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Five Critical Issues to Consider Before the Province Renews Fish Farm Licences

Aboriginal title, disease risks and lack of DFO regulation of the industry are prime concerns.

Andrew Nikiforuk 19 Jun

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

In the wake of increasing controversy, sea lice plagues and aboriginal protests, the province of British Columbia will decide tomorrow whether to renew 20 fish farms licences in the Broughton Archipelago off the north coast of Vancouver Island.

Much is at stake for First Nations, multinational fish farm companies and the future of wild salmon — an iconic flow of vital energy for the province’s ecosystems and its rich aboriginal culture.

B.C.’s Atlantic salmon fish farm industry currently operates 120 open net farms around Vancouver Island (about 50 are active at any given time) and has 20 economic and social partnerships with coastal First Nations.

That means that three quarters of B.C.’s annual production of farm-raised salmon — about 90,000 tonnes a year or three per cent of global production — is harvested from coastal waters covered by some kind of agreement with First Nations.

But an increasing number of First Nations on Vancouver Island and along the coast have asked that operating farms in their territories be removed due to lack of consent, the industry’s environmental impacts and persistent declines in wild salmon runs.

Last summer more than a dozen protesters from the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw and Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nations occupied two Marine Harvest fish farms in the Broughton to protest the industry’s continuing presence on their territorial waters.

Although Marine Harvest has fish farm agreements with First Nations along the coast of Vancouver Island, neither the company nor the province ever secured permission from the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw.

The nation, which is now suing the province, the federal government and fish farmers, has been adamantly opposed to corporate fish farming for 30 years due to concerns about the spread of disease, the decimation of herring stocks and the impact of sea lice on wild migrating salmon.

Two years ago, the nation formally delivered eviction notices to Marine Harvest and Cermaq which operate the Atlantic salmon feedlots in their territory.

During the fish farm occupations last year, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told the CBC on Oct. 25 that “the status quo isn’t good enough” and that significant changes were needed to protect wild salmon including the relocation of fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago.

In a letter to Marine Harvest, Popham also warned that the province retains all of its rights under current tender agreements “including potentially the requirement that you return possession of tenured sites at the end of the current terms.”

The 2017 letter added that renewal of licences “cannot be guaranteed.”

Meanwhile the BC Salmon Farmer’s Association and big companies such as Marine Harvest argue that only government can resolve the issue of aboriginal title.

The powerful industry claims it employs 1,600 people and the “industry plays a key role in both meeting our demand for healthy fish to eat and in reducing the strain on wild fish stocks from over-fishing. While any farming, on land or water, has an environmental impact it can be done responsibly and with wild stocks top-of-mind.”

Just yesterday Kevin Smith, president of the Wilderness Tourism Association of BC, told the government that his industry employed tens of thousands of people and that the threat posed by open net salmon farms was so great that the government should not renew the licences in the Broughton.

Here are five important issues the province must take into consideration when it decides to renew or revoke existing farm licences granted by the province.

1) Aboriginal title

Last month the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation launched a lawsuit against the province, the federal government and two corporate fish farms claiming that fish farm licences were granted in its territory without its consent and that “there is a serious issue regarding the constitutionality and legality of tenures issued under the Lands Act.”

The Dzawada’enuxw are also seeking a court injunction that would prevent Norwegian-owned Marine Harvest and Japanese-owned Cermaq from seeking renewals of their provincial licences in its territory.

The lawsuit contends that the fish farms have dramatically impacted wild salmon stocks — a development that imperils a coastal people once sustained by the abundance of wild salmon.

Given the lack of consent and long standing opposition to fish farms in traditional territory, the lawsuit argues that the renewal of tenures would be “in clear conflict with” the nation’s right to manage its own territory.

The importance of aboriginal ownership was also acknowledged by the Minister of Agriculture’s Advisory Council on Finfish Aquaculture.

Last January it released a report on Atlantic salmon fish farms in B.C. Some council members felt the report’s recommendation did not address the full harm that open-net pen farms posed to wild salmon populations, while others thought the recommendations were “reasonable.” Some members supported moving the industry to closed containment systems on land while others regarded such a mandated move as “extreme.” Yet all council members agreed that the government and industry must respect aboriginal title.

As such the council recommended that the government establish “policy requiring industry to have agreements with a First Nation(s) affected by a net-pen aquaculture site as a condition of any new or replacement site tenure, and provide guidelines to industry for developing these agreements. “

The BC Salmon Farmer’s Association replied that the recommendation was “unclear and would be unworkable in practice.”

The council also recommended that the province provide “regulatory flexibility to relocate existing salmon farms to new sites based on the primary objective of reducing risks to wild salmon, in addition to other considerations such as addressing First Nations and community concerns and reducing the number of farms operating in sub-optimal locations.”

2) Norway bans fish farms on wild migratory routes

Norway’s Food Safety Authority decides where fish farms can go, and it recently issued guidelines “stipulating that farmed salmon sites should not be established in wild salmon migratory routes.” Beginning in 2003 and 2007 the country banned fish farms from the mouths of 52 national wild salmon rivers and 29 salmon fjords due to declining stocks of wild fish. But the current plan only prevents fish farms from impacting 75 per cent of wild salmon habitat in the country.

