Fish farm ban likely for northern B.C.

Opposition to salmon farming on the B.C. coast has effectively stalled its expansion in southern waters, and will likely keep salmon farms from being established in the north.

After dozens of salmon farms have operated for up to 25 years in the waters around Vancouver Island, there remains no scientific consensus on their effects on wild salmon, or the effectiveness of the strategies for curbing sea lice, according to a review of world-wide scientific literature just completed for the B.C. Pacific Salmon Forum.

Efforts to manage the effects of net-pen fish farms with a pesticide trade-named Slice will continue this spring as another generation of wild pink salmon makes its way to sea. And salmon farms won’t be emptied or “fallowed” to make way for the April run of juvenile pinks.

“We’re going to make sure that all of those farms have very low if not zero lice levels during the migration period,” said B.C. Agriculture Minister Pat Bell. “Fallowing’s not practical at this point. It would involve moving something in the order of three quarters of a million fish in each one of potentially five sites ... but certainly Slice treatments would more than compensate for any risks that are associated with that migration period.”

Bell, who granted two new salmon farm licences last fall in the Broughton Archipelago between northern Vancouver Island and the mainland, hopes to have a new provincial policy out later this year. It depends heavily on consultations with aboriginal communities along the coast, he said.

“There’s a variety of opinions on it, but I would say that the overall body of opinion leans towards a moratorium on the north coast,” Bell told Black Press.

Skeena MLA Robin Austin, who chaired an NDP-controlled committee calling for an end to net-pen salmon farming, said a moratorium for northern waters is “a given.” Residents of Kitkatla, a Tsimshian village on an island near Prince Rupert, recently voted in a new council that reversed the community’s effort to bring the first salmon farm to the region, Austin said, and now the industry has no local support in the north.

Dr. Brian Harvey, an independent fisheries biologist hired by the Pacific Salmon Forum to study the available research on fish farm impacts, said the picture is slowly becoming clearer. But it’s still too soon to say if farmed fish are depleting wild salmon runs, or if Slice and fallowing strategies are effective.
Other hosts for sea lice are being discovered, the behaviour of Pacific salmon going out to sea is more complicated than previously thought, and there has been little study of parasites outside the Broughton region to compare to, Harvey said in an interview.

“People really want it to be one way or the other, but it’s such a fantastically complicated natural system, and there are so many variables and so many disciplines, so many unknowns,” Harvey said. “It’s not a copout to say that, it’s the truth.”

He said the “burden of proof” is on the industry to show that it can operate without damaging the environment. Austin disagreed, saying it is the B.C. government’s responsibility to protect wild salmon first.

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