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Environmentalists are concerned that fish farming aggravates sea lice infections in neighbouring wild fish.

 

B.C.'s fish-farming industry is enjoying unprecedented growth, but environmental activists are calling for major changes to the way the fish farmers operate, and they've got the government's ear.

Established in 1990, Tofino-based Creative Salmon Co. Ltd. is a small operation that produces 1,500 tonnes of salmon annually. It has fish-farm operations in the waters of Clayoquot Sound and in the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations. From its inception, this company has followed a path toward what it hoped would be certification as an organic operation.

Creative produces only Chinook salmon (most big operations farm Atlantic salmon), uses no antibiotics and feeds its fish fishmeal made with organically produced grains. A founding member of the Pacific Organic Seafoods Association, Creative participated in the development of a set of organic standards for the industry more than three years ago. Creative’s ultimate goal is status as a certified organic producer.

According to GM Spencer Evans, that goal is toast.

Over the years, environmental activists have taken up a crusade against fish farming that, says Evans, has succeeded in setting the standards for organic certification so high that it will be unattainable for those rearing fish in open nets.

And their lobby has become so powerful that the B.C. Legislature’s Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture put out a final report in May 2007 recommending that the fish-farming industry move to closed containment systems over a five-year period. Should that happen, say industry insiders, B.C.’s booming fish-farming sector could be left high and dry.

Within a decade, B.C.’s fish-farming industry has grown from a smattering of relatively small mom-and-pop fish farms, mostly on Vancouver Island, to the province’s biggest agricultural commodity producer.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP economic survey released last year showed 2006 revenues hit $450 million (21 per cent higher than the previous year) and production increased 16 per cent to 82,000 tonnes of fish. Direct and indirect employment, calculated using the same parameters that apply to other agriculture and food processing operations, was more than 6,000. Aquaculture is an export-oriented industry, with more than 80 per cent of the province’s production going to a U.S. market that is growing by 15 per cent a year, and with farmed salmon the fastest-growing seafood product in the country.

The growth potential for this nascent sector is enormous, according to industry experts. B.C. offers an uncluttered coastline stretching from Vancouver to Prince Rupert and optimum rearing conditions (five native species of salmon thrive in B.C. waters) – not to mention proximity to the huge U.S. market.

But highly public demonstrations of protest stand in the way of that growth. Segue to the waters under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, where on November 6 last year the B.C.-based Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR) floated a huge banner urging grocery giant Safeway to stop selling farmed fish.

Move across to the U.S. east coast and into the pages of the New York Times, where in June 2007 CAAR placed a large advertisement stating the same message. Head back to Canada, where in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Victoria, mock funeral processions were staged at Safeway stores lamenting the death of wild salmon – at the hands of the fish farmers, of course.

CAAR – a coalition of nine environmental groups including the David Suzuki Foundation and the Friends of Clayoquot Sound – regularly excoriates current fish-farming practices, blaming them for spreading sea-lice infestations, killing marine mammals and polluting the marine environment with fish waste.

Visit farmedanddangerous.com and you’ll get the idea loud and clear: CAAR doesn’t like fish farming, at least not the way it is practiced in B.C. Topping the list of reforms advocated by CAAR is a total ban on open-pen net cages for rearing salmon – the system now in use throughout B.C. and in other countries with fish-farming industries – and a switch to what are called closed containment systems.

The idea got some significant traction with the release last May of the final report from the B.C. Legislature’s Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture, which recom­mended moving to closed containment systems over a five-year period.

Say goodbye to the B.C. fish-farming industry if that recommendation is adopted, say the fish farmers. It would impose costs so high that, in the absence of mirror-image regulations in all other fish-farming jurisdictions, it would render the entire local industry uncompetitive.

That hasn’t stopped the federal and provincial governments from funding a $10-million floating closed-containment pilot project in Campbell River, developed by the Middle Bay Sustainable Aquaculture Institute. It is expected to be completed in 2008, but industry representatives are skeptical about its economic viability as previous efforts to develop land-based systems proved too costly.

“We are very comfortable with the methods we use right now,” says Odd Grydeland, acting executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association. “But if the provincial government were to adopt the whole recommendation from the committee, I think most of the current operators would start to divest themselves of activities in B.C. and look somewhere else.”

The uncertainty over what the government will do is already apparent, largely because of its reluctance to move forward with new sites while the controversy continues to rage. B.C. Salmon Farmers Association executive director Mary Ellen Walling (currently on leave) had this to say in a recent newsletter: “British Columbia has turned away over $40 million in capital investment in the last three years because of lengthy site approval delays. The lost sales from these farms are estimated at over $450 million – money that would have been reinvested back into coastal communities.”

The main issue for CAAR and others concerned about fish farming is the risk of aggravating sea-lice infestations in the wild fish that swim past fish farms on their way to and from the open ocean. The issue boiled over about five years ago in the Broughton Archipelago near Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island, where environmentalists have long believed that there is a connection between the fish farms and lice infestations. Researcher and activist Alexandra Morton (who in 2006 was given the Vancouver Aquarium’s Murray Newman Award for Excellence in Aquatic Conservation) began collecting evidence of sea-lice problems on wild fish, and attracted significant media attention to her efforts.

The science, so far, has not produced a smoking gun. Although environmentalists argue that the case has, in fact, been proven, industry and government scientists do not believe it has. The differing outlooks have led to a “duelling scientists” climate that is still not completely resolved (see “The Strife Aquatic,” facing page). Numerous ongoing research projects, run under the auspices of the Pacific Salmon Forum, are now trying to provide a clear picture of the relationship – or the lack thereof – between lice on farmed fish and lice on wild salmon. A new stack of reports will come out in the next few months, but don’t bet on any particular conclusions at this point.

