The subject of fish farms operating in North Island waters continues to cause controversy.
Back on Oct. 1, the federal Liberal Party pledged as part of their campaign for office they would shut down open-net fish farming in B.C. by 2025, forcing all of the businesses to move on land.
After the dust had finally settled on election night, the liberals won a minority government with 157 seats, leaving many aquaculture businesses and workers in the lurch wondering what the future will hold for the industry in the North Island.
Mowi Canada West and Cermaq Canada, two companies who own and operate fish farms in the North Island, requested The North Island Gazette speak to the BC Salmon Farmers Association’s Executive Director John Paul Fraser, who was adamant this kind of change in business structure would “create a severe impact on employment and have significant economic consequences for Northern Vancouver Island.”
Mowi, for example, operates 23 salmon farms and employs 600 people in B.C. The company donated $250,000 to the District of Port Hardy’s multiplex project and supports many community organizations including service groups, sports teams, social programs and salmon enhancement programs.
Cermaq operates 28 salmon farms and employs 300-350 people in B.C. The company has previously donated $100,000 towards a new artificial turf soccer field in Campbell River.
Fraser warned that if the industry starts “contracting because of the uncertainty of this ill-advised public policy, it [community support] unfortunately will be scaled back.”
The North Island-Powell River riding was won by NDP candidate Rachel Blaney (this will be her second term in office), defeating political rival Conservative candidate Shelley Downey by a little over 3,000 votes (23,481 to 20,131).
Downey campaigned in favour of the fish farm industry, stating in an interview before the election that “The salmon farms of today are not the same as the ones I knew in the late ’80s. Through investment and innovation, they have continually improved their practices for the betterment of the environment and the fish they are producing.”
When asked about the future of fish farms in her riding, Blaney stated she has “consistently supported the transition of fish farms to closed containment systems since before I was first elected in 2015” and that “Our wild salmon are struggling and this [fish farms] is one factor of many, but it is an important one that we need to act on.”
According to activists like Alexandra Morton and the Sea Shepherd Society, open-net fish farms endanger wild stocks due to the spread of sea lice and piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), and also that the farms violate the rights of some Indigenous communities who are opposed to the operations taking place without their consent.
Morton told The Campbell River Mirror back in February that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and provincial scientists have known PRV has been affecting chinook salmon for years. Among Pacific wild fish, “the effects of PRV are largely unknown, but research indicates that it causes the cells of wild chinook salmon to burst, leading to organ failure,” she said.
The Mirror also reported that a 2018 study led by a DFO scientist found that PRV is linked to a deadly type of anemia in at least one species of wild B.C. salmon.
Regarding PRV spreading from farmed salmon to wild salmon, Fraser stated the science actually shows that the B.C. variant of PRV “poses minimal risk — Scientists will never say there’s zero risk, but minimal risk is very low. It’s this kind of concern for PRV that’s really lubricated this debate for mass scale transition. Our concern is that the science lubricating that debate is not found.”
He added things like climate change, over fishing, ocean temperatures, industrial development, and outdated forestry practices have, over time, impacted wild stock and caused low returns. “The scientific evidence shows there is room for both farmed and wild salmon, and in fact, there needs to be,” stated Fraser. “One of the best practices to help wild salmon stocks is farming fish.”
Blaney said she wants to see a comprehensive plan put in place by the government that “at its heart protects wild salmon and works with our region to move to local closed containment operations.”
Fraser, however, stated the move to land-based farms is not financially viable, mainly because “the technology needs a lot more time to develop. Growing animals on land is not easy. We have land-based farmers in our association who will tell you how difficult and challenging it is — we know all about how much land is needed, we know how expensive it is to operate, how much energy is needed, how much carbon is produced — it’s a very different business and cost structure. If you’re going to change the entire economics of aquaculture, there’s things you need to address and there would be a lot of problems operating in smaller communities like Port Hardy. The argument that the 7,000 jobs on the line can just migrate into these rural communities, there’s literally no evidence that it can happen. You have to ask, what is the basis for this multi-billion dollar risk when you already have the businesses operating here?”
The only on land fish farm in the North Island, Kuterra, is located in Alert Bay. Kuterra Limited Partnership had assets of $1,039,332 and liabilities of $3,029,022 as at March 31, 2018, and revenues of $2,231,462 and a net loss of $345,476 for the year then ended.
When asked about the potential loss of 7,000 jobs in the province if the industry decides to shut down and move elsewhere, Blaney assured her constituents she will continue working with stakeholders in the local communities to “keep good jobs in the North Island and protect wild salmon.”
As for the liberals’ pledge to move the fish farm industry on land by 2025, Fraser says it “wasn’t made with the North Island communities in mind” and “it’s not feasible, is extremely disruptive, and it’s causing stress for the industry.”
Blaney noted that, “So far all we have from the government is a one-line election promise.”
The North Island Gazette contacted North Island MLA Claire Trevena to see if she still wants to see fish farms removed from local waters, which she vocally campaigned for in Alert Bay during the 2017 provincial election.
Trevena responded to the request for comment with a statement, which can be read in full below:
“Our government recognizes that the protection of B.C.’s salmon is critically important to our province’s environment, history, economy, and way of life. We are committed to working with our federal partners to address fish health and protect wild salmon. Minister Popham has had productive conversations with the Federal Minister in the past but as we wait for the new cabinet to be sworn in, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is the best place to find updates on their policy. We are proud of our historic, government-to-government talks with First Nations in the Broughton that have produced important recommendations to address Nations’ longstanding concerns and protect and restore wild salmon stocks. The salmon farming industry is a critical partner in putting the Broughton plan into action. Our government is working collaboratively with the federal government, First Nations and industry to protect wild salmon stocks.”
Trevena went on record during her 2017 campaign that if the NDP formed government under John Horgan, they would “make sure that these territories and the North Island are clear of fish farms.”
Campbell River Mayor Andy Adams and Port Hardy Mayor Dennis Dugas are both quite concerned about the aquaculture industry simply packing up and leaving the area if the liberals go through with their campaign pledge to move the businesses on land by 2025.
“We are the salmon capital of the world for a reason,” said Adams, who noted Campbell River is home to the head offices of three major salmon farming companies, a unique aquatic research facility, numerous aquaculture service and supply companies, as well as aquaculture certification training being offered through local colleges.
He added that he was “very surprised and disappointed that an announcement of this stature was made during an election, especially one that is completely contrary to all the conversations we’d had in the past with Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.”
Adams warned that if the industry is forced to move on land, “it would have a massive affect on the entire province — the impact to the provincial treasury, in addition to all of the North Island, would be significant.”
Dugas, who has lived in Port Hardy for 50 years and has seen the industry evolve and change since the 1980’s when it first arrived in town, agreed with Adam’s warning wholeheartedly. “The impact to our local economy would be devastating,” he said. “Our processing plant on the other side of the bay would be closed, workers on the farms would be gone, companies that supply equipment and fix nets would have no business, and there’s some very expensive boats that haul fish that wouldn’t be out on the water anymore.”
As for PRV spreading from farmed salmon to wild salmon, Dugas stated the scientific evidence that’s out there “isn’t conclusive” and that he doesn’t lose sleep at night thinking about PRV affecting wild salmon stock. “I lose sleep at night thinking about the industry leaving town and what it will do to our local economy.”