The Minister Got It Right – Time To Pack Up and Move On Fish Farmers

By closing 15 fish farms, Minister Joyce Murray put the precautionary principle to work when wild salmon need it

Sea lice and disease from fish farms pose too much of a risk to wild salmon

Last Friday, Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray announced Ottawa will not renew the licences for 15 open-net pen Atlantic salmon farms around the Discovery Islands.

“The state of Wild Pacific Salmon is dire, and we must do what we can to ensure their survival, Minister Murray said in a news release. “This was a difficult but necessary decision.”

Minister Murray said recent science highlighting uncertainty about the risks posed by fish farms to wild salmon demanded an “advanced precautionary approach.” She also called the shutting of Discovery Island fish farms an important step toward “developing a responsible plan to transition away from open-net farming in coastal B.C. waters.”

Murray made the right decision and the largely foreign-owned fish farming industry doesn’t like it.

The decision comes after months of speculation. In late 2020 then-fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan announced plans to close all fish farms in the Discovery Islands by June 2022. But last spring,  Norway-based fish farming companies Mowi Canada West, Cermaq Canada and Grieg Seafoods challenged the decision in court.

They said it wasn’t fair. A federal court judge agreed with the fish farmers and overturned the decision.

The current Fisheries Minister, Joyce Murray, was sent back to the Discovery Islands drawing board. A report on sea lice from DFO’s Canadian Scientific Advisory Secretariat was meant to help guide her decision on the fate of the 15 fish farms in the area.

However, the report, produced DFOs Fish Farming Regulation and Science Branch staff, was slammed by 16 independent fisheries scientists when released in late January.

In a letter to the federal government, the independent scientists said it minimized the impact of sea lice and cherry-picked data to support a conclusion that there was no significant relationship between sea lice on farmed fish and wild salmon. Gideon Mordecai, who studies salmon viruses at UBC, called the report a “scientific sin” in a Times Colonist story

DFO documents released through Access to Information and Privacy indicate that Minister contacted the out to industry last June. She informed them that she had concerns backed by new science about the additional impact of fish farms on dwindling wild salmon stocks. She also emphasized the importance of the Discovery Islands for migrating wild salmon.     

No doubt, Minister Murray’s decision to close Discovery Island fish farms was not taken lightly. The salmon farming industry is a powerful lobby and is not afraid to use the courts to get its way.

That’s why she deserves credit for taking the precautionary approach at a time when wild salmon need it the most.

Not surprisingly, salmon farmers are in a flap. In a press release, Brian Kingzett, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, called Murray’s decision “willfully uninformed.”

Stan Proboszcz, a senior scientist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said that’s exactly what he’d expect from someone with a “vested interest” in status-quo fish factories.

“Clearly his job is blinding him from the letter from 16 scientists and the Minister’s actual written announcement,” Proboszcz said. “In January we released … letters from the Minister to all the companies giving them a heads-up, with detailed reasons that she was considering along with an open-ear to their thoughts. They had months to convince her, and they failed to do so.”

The decision to close Discovery Island fish farms is long overdue. The 2012 Cohen Commission report looking into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye made special mention of the Discovery Islands.

In the report, Justice Bruce Cohen noted that migrating salmon smolts swim through narrow passages close to salmon farms in the area, increasing the chances of farmed fish infecting wild salmon with disease and sea lice.

He concluded that the potential harm posed by salmon farms in the Discovery Islands to Fraser River sockeye was serious or irreversible. Of 31 sub-populations of Fraser Sockeye salmon, eleven are endangered, two are threatened, and seven are of special concern.