B.C. Ruling No Farewell to Farms

By

James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
February 11, 2009

The British Columbia Supreme Court this week stripped the provincial government of its jurisdiction over salmon farms operating in its waters, a decision that farmed salmon opponents declared a major victory. But is it? Should the ruling stand, there’s no guarantee Canada’s federal government would implement radical changes activists desire. Earlier this week, marine biologist and environmental activist Alexandra Morton and several co-petitioners defeated the British Columbia provincial government in court and stripped the province of its jurisdiction over salmon farms in its waters. The environmental community hailed the decision as a landmark victory.

Not so fast.

There are reasons to doubt this decision will have any impact on the region’s farmed salmon industry. First, the provincial government has 30 days to appeal, which it may do, further delaying any transition of power; Justice Christopher Hinkson recommended that no changes take place for one year. A spokesman at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans told me yesterday that no course of action has yet been determined and that the 76-page ruling is under review.

Should DFO assume oversight, it is unlikely to impose radically different management measures and it certainly won’t impugn the salmon companies operating in British Columbia. DFO is charged with protecting wild fish stocks, yet it’s also shown its commitment to aquaculture by securing funds for farming ventures that have meaningful economic benefits.

Clare Backman, environmental relations director for Marine Harvest Canada, the top producer of farmed salmon in Canada and a company that was named in the lawsuit, says there are a number of federal regulations that salmon farmers in British Columbia already comply with.

“Nothing is changed. The wide suite of regulations we currently observe are still in force and we continue to operate in accordance with those regulations today as we did last week,” Backman said, adding that Morton’s attempt to deny a renewal of the company’s license to farm in one area of the Broughton Archipelago region was denied.

There’s also the possibility that removing local supervision of the industry could backfire. “Provincial regulations focused on preventing escapes; the daily, weekly and monthly checks on safety and the integrity of nets; the monitoring of wastes and the penalties associated — those would all fall away,” said Backman. “That would not be a good thing to have those focused regulations fall away.”

Morton’s devoted passion for the ocean and marine life — most notably orcas, which feed on wild salmon — is commendable. But is it fair to blame all wild salmon woes on the aquaculture industry, the easiest of targets? “Finally, the government agency in charge of fish farms is mandated to put wild salmon first,” Morton exclaimed after the ruling.

There may be some truth to that, but don’t expect Canada to treat aquaculture, which represents one-quarter of the country’s seafood output, like a rented mule. And since British Columbia represents nearly half of the nation’s farmed fish production, it wouldn’t be in Canada’s best interest to regulate those salmon farmers out of business — not during a global recession and certainly not with market demand for salmon riding high.

For more information about how salmon farmers in Canada and around the world are taking the necessary steps to prevent infectious diseases and pests, check out the Top Story in the upcoming March issue of SeaFood Business.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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