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B.C. salmon farming industry welcomes consultation after years of 'ad hoc' talks

A formal consultation process for the future of the industry is welcome after years of "ad hoc" discussions over Ottawa's pledge to end open-net salmon aquaculture, the executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said Thursday.
An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. The executive director of British Columbia's salmon farmers association says a formalized consultation process for the future of the industry is welcome after several years of "ad hoc" discussions stemming from the Liberal government's pledge in 2019 to end open-net pen salmon aquaculture off B.C.'s coast. THE CANADIAN PRESS /Jonathan Hayward

A formal consultation process for the future of the industry is welcome after years of "ad hoc" discussions over Ottawa's pledge to end open-net salmon aquaculture, the executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said Thursday.

Ruth Salmon said it will bring the industry, First Nations and the federal and B.C. governments together to talk about how to transition away from open-net farms.

Studies have shown open-net pens can spread disease to wild fish, though Salmon said the global aquaculture industry is changing, with new technologies that reduce interactions between wild and farmed fish without land-locking the farms.

The mandate letter for Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray tasks her with developing the plan to shift from open-net salmon farming in B.C. waters by 2025, while working to introduce Canada's first Aquaculture Act.

Fisheries and Oceans announced Wednesday that open-net salmon farms may continue operating during the consultation process that's set to run until early 2023, with the final plan to transition 79 farms expected to be released next spring.

Murray and her department will be proposing a framework for the plan in consultation with Indigenous communities, the industry, environmental groups and different levels of government, the minister said in an interview on Thursday.

The plan "will be for a new regulatory regime that will lead to this transition to where there is little or no contact between wild and farmed salmon," she said.

Premier John Horgan had written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March, saying any plans to end open-net fish farming should come with supports for the industry and its workers.

It's too early to say what the supports for coastal communities might be, said Murray, but Ottawa will be working closely with the provincial government.

New Democrat fisheries critic Lisa Marie Barron issued a statement Thursday saying consultation for moving away from open-net farms should have taken place years ago, when the Liberal government first announced its intention to phase them out.

"Almost three years later the important work of providing a clear transition plan for First Nations, workers, and coastal communities has not been done," said Barron, who represents the Vancouver Island riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith.

Murray acknowledged the pledge to end open-net pen aquaculture was made in 2019, but said action has been taken since then.

There are no more farmed Atlantic salmon in the Discovery Islands, representing about 30 per cent of the volume of aquaculture industry off B.C.'s coast, she said.

Aquaculture operators in the area located along a key migration route for wild salmon had already begun scaling back after Murray's predecessor announced in late 2020 that 19 salmon farms would be phased out by the end of this month.

A Federal Court judge set aside that decision this spring afterthree companies applied for a judicial review of the order that prevented them from restocking their farms, arguing it lacked reasons and didn't "show an appreciation of the facts."

In her April decision, Federal Court Judge Elizabeth Heneghan found the minister's order breached the right to procedural fairness owed to the fish farms.

Ottawa is now undertaking a separate consultation process with First Nations and fish farm operators, which Murray said would involve talking about the possible non-renewal of the salmon licences, with a final decision expected next January. 

"It's important that we talk with people who are affected."

The federal government will not reissue any licences for Atlantic salmon farms around the Discovery Islands in the meantime.

One of the operators that applied for the judicial review, Cermaq Canada, said in a statement the company has formalized several agreements with First Nations since the decision and it will follow their lead in the consultation process.

"We are therefore ready and motivated to engage in a process that recognizes the common interest the parties have in exploring what food production might look like in the Discovery Islands Region. First Nations rights and oversight will be crucial to the future Cermaq operations in the area," it said.

For dozens of salmon farming operations outside the Discovery Islands, Fisheries and Oceans said their two-year licence renewals come with stronger conditions, including sea lice management plans and wild salmon monitoring requirements.

While the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association welcomes the consultation process, they're disappointed the licence renewals aren't longer to encourage investment in innovation in the industry, said Salmon, who is serving as interim executive director.

"Short-term licences really don't give investors the kind of confidence they need to invest in Canada," she said.

"We do need to know that the government feels there's a future, because that aligns with investment dollars. So we've got all kinds of exciting ideas, but we can't operationalize those until there is that security."

The First Nations for Finfish Stewardship also issued a statement saying the coalition had called for longer-term renewals, but they're thankful Ottawa has reissued licences outside the Discovery Islands, recognizing the rights of nations that want to pursue seafood production in their territories.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2022.

The Canadian Press