Moratorium expected on north coast fish farm expansion

A new moratorium on salmon farming expansion on British Columbia’s north coast and the compulsory conversion of existing farms to closed-containment systems are among the recommendations expected this month from a government review of B.C.‘s aquaculture industry, according to salmon farmers.

The recommendations will be presented to the legislature later this month and arise from 18 months of study and community consultation by an NDP-led committee on aquaculture reform.

B.C. Salmon Farmers Association executive director Mary Ellen Walling said Tuesday in a telephone interview that she has received what she describes as “leaks” of details of the committee’s report.

Walling said “several sources” have told her the committee supports expansion of salmon farming along the southern B.C. coast—but wants a moratorium on salmon farming expansion north of Cape Caution.

The committee also recommends that the government compel existing salmon farms to stop raising fish in open net sea pens within three years.

Instead, it wants farmers to convert to closed containment systems that would fully segregate farm-raised fish from contact with any marine organism, including wild salmon, sea lice and opportunistic sea mammals looking for food.

“We know this is a long-time goal of environmental activists, and we expect the NDP are going to recommend this despite the fact that it’s not a proven technology on a commercial scale,” Walling said.

“It’s not used anywhere in the world with salmon. We’re always very interested in new technologies ... but we have some concerns around blanket adoption of a technology that is largely unproven.”

Walling said the committee also recommends that a seafood certification group based in London, England, be given the authority to determine what types of feed can be used on B.C. salmon farms.

“This is completely bizarre, from our perspective,” Walling said. “They want all fish meat and fish oil used in feed in British Columbia to be approved by the Marine Stewardship Council as being sourced from sustainably harvested fisheries.

“There are no council-endorsed feed sources available on the scale that would be required for the B.C. salmon farming industry. This has implications for the entire agriculture sector, because fish meat and fish oil are also used as starter feed for swine and chicken.”

In 2002, the B.C. Liberals lifted a longstanding moratorium on salmon aquaculture expansion—but have not issued any new permits since that time.

Walling said B.C. is missing out on expanding market opportunities for farmed salmon in the U.S. and abroad—and has foregone almost a half-billion dollars in revenue as a result of inaction since 2002.

“If we had achieved site approvals in a timely fashion, say six to nine months as is the case for other environmental approvals in B.C., stocked the farms and grown the fish out, we’d be looking today at $490 million in additional fish sales.”

B.C. sells about $400 million worth of farmed salmon each year—mainly to the United States.

“Chile last year exported $2.2 billion worth of salmon. Norway exported $2.9 billion. Those numbers give you a context for B.C.”

In addition, some companies made significant capital investments in processing facilities and hatcheries after the moratorium was lifted—but have not had an opportunity to realize any return from those investments.

Walling said those delays, coupled with the recommendations coming from the aquaculture committee, could put a chill on foreign investment in B.C.—noting that salmon farming is only one aspect of some companies’ investments.

Aquaculture committee chair Robin Austin (NDP-Skeena) would not comment on details of the report.

“Whatever [Walling] is suggesting at this point is entirely speculation because this is all privileged information. To my knowledge nothing has leaked out and I sincerely hope it doesn’t,” Austin said in a telephone interview, adding that the committee heard from “hundreds” of British Col-umbians.

“We received I think 900 submissions via the Internet. We went to probably 30 public meetings around the province. It’s been an exhaustive process.”

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