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'Wrong direction': Feds called out for approving 3 B.C. fish farm expansions

Tofino-based Clayoquot Action says the expansions are in direct conflict with a federal promise to transition from open-net pen salmon farming.

The federal government has approved the expansion of three open-net pen salmon farms off the coast of Vancouver Island, despite commitments to phase out the industry. 

The expansion includes putting more fish into existing farms (known as adding biomass), and in one case, adding a net array. 

Altogether, the expansion is equivalent to adding another one and a quarter facilities to the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, according to Clayoquot Action, which advocates for wild salmon in the region.

“It’s going totally in the wrong direction,” said Dan Lewis, the group's executive director.

“It’s going completely against the mandate of the minister to get open-net pens out of the water by 2025.”

Lewis said chinook runs in the area are among the worst in the province, and past monitoring of juvenile wild salmon has shown they are “loaded with lice.”

Sea lice are among a handful of pathogens fish in open-net pen farms are thought to pass on to wild fish, say scientists. Those pressures have combined with habitat loss, over-fishing and a warming ocean to increasingly put pressure on wild salmon populations.

“Things are really bad here,” said Lewis, whose group has been tracking the expansion of the farms. “The only solution is to get farms out of the water.”

In June 2022, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Joyce Murray appeared to agree. That’s when she announced the federal government would be moving to phase out open-net pen salmon farms in B.C. by 2025. 

In an interview with Glacier Media, Murray said she was committed to safeguarding wild salmon from the threat of farms. When pressed if that meant removing all salmon farms from the ocean and onto land, she suggested there might be technology that allows a middle ground where salmon farms still operate in the ocean.

But in the weeks that followed, salmon advocate groups criticized new measures to contain pathogens stemming from salmon farms as “a joke.” 

A spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed Cermaq requested amendments to the three farms but that the aquaculture company’s overall production limits in northern Clayoquot Sound remain “unchanged.”

The ministry spokesperson added that “only four of the six farms in the area will be allowed to operate at any given time” and that the new conditions of licence will require Cermaq stock the farms with “a single year class of fish.”

That’s meant to disrupt cycles of pathogen and disease, according to the DFO spokesperson.

When questioned whether the additions would undermine the plan to phase out open-pen net salmon farms in B.C., the ministry said the federal government is “fully committed to” its planned transition and that “work on that plan is underway.” 

For Lewis, however, he says the latest expansions represent a continuation of the status quo and a complete disregard for the commitments made by the federal government to protect the iconic West Coast fish. 

“We’ve been seeing the arrays getting built and deployed,” he said. “We expect to see a similar pattern with the other ones.”