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Canada to ban open net fish farms in B.C. by 2029

The Canadian federal government says it will ban open net salmon farms in British Columbia starting in 2029 in a plan that will renew more than 60 licences across the province for another five years.
Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson announced a Canadian ban on open-net pen salmon farms starting July 1, 2029.

The federal government says it will renew 63 fish-farm licences across the province for another five years, before a ban on open-net salmon farms in B.C. comes into effect in 2029. 

It’s the latest effort by Ottawa to phase out open-net Atlantic salmon farms off the Pacific coast, which have become a flashpoint for environmental groups, farmers and First Nations. 

At a news conference at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver on Wednesday, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson said the move would bolster efforts to safeguard Pacific salmon by providing a blueprint for what comes next. 

“Today, we are saying enough. It’s time for us to actually ensure that we are protecting the environment and thinking about how we actually move forward from the economic perspective,” said Wilkinson. 

Wilkinson said the new phase-out plan will come with stricter licence conditions to strengthen the protection of wild species in the marine environment, including more stringent measures to ensure improved management of sea lice on farmed fish, increased reporting requirements for industry and additional monitoring of marine mammal interactions. 

Facilities will be expected to make restocking and harvesting decisions that are consistent with the requirement to “fully terminate” all open-net pen farming by June 30, 2029, the minister said. 

After July 1 of this year, closed-containment salmon farming systems will be considered for a nine-year licence extension, he said. 

The announcement comes five years after the federal government committed to phasing out open-net pen Atlantic salmon farms. 

The transition from open-net ocean aquaculture operations to closed-container systems is achievable, Wilkinson said in an interview, noting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the pledge to phase out open-net pen salmon farming during the 2019 election and the Liberal government is making good on that promise. 

He said the changes are imperative to save Pacific salmon stocks, which are at risk not only because of sea lice and other diseases from farmed fish, but because of habitats damaged by climate change. 

“We really need to get going on this — it’s urgent,” said Wilkinson. “Our wild salmon are already facing so many risks. This is a precautionary measure, and by isolating the threats [in closed containment pens] we are taking away some of that risk to our wild salmon.” 

Phase-out called 'unrealistic'

Backers of the salmon-farming industry immediately slammed the federal government’s plan to ban open-net farms. 

Brian Kingzett, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, called the five-year phase-out “unrealistic.” 

“This focus on unproven [closed-containment] technology jeopardizes the sector’s ability to fulfill agreements with rights-holder First Nations and will cause further harm to our communities,” said Kingzett. 

In a statement, Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance president and CEO Timothy Kennedy described the federal plan as “irresponsible, unrealistic, unreasonable and unachievable.” 

Kennedy said the federal government has “embraced a position that reflects unaccountable and extreme activist voices,” rather than a “balanced pathway.” 

A ban on the farms by 2029 would be “logistically impossible” and would threaten nearly 5,000 jobs and 400 million “salmon meals” produced every year, he said. 

“The objective is unreasonable because there is no scientific basis to this decision. The science at most calls for incremental protections for wild salmon in certain areas,” Kennedy added. 

Wilkinson, however, said the industry has to adapt, adding five years to transition to closed systems “is a reasonable timeline to work with companies and communities.” 

“We’re saying to the companies work with us,” said the minister. “At the end of the day, we can’t hide behind excuses … it’s not OK to do nothing anymore.” 

In response to the pending ban, B.C. Minister of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen said the federal government must help fund the transition, especially for technology and infrastructure for closed-containment fish farms. 

“Again and again, we have asked the federal government to deliver supports for B.C. workers, families and communities as part of any transition plan,” Cullene said in a statement. “Coastal communities need a clear plan and significant funding from the federal government to support workers and communities.” 

‘Five years is too long’ 

Critics have warned for years that salmon farms act as breeding grounds for sea lice and piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), a debilitating pathogen that some researchers say has been spread by salmon-farming operations.  

Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said he was “relieved” about the upcoming ban but “very concerned” about the length of the phase-out. 

“Five years is too long,” said Hill. 

Hill said it’s important that any new transition plan does not allow the discharge of salmon-farm water into the ocean. 

Wilkinson said that while there remains significant scientific debate on the effects of salmon farms on wild fish, there’s enough evidence for government to act on the “precautionary principle.” 

Former fisheries minister Joyce Murray, MP for Vancouver Quadra, who was at the announcement in Vancouver, said it’s known that open-net salmon farming “does amplify and release parasites and ocean diseases into our ocean waters, infecting wild Pacific salmon, especially the juveniles on their migration routes.” 

Economic transitions to protect the environment are hard, she added, but would present an opportunity to build “sustainable economic alternatives.” 

As fisheries minister, Murray announced last year that the federal government would not renew the licences for 15 Atlantic salmon farms off the Discovery Islands of northwestern Vancouver Island, a major migration route for wild salmon.  

A federal court recently rejected an application for a judicial review filed by some First Nations and aquaculture companies, ruling Murray’s decision met the “requirement of the duty to consult” and “did not breach the operators’ right of procedural fairness.” 

‘Not enough’ 

Sean Godwin, a former researcher at Simon Fraser University and now assistant professor in sustainable aquaculture at University of California Davis, said the announcement came as a surprise but vindicated what most research indicated was a rising concern. 

“All fingers point toward interactions between farm and wild salmon and effects of farms on wild salmon,” said Godwin. “It’s a win for the environment, it’s a win for coastal communities, and it’s a win for wild salmon.” 

Bob Chamberlain, chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, said 120 First Nations back the removal of open-net-pen salmon farms in B.C. 

“I can categorically say to all of you that this transition plan to remove open net pen fish farms is supported by the majority of First Nations and British Columbia,” said Chamberlain. 

Chamberlain said the latest move was “an important step” but would require more money to safeguard wild Pacific salmon stocks. 

“I’m here to tell you it’s not enough.” 

The federal government says it will release a draft salmon aquaculture transition plan by the end of July, focusing on how to support First Nations, workers and communities in the transition, and identifying economic supports for the use of innovative and clean aquaculture technology. 

— With files from Darron Kloster, Times Colonist