In 2012 the Cohen Commission report on the state of salmon stocks in B.C. recommended that even a “minimal risk of serious harm to migrating salmon” should lead to the removal of fish farms.

3) Sea lice threaten wild fish

The proliferation of sea lice on Atlantic salmon farms due to overcrowding has become a major economic and health issue with no clear solution.

A current outbreak in Clayoquot Sound among 20 different farms now poses a major hazard to migrating wild salmon.

Although industry and regulators have consistently downplayed the impact of sea lice, the science is now unequivocal: the technology of crowded open-net pens increases the abundance and spread of sea lice in ocean waters.

The parasite feeds on the mucus, skin and muscle of fish and can sicken or kill young fish.

Every year sea lice plagues now kill off at least 10 per cent of Norway’s remaining wild salmon stocks.

A 2018 study by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research laid out some sobering conclusions.

“Several studies have shown that the effects of salmon lice from fish farms on wild salmon and sea trout populations can be severe; ultimately reducing the number of adult fish due to salmon lice induced mortality, resulting in reduced stocks and reduced opportunities for fisheries,” concluded the study.

It also noted that “Wild fish in farm-free areas generally show low lice levels,” but in farm-intensive areas, “lice levels on wild fish are typically higher, but variable. With the expansion of fish farming, marked salmon lice outbreaks on salmonids have been reported from Canada, Ireland, Norway and Scotland.”

Deaths caused by industry sea lice plagues can be significant over time. “Studies show that lice-induced mortality in farm-intensive areas can lead to an average of 12-29 per cent fewer adult salmon. To exemplify this loss, a 20 per cent reduction due to salmon lice in a river where 4,000 Atlantic salmon spawn each year equals a loss of 800 spawners, which means that 3,200 salmon spawners will return to the river in a given year instead of 4,000.”

For nearly 18 years independent biologist and wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton has documented sea lice plagues as a critical threat to the survival of wild salmon populations in the Broughton.

When Morton began her studies, she says that a Norwegian scientist called her up and warned her to stop her research because the industry would attack her and the government would ignore her.

Morton told The Tyee that the researcher added that, “There will be good years for sea lice and bad years for sea lice and then you will have no more wild fish.”

In Scotland where sea lice epidemics have compromised the survival of wild salmon populations, the issue has become the subject of intense political debate.

A March report to the Scottish parliament on the environmental impacts of salmon farming noted that “in order to mitigate the risk of transfer of sea lice, fish farms should be located away from salmonoid migration routes.”

The report added “that further research may be needed to ensure migration routes are adequately mapped and understood, but the committee is clear that the precautionary principle should be applied.”

4) PRV is a big problem

About 80 per cent of all farmed fish in B.C. now carry the highly contagious piscine reovirus (PRV) which can cause a deadly heart disease.

The virus is a major killer on fish farms in Norway and more recently British Columbia.

A recent Canadian study found wild fish swimming by infected industrial facilities had a much greater likelihood of picking up the virus.

Results from the study “suggest that PRV transfer is occurring from farmed Atlantic salmon to wild Pacific salmon, that infection in farmed salmon may be influencing infection rates in wild salmon, and that this may pose a risk of reduced fitness in wild salmon impacting their survival and reproduction,” the researchers concluded.

Marine Harvest describes the virus as a major fish killer on Norwegian farms while one study has shown the virus is responsible for “slightly increased mortalities” in BC fish farms.

The DFO and the fish farm industry have claimed PRV is relatively harmless.

Both industry and the federal government and are now fighting two major lawsuits — one by Morton and another by the Namgis First Nation — that would force them to test all hatchery fish for the virus before they are placed in the ocean pens.

The virus has prompted swift and dramatic action south of the border. After fish health inspectors in Washington State found the highly contagious virus in smolts, it banned the transport of 800,000 farmed salmon to open-net pens earlier this year.

Canadian DFO researchers also identified another explosive PRV risk with a study showing the that virus can cause the rupturing of blood cells in Pacific Chinook salmon.

“These findings add to the existing concerns about the potential impacts of open net salmon farming on wild Pacific salmon off the coast of B.C.,” said Dr. Brian Riddell of the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

The organization has called for an end to open-net pens on migratory routes for wild fish due to disease and parasite risks.

5) DFO is not protecting wild salmon

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has a dual mandate: it is supposed to protect wild stocks and also ensure that corporate fish farms are managed sustainably.

But in a 2018 blunt and scathing audit, Julie Gelfand, the federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, concluded that the DFO wasn’t protecting wild salmon.

Gelfand found that “Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not adequately manage the risks associated with salmon aquaculture consistent with its mandate to protect wild fish.”

Although DFO had implemented measures to control the spread of infectious diseases and sea lice, “it had not made sufficient progress in completing the risk assessments for key diseases that were required to understand the effects of salmon aquaculture on wild fish,” said the report.

At a press conference following the report’s release, Gelfand expressed dismay about the department’s performance. “But of the audits that we have done on how government oversees a particular industry, really I have not been more disturbed than I have been with aquaculture,” said Gelfand.

“The gaps, there are so many of them, they are so important,” she said. “There’s no monitoring of wild fish, no thresholds for the use of medication. Industry reports are not validated, no monitoring of the ocean floor required — it just goes on and on.”

“I have probably not been more concerned about an audit that oversees an industry,” Gelfand said.  [Tyee]

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