Fish farms are simply a bad idea here

AT THIS time of year the Skeena River muscles its way past Terrace, all brown and brawny with the melt waters of a long winter’s snow pack.

Hidden beneath its icy, swirling currents, the miracle of the Pacific salmon begins anew. Fragile fry wriggle their way through the river bed gravel to freedom: the pinks, chum and chinook to follow the turbulent flow to the ocean feeding grounds; the coho and sockeye to stay one more year in fresh water.

Soon too, powerful adult chinook will struggle upstream, seeking out the gravel cradles that gave them birth. Throughout the coming months, the other species of salmon will follow, travelling far inland to spawn and renew the cycle.

As they complete their mission, they surrender their bodies to give nutrients to the forests and rivers, and nourishment to the animals and humans that have counted on the bounty of wild salmon for untold generations.

On several occasions last year, residents of this region had an opportunity to tell the members of the provincial Sustainable Aquaculture Committee just how important the continued health of the Skeena’s wild salmon runs are to our way of life.

From Prince Rupert to Smithers, the committee heard commercial fishermen, sports anglers, First Nations, angling guides, tourism operators and concerned citizens demand that floating, open-cage fish farms be kept away from the Skeena’s wild salmon.

Shortly, the committee will release its report, so now is the appropriate time to look at how other countries have created fish farm-free zones and at what a fish farm-free north would mean.

Approximately two million fish escape into the Atlantic Ocean each year from the fish farms in Norway, Scotland, Denmark’s Faroe Islands, Iceland, Ireland and eastern Canada, representing a quarter of all Atlantic salmon.

They spread diseases and parasites to wild salmon and interbreed with them, diminishing their genetic hardiness.

In Norway, a government committee found that “the escape of farmed salmon and outbreaks of salmon lice are the most serious environmental problems” facing wild Atlantic salmon.

In 2003, Norway passed legislation designed to protect the remaining wild Atlantic salmon populations by establishing 37 national salmon rivers and 21 salmon fjords, covering three-quarters of Norway’s total wild salmon population.

No new fish farms could be approved in these rivers and fjords, and an additional 13 fjords were declared off limits to fish farming. The legislation is not an outright ban on fish farming, but it does establish a very strict regime of how the industry can operate, by requiring anti-lice treatment if a farm’s smolts show an average of more than one sea lice per fish, for example.

In Iceland, sport fishing for Atlantic salmon contributes an estimated $400 million US to the economy annually. The Ministry of Agriculture has banned the rearing of fertile salmon in seven bays and fjords to protect Iceland’s most prolific wild salmon runs, and established the Wild Salmon Coastal Protection Areas where salmon farms are prohibited.

In fact, all but one fish farm in Iceland is land-based, using pumped water that has no contact with either surface water or the open sea, and therefore, no possible contact with wild salmon.

In Sweden, there are about 70 closed areas enforced at river mouths mainly for the protection of wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout. The west coast of Scotland, where open pen fish farms operate, has seen the devastation of its wild salmon and sea trout populations and the sport fishing industry that depended on them.

In November of 1999, Scotland instituted restrictions on the expansion of salmon aquaculture by disallowing any new farms on the north and east coasts, both of which still have healthy wild salmon runs.

Dr. Paddy Gargan, head of the Irish Fisheries Board, concluded that “sea lice infestations from marine salmon farms were a major contributory factor in sea trout stock collapse on Ireland’s west coast.”

He said that while no legislation is in place, unofficially, coastal areas have been set aside where no new farms are being approved in an effort to protect Ireland’s remaining wild fish stocks.

Our northern neighbours in Alaska have already banned fish farms from their coastal waters and have frequently expressed their concerns about escaped Atlantic salmon from B.C. fish farms turning up in commercial fishermen’s nets as far north as the Bering Sea.

Now Governor Palin has also requested a five-year moratorium on plans to develop open ocean aquaculture in federally-controlled waters between three and 200 miles of Alaska’s shores. She cites concerns about lessening the value of commercially-caught wild salmon, introducing diseases and parasites, impacting the marine environment and escaped fish colonizing local rivers.

The lesson from these countries’ experience is clear: the only way to protect wild salmon and trout populations is to keep fish farms away from them.

The Skeena River’s wild fish are a precious and irreplaceable resource. They deserve the same protection that other countries have implemented to preserve their severely diminished and threatened wild salmon populations.

The experience in the south of this province only reinforces the lesson: where fish farms have been allowed to operate near Vancouver Island.

Those farms have proven to be the source of sea lice infestations that have killed up to 90 per cent of the tiny, vulnerable wild pink salmon fry, with devastating effects on adult returns.

British Columbians have a right to expect the sustainable aquaculture committee to propose legislation similar to that of other countries’ – legislation that recognizes the national significance of our northern rivers and fjords, and the wild salmon they support. Further, we should expect the provincial government to enact this legislation to ensure future generations will forever witness wild salmon completing their miraculous journey up the Skeena each year.

Andrew Williams is a high school teacher in Terrace and the chair of the Friends of Wild Salmon, a group that lobbies for measures to safeguard the wild salmon of the Skeena River.

© Copyright 2007 Terrace Standard

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