2022 could be the beginning of the end for net fish farms in Canada

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About 40 years ago, Don Svanvik fished a Pacific Ocean teeming with salmon. Then ocean temperatures rose, open-net fish farms moved into British Columbia, and salmon populations all but disappeared before it. Currently the elected leader of ‘Namgis First NationSvanvik is at the forefront of a fight against the only variable it might be able to control: fish farms.

Across the islands and coast of British Columbia, tensions over declining wild salmon populations have been simmering for decades. Some conservationists say Atlantic salmon farmed in the Pacific Ocean pose a significant risk to wild salmon populations in British Columbia. Others point to a wider range of human impacts, from habitat loss to climate change driving the decline of wild Pacific salmon.

For opponents of controversial fish farms, 2022 could be the year the tide turns in their favor as some open-net fish farms face government-ordered closures in late June. Officially called “net pen fish farms,” these pens contain farmed Atlantic salmon as a food source. This method of fish farming remains a common practice in British Columbia, although it banned along the Pacific coast of North America in California, Washington and Alaska.

On October 26, 2021, the aquaculture company Mowi Canada West announced May 2022 hatchery closure. “It’s a sign that the industry is stepping back,” says Alexandra Morton, Science Advisor for the ‘Namgis First Nation. Mowi Canada West declined to comment.

Like the region drop in wild salmon populations, some point to open-net farms as a problem for fish. In addition to the Atlantic salmon they’re supposed to raise, they also contain sea lice and pathogens that regularly accompany large numbers of confined fish, Morton says.

The open net allows ocean currents to remove waste and provide oxygen. But nets can’t prevent juvenile wild Pacific salmon from picking up sea lice and pathogens as they migrate past farms.

“The problem for our little pink and chum salmon here is that they get into the water [weighing] less than half a gram,” says Morton. “They can’t take lice at all.”

Many species of Pacific salmon native to the region have experienced declines since the 1980s. Declining populations directly impact species higher up the food chain, such as bears and whales, reduce nutrients to coastal forests and harms First Nations diets and cultural practices that depend on fish.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed this controversial fish farming practice in a Mandate letter 2019 directing former Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Bernadette Jordan to move away from net fish farming by 2025. In response, in December 2020, Minister Jordan decided not to renew the net pen license in British Columbia. Discovery Islands beyond June 30, 2022.

Mowi Canada West, along with other aquaculture companies operating in the area, filed suit in Federal Court over the denied permits. Mowi estimates that 30% of their production takes place in the Discovery Islands. Their case was heard in mid-October 2021 and a final decision has yet to be rendered.

Shortly after the federal hearings, Mowi announced the May 2022 closure of a hatchery, which supplies some of the company’s fish farms. They say the closure would come at the expense of 17 people employed at the hatchery. Morton says the move would signal that Mowi sees no future for deep-sea aquaculture in the Discovery Islands.

The Discovery Islands have become a target of the fight against aquaculture because they are a dense migration area for salmon from the Fraser River. 2020 saw a low recorded for sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River at about 283,000 fish, down from a peak of 28.2 million in 2010.

North of the Discovery Islands, legal action by ‘Namgis First Nation closed and returned fish farms to its control. Mowi’s announced closure is “the first hatchery we know of” affected by Canadian federal government decisions against net-pen farming in the area, Morton says.

Some scientists say changes in the ocean, such as rising temperatures due to climate change, may play a bigger role than the presence of open-net fish farms. “Salmon spend most of their lives in the ocean…98% of their growth occurs there, a very large part of overall survival is determined there,” says David Welch, president of Kintama Research Serviceswho studied Pacific salmon.

Research has yet to prove a single cause for the decline of Pacific salmon, which is seen in areas with and without net fish farms, Welch says.

Multiple factors can interact to cause salmon decline, says Stan Proboszcz, science advisor for the Salmon Watershed Watch Society. “Changing marine conditions…may make them more susceptible to parasites, viruses and diseases from salmon farms.” Along the Pacific coast, a range of human impacts are negatively affecting wild salmon, including habitat loss, pollution and the presence of hatcheries, according to North West Fisheries Science Center research.

With the evidence available, Prime Minister Trudeau is moving towards a phase-out of net-pen fish farming. Following his re-election in 2021, Prime Minister Trudeau reaffirmed his goal of transitioning the practice by 2025 in his December mandate letter to Minister Joyce Murray, who replaced Jordan as Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Whether former Minister Jordan’s decision to set a June 2022 deadline in the Discovery Islands will hold up under new governance remains an open question.

As for the future of fish farming in British Columbia as a whole, “there is now an opportunity to do that on land,” says Svanvik. The ‘Namgis First Nation began Kuterraa land-based salmon farm in 2013 to show that net-pen fish farming is not the only option for raising salmon in British Columbia.

For the ‘Namgis First Nation and other First Nations, protecting Pacific salmon means protecting the environment and its culture. “We are salmon people,” says Svanvik, “salmon has been an integral part of our diet since time immemorial…it’s the backbone of our heritage.”

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