New Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray sticks to plan to close open net fish farms

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Okisollo Fish Farm near Campbell River, British ColumbiaJONATHAN HAYWARD / The Canadian Press

The federal government remains committed to phasing out open-net fish farms in British Columbia by 2025, said new Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray.

“This position was articulated in our 2019 election platform … that we pledge to end open net-pen salmon farming in British Columbia by 2025,” Murray said in an interview. early December.

Ms Murray, a longtime Liberal MP known for her interest in environmental issues, was appointed fisheries minister in October after the The former minister, Nova Scotia MP Bernadette Jordan, lost her seat in the October federal election. Murray’s appointment comes as some wild west coast salmon species are on the verge of extinction and the impacts of the November storms on fish and their habitat are just beginning to be assessed.

Ms Murray said her priorities as Minister will include following up on strategies started under Ms Jordan’s tenure, including addressing the controversial issue of fish farms.

Open net farms are cage-like structures suspended in the ocean, and they are a major industry in British Columbia. The farmed Atlantic salmon is the first in British Columbia. agriculture, seafood, food and drink export, accounting for $ 562 million in sales and 12% of the total in 2019, according to a report from the provincial government. The BC Salmon Farmers Association estimated the industry’s economic impact at $ 1.6 billion that year.

But fish farms are controversial because of the risks they pose to wild salmon, including parasitic sea lice which can spread to young fish as they make their way to the ocean from lakes and streams where they were born.

As wild salmon stocks have declined over the past two decades, researchers, environmental groups and some First Nations have called on the federal government to government to remove fish farms from coastal waters. In 2012, the Cohen Commission on the Decline of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon Returns recommended that Discovery Islands fish farms be closed by September 30, 2020, unless the Minister of Fisheries is satisfied they are presenting. “At most minimal risk of serious harm” to migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon.

The Discovery Islands are a group of islands between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia that lie along a migratory route for wild salmon and have been a prime location for salmon net farms open.

In September 2020, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced that its review of nine Discovery Islands pathogens had determined that they posed minimal risk to migratory fish. (Critics disputed these results.) Then, in December 2020, Ms. Jordan announced that the Discovery Islands salmon aquaculture licenses would be phased out, following consultation with First Nations in the area.

This move, along with previous statements by the federal Liberal government, gave critics of fish farms hope that open-net pens would no longer work in British Columbia.

The party’s 2019 election platform said a Liberal government “would work with the province to develop a responsible plan to transition open park salmon farming in coastal waters to closed containment systems by 2025.”

Ms Jordan’s mandate letter in December 2019 said she would work with the province and Indigenous communities to develop a transition plan by 2025, but did not mention closed containment systems.

As of last week, mandate letters for the new ministers had not been released.

Several aquaculture companies have applied for new sites or expanded operations, raising the possibility that the industry will simply change locations.

Ms Murray said she couldn’t comment on any specific request, but said she expected to work on phasing out open network operations.

When asked what her priorities would be, she cited the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative, a $ 647.1 million plan announced by Ms. Jordan last June. In announcing the plan, DFO said many Pacific salmon stocks are declining to historically low levels.

The ministry described the plan as having four “pillars”: conservation and stewardship, improved hatchery production, crop processing, and integrated management and collaboration.

Later that same month, Ms Jordan announced the closure of about 60% of commercial salmon fisheries in British Columbia and a license buy-back program, saying measures were needed to protect wild salmon. Critics hesitated, saying years of increasingly stringent fishing closures had not improved the outlook for wild salmon, and called for more government investment in measures such as protecting the fish. habitat.

Ms Murray, who co-founded a tree planting company in the 1970s, listens to those calls.

“Without habitat and healthy habitat, there is no healthy salmon run. And I’m particularly interested in habitat regeneration which also has the added benefit of being a carbon uptake … and that’s important to Canada’s larger goal of meeting our climate goals ” , she said.

DFO has started to assess how storms last month may have affected wild salmon, including those that recently spawned in areas affected by flooding and mudslides, Murray said.

As federal, state and local governments begin to think about rebuilding dikes and other infrastructure, they should consider fish-friendly options, says Aaron Hill, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, a conservation group.

The group’s research indicates that outdated dike designs are blocking some 1,500 kilometers of salmon habitat in the lower Fraser region. Pumping stations can be death traps for fish, chewing on them with almost no chance of escaping, but there are designs designed to give fish a better chance of getting through, Hill said.

Watershed Watch cited several examples of fish-friendly infrastructure, including an updated gate on Lower Agassiz Slough in the Fraser Valley that will open up an additional seven hectares of habitat by allowing fish to cross the barrier.

“If the federal government spends $ 647 million on salmon [protection] then they turn around and spend billions of dollars fighting the floods that are destroying salmon habitat – then they will have wasted it all, ”he said.

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