'Needs more work': Feds release new framework to phase out B.C.'s open-net fish farms

A new framework was just released by the DFO outlining the engagement process already underway that will aid B.C.'s transition away from open-net pen salmon farms.

A new discussion framework was just released by the DFO to advance the transition from open-net pen salmon farming. | Photo by Marine Harvest Canada

Canada’s minister of fisheries and oceans released a discussion framework on Friday outlining the next phase in the transition away from open-net pen aquaculture in B.C.

With a goal to phase out open-net pen salmon farms in coastal B.C. waters by 2025, this round of engagement is the minister’s latest step towards achieving this.

“What I am aiming to do is get input into a transition plan that will greatly minimize or eliminate the interaction between wild fish and cultured salmon,” said Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

“I'll be interested in people's ideas [and] their feedback about what kind of metrics would we use to measure that interactions are being reduced or eliminated.”

In June, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) temporarily renewed the licences of 79 open-net pen salmon farms, outside of the Discovery Islands, for two years. The ministry also said it would strengthen reporting requirements to contain harmful pathogens affecting wild fish populations.

Immature technology raises concerns

One tool proposed by DFO in the framework is raising the eyebrows of experts.

A semi-closed containment system — where a flexible polymer material is used as a barricade between a net pen and the open ocean — has been suggested by the ministry to aid the transition.

Stan Proboszcz, science and campaign advisor for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said there’s not nearly enough reliable data on using this method for it to be included in B.C.’s transition plan.

He pointed towards a trial of the system in Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island by Cermaq Canada that was cut short due to a technical fault that resulted in fish mortality.

“That was just like a year or two ago. Why is it going to work now?” Proboszcz said. 

According to Cermaq Canada’s website, no signs of disease were detected in the enclosed fish and the company will trial the system again after a full investigation into the initial failure.

“[A semi-closed containment system] is immature technology under development; therefore, it is not surprising when you are trialling new technology you will run into challenges,” Peter McKenzie, director of fish health at Cermaq said in a written statement.

Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, said his involvement with the decisions made in 2018 for the Broughton Archipelago fish farm tenures taught him that semi-closed systems are not a reliable tool.

“When we looked at [a semi-closed containment system] and analyzed it, it didn't meet any of the concerns that we had,” Chamberlin said. “We examined it for several meetings and it just does not protect wild salmon.”

Under the same objective heading in the framework, DFO also lists licensing, closed containment systems, land-based facilities and enhanced monitoring of pathogens as part of the proposed approach.

Dual-licensing approach could threaten timeline 

To “support the development and trialling of technologies” the DFO is proposing a dual stream licensing approach.

This would offer fish farm operators two choices when in the market to renew their licence: a standard licence or an enhanced performance licence. 

The idea, according to the DFO, is to incentivize industry members to invest in more sustainable technologies, meet the increasingly stringent environmental standards and eventually phase out all standard licences.

However, Proboszcz said he’s concerned about how well this seemingly gradual dual-licensing approach will work alongside an already vague timeline.

“My concern is, how long is all this going to take?” Proboszcz said.

“When the federal government first made this promise to… create a plan to transition this industry by 2025, I think the vast majority of people believed they meant farms were going to be removed a lot sooner than this framework seems to suggest.”

Meanwhile, industry members are already stressed by the “ambitious” timeline they say has been set.

“While elements of the proposed framework are challenging, given the ambitious timeline set out, we are encouraged that the federal government will rely on reconciliation and peer-reviewed science as a foundation for planning,” BC Salmon Farmers Association said in a written statement.

Lack of communication with First Nations

The first phase of engagement runs from now until September with invitations being emailed to First Nations, Indigenous organizations, industry, conservation groups and local B.C. governments, according to the DFO.

This phase also includes an online survey that will be open for public input through the DFO Pacific Region’s consultation and engagement website.

But for many nations across the province, Chamberlin said the messaging has been anything but clear. He told Glacier Media many First Nations are only just becoming aware of this opportunity.

“First Nations are just now becoming aware of the funding opportunity that DFO is providing to participate and put a formal submission into the transition planning process,” he said.

As chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, Chamberlin has taken it upon himself to spread the word. In the past 10 days he’s spoken to between 30 and 35 tribal councils to inform them of the application they need to submit in order to be included in the engagement process.

“This is news to them. I'm bringing them information about where they could access resources to properly inform the transition planning process,” Chamberlin said.  

By the time many First Nations are able to get their applications approved, Chamberlin is concerned the engagement process could already be moving into its second phase.

Minister Murray told Glacier Media that First Nations are a key part of this framework and she will be looking for feedback from any First Nations who, historically, have a connection with wild salmon.

A promising first step

While Chamberlin is disappointed in the DFO’s communication with First Nations during the first phase, he said his initial reaction to the framework was an encouraging one.

“They're going to engage First Nations whose fish migrate past fish farms,” he said. “That's really significant.”

In the past, Chamberlin said engagement has often been limited to First Nations with fish farms on their territory and has excluded those whose wild salmon migrate past these farms.

“The impact of fish farm operations extends across British Columbia, well up to the headwaters of the Fraser River, and the Thompson River,” Chamberlin said.

Chamberlin noted the engagement by the DFO of all affected First Nations is in accordance with the Supreme Court case Haida Nation v British Columbia.

“It's not a nicety, it's actually the DFO living up to Supreme Court law,” he said. “The Haida Supreme Court ruling says that even the potential to infringe Aboriginal rights by a Crown licence or decision triggers the duty to consult.”

For Proboszcz, his feelings of encouragement comes solely from the fact that these discussions are even being had by government officials, despite any overarching flaws.

“This is the first time a government has talked about concerns with aquaculture and salmon farming and that's hopeful,” Proboszcz said.

“I do appreciate all the work that's gone into this and the concern, but I think it needs more work.”