BC's Fish Farm Falling out, Explained

The debate, focus of international attention, is front and centre this election.

By Crawford Kilian 3 May 2013 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

[Editor's Note: On May 10, The Tyee received a comment from Elizabeth Young of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, raising some points not discussed in Crawford Kilian's article. The Tyee welcomes her view and has appended them, slightly edited, at the end of this article. ]

When fish farms first appeared on the B.C. central coast 25 years ago, Alexandra Morton was a supporter.

Living on the coast to study orcas, Morton also came to know the communities that -- like the orcas -- lived on the salmon and other fish. In an interview with The Tyee, Morton said she thought the farms would help to support those communities.

It didn't work out that way. Morton was then studying orcas, but "acoustic harassment" drove them out of the area. Even worse, the fish farms were being established on some of the communities' best fishing grounds.

"I'd had good relations with DFO about killer whales," Morton told The Tyee, "so I thought it would be easy to talk with them about the fish farms. I was very naive."

Since then, Morton and the anti-farming movement have been in increasing conflict with both the fish farms and the provincial and federal governments. The Tyee has documented that conflict as far back as 2004, 2005, and 2006. After the failure of the Fraser River sockeye run in 2009, Morton called for an independent inquiry; the Cohen Commission was the result.

But the Commission itself became a focus of national and international controversy over the Harper government's silencing of researcher Dr. Kristi Miller. Dr. Miller did eventually speak publicly about her findings, and also said she believed the Prime Minister's Office had ordered her not to speak the media before giving her testimony.

Local goes international

By then, the British journal Nature had published an editorial condemning the silencing of Dr. Miller in particular and Canadian government scientists in general. The "muzzling" issue persists.

Morton took an active role in the Cohen Commission hearings, expressing concern not only about sea lice but also various fish diseases such as infectious salmon anemia (ISA). She has since carried the campaign into various Lower Mainland supermarkets as well as on the east coast.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Morton has been touring a new 70-minute documentary by Twyla Roscovich, Salmon Confidential, as well as posting frequent items about the tour and the issues on her Facebook page.

Asked about the role of the provincial government, Morton told The Tyee: "They're the landlord of the salmon farms. They get money from every tenure on this coast. They can remove farm licences if it's in the public interest. No other feedlot is allowed to threaten wild animals."

Morton went on to say, "I would love to see compensation packages for farm workers' families." She said the wild fishery, worth $600 million, is ten times as valuable as the $61.9 million of fish farms, citing B.C. Stats on wages paid to workers in the wild fishery as $218 million, versus $55 million in the farms. (More statistics are available on her blog.)

Morton said the fish-farm issue is increasing in importance in the provincial election. "The NDP has put out conflicting statements," she said. "First they said they might ban the farms, but then they issued a much softer statement." (The NDP website has little to say about the issue except to criticize the Liberals for failing to protect wild salmon and not taking unspecified "action" on fish farms.)

"The Greens say they'll close them, and the Liberals are calling for a moratorium on new farms in the Discovery Islands until 2020."

A search of the Liberal website turned up little on the subject except old news releases criticizing the NDP for being "against the salmon farms that provide jobs to coastal communities." The B.C. Conservative website, meanwhile, has no search function and its "What We Believe" page is blank.

[Response to this article by Elizabeth Young: "It’s very disappointing to see Mr. Kilian prepare a 'primer on fish farms' without contacting the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association or any of our salmon farmers for information. We are always happy to share information about our industry and work to ensure correct information is provided to the public.

"On that note, there are a few corrections we would like to make to the information presented.

"In terms of the Cohen Commission, Justice Cohen found that there was no smoking gun when it comes to what is causing Fraser River Sockeye populations to vary year to year. He did find that there is a lack of information on exactly what factors impact wild salmon and what those impacts are. B.C. Salmon Farmers Association agrees with this and is encouraged by the ongoing research of scientists in B.C. and elsewhere around the world. The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has, right from the beginning, expressed its support for Justice Cohen's recommendations to be enacted and continues to work on those aspects of the recommendations that are within our control.

"The Salmon Confidential film, mentioned in the article, is full of inaccuracies and misinformation. More information on the errors in the film can be found at our website and available here and here.

"While as Mr. Kilian reports, Ms. Morton believes the choice is one or the other -- wild or farmed -- salmon farmers disagree. We take care to ensure the environment in which we operate is protected, including benthic (seabed) monitoring by DFO, adhering to best practices in fish health and fish health management, and ensuring we take care of the coastal communities in which we are lucky enough to live and work."]  [Tyee]

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