aquaculture for a variety of operators.”

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