New BC fish farm licence riles NDP

The political battle over salmon farming has returned to the capital.

A new billboard calling for fish farms to be kept away from the Skeena River will greet politicians when they return from the legislature’s two-week Easter break, and the opposition says issuing a new fish farm licence makes a mockery of the NDP-led committee set up to decide on the issue.

The Agriculture ministry has issued a salmon farm licence to Grieg Seafood B.C. Ltd. for the Broughton Archipelago, home of most of B.C.’s current farms and the focus of a debate over the effect of farm-borne sea lice on migrating wild salmon.

Critics also point to the escape of Atlantic salmon from net-pen farms in the open ocean, and possible disease or other impacts on B.C.’s wild Pacific salmon runs around the province.

After voters took 30 seats from the B.C. Liberals in last year’s election, including north and central coast areas, Premier Gordon Campbell gave the NDP a majority on a new “sustainable aquaculture committee” to resolve conflicts over the growing industry.

NDP environment critic Shane Simpson sits on that committee. He said Agriculture Minister Pat Bell’s decision to approve a new fish farm just as it begins its work calls its role into question, and he rejected Bell’s claim the decision was delegated to a ministry official.

“Ultimately it’s the decision of Mr. Bell,” Simpson said. “He was well aware of our concerns. He was aware of the concerns of John Fraser of the Pacific Salmon Forum. He was aware of the concerns of many first nations, tourism associations, and he chose to approve it.”

Bell insisted the ministry was “extra-careful” with the decision, approving the farm at the south end of the Broughton Archipelago where extensive study has been done.

The licence calls for the farm to suspend operations in periods when ministry veterinarians believe sea lice is a hazard.

Bell noted the Tlowitsis First Nation, a former opponent of fish farms, has approved of this one in its traditional territory and is working with Grieg Seafood to start it up.

“The mandate period for the committee is quite extensive, and certainly I think we have obligations to investors in B.C., if we want to encourage investment, we have to give them an opportunity to know they’re going to get a return on their investment,” Bell said.

A Norwegian company wants to put three salmon farms near the mouth of Skeena River, where wild salmon runs support a major sport and commercial fishing economy. A Prince Rupert-based group called Save Our Skeena Salmon has put up a billboard on the highway leading to Victoria and is calling on politicians to put a moratorium on open-pen fish farms.

Simpson says the least the government should do is wait until the committee can do its research.

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