Almost 2,000 sign biologist's petition calling on feds to regulate fish farms

B.C. biologist Alexandra Morton has collected nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition from members of the fishing community who want to see the federal government immediately take over responsibility for fish farms from the province.

The petition, addressed to federal fisheries minister Gail Shea and B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, calls on Fisheries and Oceans Canada to apply the Fisheries Act to fish farms right away. It also calls for observers to assess the amount of bycatch—the catching of fish other than those intended—during the fish-farm harvest, and for the examination of farmed fish to see if they’ve eaten wild fish.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Morton told the Straight over the phone. “When I see all these fishermen and non-fishermen signing on and sending me e-mails, it makes me feel very optimistic.”

On February 9, B.C. Supreme Court justice Christopher Hinkson ruled that the federal government has constitutional jurisdiction over the oceans and is responsible for regulating fish farms.

It was Morton’s lawyer, Greg McDade, who first recognized the potential of challenging the provincial government’s jurisdiction over fish farms as unconstitutional.

“I conclude that the fish which are reared in finfish farms on the coast of B.C. are either a part of the overall British Columbia Fishery or are a fishery unto themselves,” Hinkson wrote in his decision. “In either case they fall under the jurisdiction of Parliament under s. 91(12) of the Constitution Act, 1867.”

Hinkson’s ruling gave B.C. and Canada 12 months to ensure the farms are regulated by the federal government.

Morton initiated the petition after several failed attempts to speak with Shea and Fisheries and Oceans regional director general Paul Sprout.

Morton said there are a few immediate changes she would like to see in fish-farm operations. She is concerned about the bright lights that fish farms turn on at night, a practice known to as pit-lamping.

“They turn on these brilliant lights to slow down the development of their fish, even though there is a section in the Fisheries Act that says you can’t use these lights,” Morton said.

She said the lights attract a great deal of wildlife—including wild fish.

“An incredible number of fish farmers talk to me. They feel guilty, I think,” Morton said. “They tell me that they [farm fish] eat the wild fish.”

Ultimately, Morton would like to see fish farms move out of the ocean and into concrete tanks on land. She wants the industry to work with commercial fishers to sell farmed fish only during the winter.

“Nobody is benefiting from this industry, and we have a couple of years to turn this around,” she said. “There is no need for fish farms, and the enormous energy needed and the cost to the planet is unnecessary when wild salmon come to our door on a schedule each year.”

B.C. minister of agriculture Ron Cantelon, who is responsible for aquaculture, was unavailable to comment today.