Fisheries minister doesn't rule out possibility of culling farmed salmon if sea-lice management targets are exceeded

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      Canada's minister of fisheries, oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard says it's conceivable that fish farmers will have to cull farmed salmon if problems are detected under new sea-lice management plans.

      Joyce Murray made the statement in a phone interview regarding the Liberal government's plan to "progressively" phase out open-net fish farms.

      "I mean, that's a possibility," Murray said. "We'll be doing consultation over the coming year. It's too early to be explicit about that measure."

      On June 22, Murray revealed that her department will not reissue aquaculture licences in the Discovery Islands, pending consultations with First Nations communities and licence holders. Outside of the Discovery Islands, licences were renewed for just two years rather than the standard six-year renewal. 

      "In the interim, we are imposing some tougher conditions," Murray said. "So we will be requiring the industry during this two-year licence to check for sea lice on wild salmon around their farms at their own expense."

      Conservationists have called for culling of farmed salmon when companies exceed their sea-lice thresholds under the new management plans. 

      “I would say it was an honour to be given this file," Murray, who represents Vancouver Quadra, told the Straight. "I know that it is a very difficult one but my mandate is pretty clear: develop a responsible plan to transition away from open-net pen salmon aquaculture.

      "So this two-year licence renewal is the time—the opportunity—to do some thorough connecting with interested parties from Indigenous to industry to the provincial government and environmental groups, and seek their feedback."

      Murray also acknowledged the possibility of screening farmed salmon for piscine orthoreovirus, a.k.a. PRV, which have reportedly spread from Atlantic salmon in pens to wild Chinook salmon in the past. But she said that the consultations will come first.

      "What I can say is that I am very interested in this being focused on the result," the minister said. "And the result that I'm looking for is minimal or no interaction between wild salmon and farmed salmon. And I think I'll be very interested in the industry's ideas about how they might be able to deliver that result and what will it take."

      The Liberal government's news approach has been welcomed by independent biologist Alexandra Morton, a longtime investigator of the impact of fish-farm-originating sea lice on wild salmon.

      “I am impressed with this decision, it gives me a lot of hope for survival of wild salmon," Morton said in news release issued by Watershed Watch Salmon Society. ”However, regulatory capture of DFO’s aquaculture management and science divisions has been verified, therefore independent oversight will be mandatory to ensure the new conditions of licence are enforced.”

      Stan Proboszcz, Watershed Watch's science adviser, said in the same news release that "not renewing factory fish farms licences in the Discovery Islands is the only way to protect wild salmon from parasites and diseases". 

      “Government needs to finish the job, province-wide, in order to protect wild salmon," he added.

      Wild Salmon Forever chair Tony Allard said in a news release that his group—and B.C.'s wild salmon—have been waiting for an announcement like this for a long time.

      “The federal government has taken steps in curbing open net pens in B.C., but there needs to be a concerted and comprehensive transition plan to make this work and make Canada a world leader in next-generation sustainable aquaculture," Allard stated.

      He added that it's going to be a "long two years, but at least now we see the finish line".

      “We won’t pretend to be thrilled about a two-year extension of licenses outside the Discovery Islands, but we also understand this is legally necessary," Allard stated. "The important thing is that this is moving forward, and the pathogen polluting farms will be coming out of our waters before it’s too late.”

      The Conservatives, on the other hand, criticized last week's announcement, saying it's a "hindrance" for those planning future investments without knowing the details of the transition plan.

      "The minister’s statement increases uncertainty when it expresses an intention of growing an industry that remains profitable and sustainable," fisheries critic Rick Perkins and deputy critic Mel Arnold said in a news release. "It is unclear if this is tenable within the two-year licensing terms announced."