Island mayors slam Trudeau fish farm phase-out

BC MPs, MLAs largely silent on plan to shut down fish farms in Discovery Islands

Jobs at the Brown's Bay fish proicessing plant in Campbell River are among those that could be lost with closure of salmon farms in the region. | Nelson Bennett Photo

Four Vancouver Island mayors have written Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan, slamming her decision to shut down salmon farming in the Discovery Islands, a move they say will cost their towns 1,500 jobs.

But they appear to be getting little backing from their own Member of Parliament or MLA.

Rachel Blaney, NDP MP for North Island-Powell River, is not objecting to the Trudeau government’s plan to accelerate the phase-out of salmon farming in B.C., starting with the Discovery Islands, though she is calling on the Trudeau government to provide transitioning for the 1,500 workers who will lose jobs.

Nor has Michele Babchuk, newly elected NDP MLA for North Island, appeared to have made any public statements about the plan. She could not be reached for comment.

The main objections to the Trudeau government’s plans to shut down open-net salmon farming in B.C. comes from two Conservative MPs – one in New Brunswick and one in the Okanagan.

Richard Bragdon, the Conservative shadow critic for Fisheries and Oceans, and Mel Arnold, Conservative MP for North Okanagan-Shuswap, recently wrote Jordan to say her decision has “blindsided” coastal communities in B.C.

“The decision comes without any plan for assisting affected workers, employers and the communities they support,” they write.

In the last federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to phase out open-net salmon farming in B.C. Following the election, he ordered the minister of Fisheries and Oceans to prepare plans for phasing out open net salmon farms by 2025.

But in mid-December, Jordan ordered all open-net salmon farms to vacate the Discovery Islands region within 18 months – two and half years ahead of the 2025 date.

There are 19 fish farms in the Discovery Islands region, which represents about one-fifth of all salmon farms in B.C, according to the BC Salmon Farmers Association.

By June 22, 2022 they must be gone, leaving 1,500 people in places like Campbell River and Port Hardy without a job.

 “Your shocking decision to order Discovery Islands area salmon farms closed directly puts at risk 1,500 jobs supported by those farms in the short term, while in the long term striking at a sustainable COVID recovery industry and at the economic viability of the entire $1.6 billion salmon farming industry in BC,” the mayors of Campbell River, Port Hardy, Gold River and Port McNeill write in their letter to Jordan.

The only MP in B.C. to publicly question the Trudeau government’s decision to start shutting down salmon farms ahead of the 2025 deadline is the Conservative MP for North Okanagan-Shuswap, Mel Arnold.

“I think we’ve seen very little from Ms Blaney on this,” Arnold told BIV News. “There’s obviously major communities in her riding that have concerns about the process…and she’s made no public comment that I’ve seen.”

In response to queries from BIV News, Blaney sent a press release, wherein she does not take issue with the Trudeau plan per se, although she does ask the federal government to provide some kind of support for the 1,500 workers who will lose their jobs.

Blaney plans to meet with Jordan January 11 to discuss a transition plan.

“Workers and small business owners are understandably afraid for their future and how they will provide for their families,” said Blaney in the release. “These are hardworking people and creative and resilient businesses, but they need the support of our federal government.

“We’re still in the middle of the pandemic and this is another blow to many families in our region. The federal government needs to develop a plan to help our community get through these changes and thrive.”

Arnold said the Trudeau government is making ad hoc decisions on aquaculture because Canada still has no federal aquaculture act, despite having promised in 2016 to produce one.

“They’ve failed to deliver an aquaculture act, an act that could ensure the sustainable regulation on aquaculture and net pen salmon farming,” he said.

The Trudeau government has sent some confusing signals to the salmon farming industry in B.C. -- first saying that open-net salmon farms must be phased out by 2025, then stating that the 2025 date was to have a plan in place for a phase-out, and, more recently ordering  salmon farms in one of the most active regions shut down by 2022.

Both the Trudeau and John Horgan governments have suggested the jobs lost from open-net salmon farming can be supplanted by land-based fish farming, something that a number of economic analyses have concluded make no economic sense in B.C., unless they are subsidized by government.

For all the welcoming gestures both levels of government have made with respect to land-based fish farming, there are no proposals on the table in B.C. for any major land-based salmon farm, which would take years and ten of millions of dollars to build.

That should not be surprising, given the signals the Trudeau government has been sending to the aquaculture industry, say Bragdon and Arnold.

“Your decision to close down these operations will also send a chill throughout the aquaculture industry and cause major employers to reconsider investing in Canada,” they warn in their letter to Jordan.

A number of economic analyses suggest that the only way the economics can work in B.C. for major land-based salmon farms is if they are subsidized by government. It simply makes more sense to locate land-based fish farms close to their markets, and the main market for farmed salmon isn't B.C., but the U.S.

While environmentalists have long argued for the wholesale closure of open-net salmon farms, based on the fear that they might be spreading disease to wild fish, that is not what has motivated the latest move by the Trudeau government.

Last year, after reviewing all the scientific studies and literature on disease from fish farms, DFO concluded salmon farms posed “minimal risk” to wild stocks.

Recent policy decisions on salmon farming from both the provincial and federal governments have been in response to First Nation opposition. Salmon farms are supported in some areas of B.C. by First Nations, but are strenuously opposed by First Nations in the Discovery Islands.