Environmentalists hatch plan to ferry wild salmon past fish farms

VANCOUVER—A group of ecotourism businesses, native organizations and environmentalists have a wild plan to save salmon on British Columbia’s central coast.

They are proposing to round up hundreds of thousands of young salmon emerging from a spawning river this spring, load them into boats, and shepherd them past fish farms that they say threaten wild species with sea lice infestations.

The proposal is clearly a tactic to put pressure on the government to support a campaign to move salmon farms off the migration routes used by wild, young salmon on the West Coast.

But Alexandra Morton, a research scientist and environmental activist who focuses on the impact of salmon farms on wild stocks, said the plan to “medevac wild fish” is workable.

“We’ll beach seine them, just like we do in our research gathering,” she said yesterday. “You can round up hundreds of thousands in a day that way.”

In beach seining, a boat runs a net out from the shore, then circles back, closing the loop and trapping the fish alive inside.

“Once we have them in the beach seine we’ll dip them into buckets, put them in a tank in a herring boat, and then, very slowly, we’ll move them down the middle of the strait past the fish farms,” Ms. Morton said.

After a taxi ride of about 60 kilometres, the fish would be released in the ocean, far from the nearest farm.

The plan was announced yesterday by Ms. Morton, Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwicksutaineuk ah-kwa-mish band, Chris Bennett of Blackfish Lodge, and Bill and Donna Mackay of Mackay Whale Watching.

Ms. Morton said the group hopes to catch salmon fry first at the mouth of the Ahta River, and move on to other rivers if the approach is successful and there is adequate funding.

The group has applied to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for a permit to capture and transport juvenile salmon, but hasn’t yet had a reply.

In the meantime, a fundraising website has been launched (http://www.adopt-a-fry.org) which asks people to “adopt a small fry” for $20.

Ms. Morton said there is some risk of damage to wild fish, but argued it is riskier to allow the young salmon to migrate past five fish farms on the route.

Ms. Morton and Martin Krkosek of the University of Alberta recently co-wrote a science paper that concluded sea lice were leading to the extinction of wild pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago, where most of B.C.‘s 100 salmon farms are located.

Critics have dismissed the paper as being wildly exaggerated.

B.C. Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell said he didn’t know what to think of the proposal to round up salmon fry to keep them away from farms.

“That would be between [Ms. Morton] and DFO,” he said.

Mr. Bell said he has been concentrating in recent months on trying to find common ground between warring groups in the salmon farm debate.

“Right now there’s two very divided sides,” he said. “I’m determined to try and drive to a new place, where really we are thinking about the marine ecosystem in a different way, where we are managing for the values in the ecosystem. And if aquaculture has a role in that, then so be it, and if it doesn’t, so be it.”

To reach a consensus, Mr. Bell said he needs the co-operation of first nations, environmental groups and industry.

“It’s a very tough file ... but we have been working on it for a number of months ... we’ve got lots more work to do but I’m certainly committed to get to a positive outcome,” Mr. Bell said.

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