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Fighting to Keep a Fish Farm at Bay

People around Bute Inlet three years ago resoundingly rejected salmon farms. But the pushy provincial government, they say, doesn't know the meaning of 'no.'

By Andrew Findlay 12 Jan 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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During a flood tide the swirling boils of the Arran Rapids guard the narrow entrance to Bute Inlet, a fjord that cuts 80 km deep into the Coast Range. Though the surrounding mountains display the enduring scars of industrial logging, this remains a wild and remote chunk of coastal British Columbia

This also happens to be the latest flash point in the debate over whether farming Atlantic salmon in ocean net pens is good for B.C.'s coastal communities - and whether the communities themselves have the right to make that decision.

Bute Inlet lies roughly 40 km northwest of Campbell River. It is the last big inlet on the south coast without a fish farm. To the north and south, the rise of salmon farming reflects the B.C. Liberals embrace of finfish aquaculture as an economic development priority for the slumping coast. Already, farmed salmon is B.C.'s largest (legal) agricultural export, the key component of an aquaculture sector generating over $300 million a year.

But here, two and a half years ago, the regional district that encompasses Bute weighed local opinion and concerns and then rejected a proposal for three fish farms in Bute Inlet including one at a place called the Downie Range.

So why are Stuart Islanders and others who live and work around Bute Inlet still fighting to keep farmed fish out of the inlet?

Wild salmon way of life

To understand why, one must go back to the spring of 2001, when Heritage Aquaculture first tabled its proposal for fish farms in Bute.

That summer the Comox-Strathcona Regional District, which has the authority to zone foreshore development including all forms of aquaculture, held two public hearings into the rezoning. The second, held July 21 on Sonora Island, was an emotional gathering where sport and prawn fishers, salmon enhancement workers and lodge owners sent a near unified message: status quo fish farms were not welcome in the Bute.

People at the meeting expressed a host of concerns.  Topping the list was doubt about the ability of the fish farms's anchorage system to withstand the savage Arctic outflow wind, know as the "Bute" that howls down the inlet in winter at speeds of 100km/h, and the subsequent threat of fish escapes.

Some expressed worries about disease and epidemics such sea lice being transferred to the juvenile wild salmon on which the lucrative sport fishing trade depends.  At the core of the opposition there was also a widespread feeling that fish farms are inconsistent with the local aesthetic and way of life around Bute.

There's no doubt that the affluent lodge community, including business heavyweights Dennis Washington and Dave Ritchie each with their own sprawling Stuart Island estates, has vested interest in safeguarding the wild salmon that sport fishers pay up to $500 a day to catch.  "Floating feedlots," as fish farms have been called, don't mesh with the glossy West Coast idyll that the brochures portray.

In the end the regional district collected 787 submissions from the public, 603 of them adamantly opposed to the idea.

No doesn't mean no

Later that summer the regional district voted to reject the re-zoning application and most people around Bute figured that was that.

But already rumours were circulating around that Victoria, in pursuit of its pro-fish farming agenda, was looking at legislative changes that would have the effect of circumventing local planning. In an interview two years ago Bud Graham, assistant deputy minister for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, had this to say about changing the laws: "The biggest impediment is to foreshore waters and the government is looking into way of trying to make it more efficient. There's been no decision but we're looking for a more effective way of managing aquaculture."

Observers believed that Graham was referring obliquely to the Bute Inlet file.

In the meantime Land and Water BC, the government agency that licenses fish farms, kept working on a Bute fish farm application. In August 2002, LWBC announced that a two-year "experimental" license had been issued to Campbell River-based Heritage Aquaculture in partnership with the Homalco First Nations, to open a fish farm at the Downie Range, a half hour boat ride up the inlet from the lodges of Stuart and Sonora Island.

Soon after, LWBC delivered the file to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to conduct an environmental assessment.

With the stroke of a pen, the Bute Inlet file had been reopened.

Regional district board members were dumbfounded.

The decision overrode local authorities and seemed to run afoul of one of the provincial government's own siting criteria, number 14 which states that a new fish farm must be "consistent with approved local government bylaws for land use and zoning."

And the decision was handed down by a provincial government that talked a big game about empowering local governments.

Waiting to see what Bill 48 means

That's where the Bute Inlet fish farm proposal sits today, between provincial government approval and a yet to be concluded DFO environmental assessment and with a license due to expire this summer.

Memos obtained from DFO point to concerns over proximity of the proposed farms to herring spawn areas, the potential for fish escapes, conflicts with sport and prawn fishers as well as storm damage from the severe winter weather.

Duncan Williams, LWBC's aquaculture manager in Nanaimo, says the proposal is out of his agency's hands. Whether the license runs out or is deep-sixed by DFO, Williams says Heritage is always free to re-apply with a new proposal.

With Bute Inlet fish farming still in limbo, Stuart Islanders and other locals who have been fighting the proposal since day one are not resting easy.  One of their chief concerns is the adoption of Bill 48 last October, the so-called Farm Practices Amendment Act. The bill has basically expanded the definition of farmland to include marine areas deemed suitable for aquaculture.

The legislation has yet to be tested on the water, but critics, including Georgia Strait Alliance and Islands Trust, say it goes a long way to treating our oceans as industrial farms.

Eric Blueschke has been a Stuart Island fishing guide for 15 years and is now a fish farming watchdog for the Georgia Straight Alliance. With so little known about Bill 48, he fears that it could be used to bully through a pro-aquaculture agenda in areas like Bute where local authorities are not bending backwards to accommodate the salmon farming industry.

"The real test comes when they try to enforce it," Blueschke says.

Gavin Last, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, says the legislation will be used as a tool and not a weapon.

"Prior to Bill 48 amendments, the right-to-farm act wasn't applied equally to between dirt and water farming. It's trying to prevent local governments from doing an end run around ministerial approval," Last says. "If all else fails and we're unable to balance local and provincial interests, the right-to-farm act might be applied."

To Blueschke and others that sounds like a law custom-made to circumvent locally based decision-making.

Fish farm company offers reassurances

Heritage Aquaculture, meanwhile, is eager to reassure locals that the company can farm Atlantic salmon in Bute inlet without harming the ecology or way of life there.

"We're confident that we can do things in an environmentally responsible way in Bute Inlet," Odd Grydelund, the company's former aquaculture development manager said after the license was issued back in the summer of 2002.

But a formerly cozy relationship between Heritage and the Homalco First Nation has deteriorated under new band leadership.

"We don't want fish farms in Bute Inlet because we don't want to risk our aboriginal fishery," says the new elected chief Darren Blaney.

With another salmon fishing season just around the corner, Bute Inlet is much as it has always been - wild, remote and not a fish farm in site. Whether or not Victoria will press Bill 48 to open this last "un-farmed" inlet to salmon aquaculture remains to be seen.

Andrew Findlay is a Vancouver Island-based journalist whose pieces have appeared in the Vancouver Sun and many other publications.  [Tyee]

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