Fish farms in B.C.'s Discovery Islands area will be emptied of all fish by June 30, 2022, the federal minister of fisheries and oceans has announced .
Bernadette Jordan said in a December 17 news release that the decision to phase out the 19 aquaculture facilities, some of the oldest on the B.C. coast, was made after extensive consultation with stakeholders.
"Today’s decision was not easy. I am committed to working with all involved parties; the First Nations, industry and the Province of British Columbia, over the next 18 months to ensure a fair and orderly transition process that phases out salmon farming in the Discovery Island," Jordan said in the bulletin.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced the same day on its web site that Jordan's decision would mean the phasing out of existing salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area—near Campbell River, on the east coast of Vancouver Island—over the next year and a half, with no fish to remain in any aquaculture facility past June 30, 2022.
No new fish can be brought into any fish farm during those 18 months, and fish already there can still be raised and harvested.
Nine of the fish farms in the Discovery Islands area are already empty.
The region has a history of conflicts over the farms, with First Nations, environmental groups, and wild-fish advocates—including sport- and commercial-fishing interests—demanding the government close fish farms in sensitive areas for wild salmon.
The groups claim that the overcrowded farms (some with tens of thousands of fish) endanger the health of migrating young salmon as they swim past on their way to the open Pacific Ocean, where they feed and grow before returning to freshwater rivers, streams, and lakes to spawn at the end of their life cycle.
Specifically, the wild-fish advocates claim that sea lice and pathogens endemic to the farms attach to or infect the passing smolts as they out-migrate from their natal streams through narrow routes (with a major one in the area, called Wild Salmon Narrows, often cited). One of the viruses, piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), is highly contagious and can cause a heart disease in wild fish. Between one and three sea lice can be fatal to a juvenile salmon.
Ottawa launched the $37-million Cohen Commission in 2009 after the Fraser River sockeye salmon returns were less than a third of the expected five million. Justice Bruce Cohen's 75 recommenndations, released in 2012, included one (number 19) that called for the closure of all Discovery Islands fish farms by the end of September, 2020, unless it had been proven that fish farms posed "minimum risk of serious harm" to the juvenile fish from the Fraser system.
Research done by Alexandra Morton, an independent salmon and orca researcher based in the nearby Broughton Archipelago, has shown that sea lice infect the majority of ocean-bound juvenile salmon that pass closely by the crowded farms.
The Living Oceans Society, a wild-salmon advocacy group, greeted the federal decision with a same-day news release: "It was essential that the Wild Salmon Narrows be cleared of farms, to allow the tiny smolts emerging from the river to make their way to sea without being decimated by lice and disease pathogens coming from fish farms," society executive director Karen Wristen said.
"The sockeye emerging in the spring of next year will be the offspring of a run that was, when it returned to spawn, the smallest in the history of Canadian sockeye records," Wristen continued. "DFO Fisheries habitat scientists reviewing the chances of survival of some of the Fraser's most endangered populations have stressed that 'all sources of harm must be reduced to the greatest extent possible. Knowing that virtually all of the sockeye (99%) that passed through the Wild Salmon Narrows' gauntlet of salmon farms in 2020 were infected with a lethal load of salmon lice, the only responsible course of action was to ensure that the industry there is all shut down before the beginning of the next outmigration in March."
Most fish farms raise Atlantic salmon, a species not found in British Columbia. It is feared that mass escapes of farmed salmon will put Atlantic salmon in competition with local wild salmon for food and even space on spawning grounds
Washington state banned all non-native fish farms in 2018, the year after an escape of about 250,000 Atlantic salmon from an open-net facility in Puget Sound, south of the Canada-U.S. border.
Minister Jordan said she consulted and worked with seven First Nations in whose traditional territories the fish facilities are located before coming to her decision. They are the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum, Homalco, Klahoose, K’ómoks, Kwaikah, and Tla’amin First Nations.
In reaction to Jordon's announcement, Georgia Strait Alliance’s executive director, Christianne Wilhelmson, said in a December 17 release: “We've been working tirelessly for more than 20 years to show the federal government the science that proves that fish farms cause serious harm and introduce pathogens to migrating wild salmon—so knowing that some of the nets in this important area for salmon, in particular Fraser River salmon, will soon be out of the water is simply incredible. It will make a huge difference to the health of salmon stocks that are in critical danger."
The same day, David Suzuki Foundation marine-conservation specialist Kilian Stehfest said in another bulletin: “This win for wild salmon shows the federal government is finally serious about wild salmon survival and transitioning away from open net-pens. It’s the result of tireless effort over many years by countless Indigenous activists, community members, and scientists. The next crucial step is to get the most problematic of the Discovery Islands salmon farms out of the water before March 2021, when juvenile salmon start their migration.”