Northwest opposes fish farms: poll

Northwesterners are learning more about open-net salmon farms, and the vast majority want the industry scrubbed from the North Coast, according to a new survey commissioned by the Northwest Institute.

The poll of 600 residents, conducted by global market research company, Synovate, found 71 per cent of the Northwest was “opposed” to the fish farms, 57 per cent of whom were “strongly opposed.” Those supporting the farms registered at just 16 per cent, which included the seven per cent in “strong support.”

The Northwest Institute commissioned the poll to challenge a series of proposed Atlantic salmon farming operations near the mouth of the Skeena River.

“This poll clearly shows that opposition to fish farms is not going away,” said Northwest Institute executive director Pat Moss.

The survey also indicated overall awareness of the proposed farms has also grown over the past two years from 38 per cent to 49 per cent.

The Synovate survey precedes a report by the Legislative Assembly’s Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture, due May 31. Those findings are expected to recommend either lifting or extending a moratorium on new fish farms in the province.

Bulkley Valley Stikine MLA Dennis MacKay said those recommendations should be read before opposing the industry.

“I think it’s prudent to wait for all the science to come in. There’s a lot of speculation out there, but I’m more inclined to wait for what the science has to say… if the science says there’s a problem, obviously we’re going to have to have a long hard look [fish farms].”

Overall, as the top environmental concern for Northwesterners, wild salmon conservation and fish farms registered relatively low, at number seven and eight respectively. Leading the way was climate change, the mountain pine beetle and economic worries relating to the natural resource sector in general.

Moss said those economic worries are at core of the institute’s concern.

“When you already have a very significant economy based on the wild salmon fishery, is it wise to consider doing something that could undermine that?” said Moss.

A March 2006 study, also commissioned by the Northwest Institute and performed by IBM business consultants, found the wild salmon Skeena fishery generates close to $110 million annually. The study showed close to 50 per cent of the total direct revenue comes from commercial fishing while the other half comes from tourism, sports fishing and the First Nations food fishery.

A delegation from the Northwest Institute brought the latest survey to Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell March 27, on behalf of constituents in the Bulkley Valley-Stikine, North Coast and Skeena ridings, where the poll was conducted, and where the vast majority of poll respondents said they would be less likely in the 2009 provincial elections to vote for a candidate who endorsed the proposed fish farms.

“This is a big issue in the Northwest, but you often wonder how much of that information gets conveyed to Victoria,” said Moss.

MacKay said those issues are conveyed to Victoria, but that the Northwest is not the only region with a voice in the fish farm industry.

“I understand the concerns with the Skeena and all its tributaries. But… it’s not a huge concern all over the province. There’s a lot of people relying on the fish farms for their livelihoods. It’s not all doom and gloom.”

When pressed on the benefits of salmon farming, 60 per cent of Northwesterners listed increased jobs opportunities and 41 per cent cited less pressure on wild salmon stocks as the plus side to fish farms.

Concerns over the possible negative outcomes include Atlantic salmon escaping and breeding with wild salmon and the diversion of limited government resources from wild salmon conservation to promoting salmon farms. Sea lice infestations and the ongoing use of antibiotics topped the list with 81 per cent concerned.

Meanwhile, a scientific study on sea louse in the Broughton Archipelago off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, published March 1 in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management, concluded salmon farms were the major producers of sea lice threatening juvenile wild pink salmon in the area. The peer-reviewed study was conducted over an 18-month period between 2003 and 2004.

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