Despite the lack of scientific clarity, the Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture’s recommendation for closed containment systems (and there’s no consensus on whether they will solve the problem either) was based on something known as “the precautionary principle.” The committee’s 2007 report states, “The precautionary principle recognizes that the absence of full scientific cer­tainty should not be used to delay actions or decisions when faced with threats of serious or irreversible harm.” Clare Backman, director of community relations and environmental compliance for Marine Harvest Canada, the province’s biggest fish-farm operator, is not keen on that concept.

“None of the currently available technologies are set up to address sea lice,” he says. “Therefore, the same controls now used in conventional nets would also be applied in closed containment – so there’s really no advantage there. We have to turn the focus away from the magic fix of some kind of technology and look at the impacts, and choose the right technologies for the impacts.”

Fish-farm operators are required by law to monitor their fish for the presence of sea lice and to have an approved plan in place for dealing with them. The industry uses a variety of techniques, from fallowing farms to treating fish with SLICE, a chemical that prevents lice outbreaks.

Backman says that this unresolved issue and others, such as a recommendation that no fish farms be sited on the province’s north coast, are hindering the industry’s ability to look ahead with any degree of certainty. And he notes that other jurisdictions – Norway and Scotland, for instance – are doing a lot of research into the sea-lice issue without moving toward closed containment.

“There have been a lot of reviews and a lot of response by industry to those regulations and reviews,” he says. “B.C. is now known to be a high-cost place of doing business. We want to see more creative solutions that don’t add a lot more costs but do add confidence that we can do this in a way that is sustainable.”

In the middle of this chasm is Pat Bell, B.C.’s minister of agriculture and lands. Bell is trying to come up with a new aquaculture policy that will address the gulf between the industry and environmentalists and give the industry the certainty it needs to make investment decisions for future expansion.[pagebreak]“In terms of an industry that’s been beat up, pushed around and dragged through the mud, I think having a real long-term notion of their operating standards will be a relief,” he says in a telephone interview.

Bell was expected to produce his new policy, complete with a yea or nay on closed containment, by the end of 2007. Instead, he decided in late November to bring the warring factions together – with First Nations representatives involved and empowered – to try to carve out a consensus on a new policy.

“I’m hoping to have something late winter or early spring at this point,” Bell says. “But industry is clear on what we’re doing. We’re doing it in a collaborative fashion and I think they are comfortable with that. My ultimate objective is to have a plan that’s broadly endorsed, that industry can take back to their investors and say, based on these strategies we want to continue to invest in British Columbia.”

Bell is hoping that with everyone at the table, a compromise can be reached in the same fashion that resource activities and conservation came together in the Central Coast, more commonly known as the Great Bear Rainforest. That ended up as a landmark agreement involving First Nations, the forest industry, environmentalists and the provincial government – but it took several years of intense discussions to produce an agreement. Is Bell prepared to wait that long?

“It has to be done in a reasonable amount of time,” he says. “I don’t intend to be talking about it this time next year. I want the path forward clearly articulated by late winter-early spring.”

In the meantime, Bell makes it clear that he will continue to act on his authority as minister to approve or reject new sites for fish farms. He points out that since the release of the committee report last May he has already approved four and rejected one. Is he worried about further lost investment while this process evolves?

“B.C. has a strategic advantage relative to its competitors in its geographic location to the U.S.; the vast majority of our product goes to the U.S.,” Bell says. “If we can come up with an operating regime that is broadly supported, that provides a high-value product independently certified by a third party as a product grown in a way that reflects First Nations values, that meets the standards and objectives of the environmental community, we can have a system that works.”

Bell would not comment on any of the detailed recommendations that came out of the Special Committee on Sustainable Aquacul­ture’s May 2007 report, saying he didn’t want to prejudge the process.

“I don’t want to get into specifics,” he says. “It is unusual to put all these folks in the same room and also have a government-to-government relationship with the First Nations communities as well. It would be a breach if I got into details at this point. This is new to have environmentalists in the same room as industry.”

He also wouldn’t bite when asked for comment on CAAR’s anti-farmed-fish campaign now being waged in earnest.

“My preference would always be that they didn’t do that type of thing,” he says. “I would prefer that everyone sit at the table and agree to down tools until the outcome is reached. I am dead serious; I want to get to a positive outcome.”

Meanwhile, the CAAR anti-salmon farming campaign continues, with the main focus on Safeway’s decision to sell farmed salmon through its U.S. and Canadian outlets. Is the campaign working? Safeway representatives in both Vancouver and Calgary did not return calls seeking comment, but industry sources believe there has been no impact.

“I’m not aware of any curtailment of farmed salmon in Safeway,” says the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association’s Grydeland. “My understanding is they are comfortable with the product. When we see the increased demand for salmon, particularly in the U.S. market – by and large it has been growing between 10 to 20 per cent – there has been no effect.”

Marine Harvest Canada’s Backman echoes that comment. “There has been no effect on sales,” he says. “But Safeway wants us to work with CAAR and meet these concerns to get them out of the limelight, yes. They are asking us to work with CAAR.”

And that is particularly galling to Backman, because Marine Harvest Canada is the only company to have signed a co-operative research agreement with CAAR in an attempt to resolve their differences and find some common ground. It’s not easy to sit across the table and try to build consensus with someone who is trying to kill your business.

“The intention was, number one, let’s stop being two solitudes that aren’t communicating in order to find a way forward,” Backman says, explaining the collaboration. “CAAR states on their website that they are not opposed to salmon farming. They claim there’s only one way to do it, and that’s closed containment.”

Does he believe CAAR is not opposed to salmon farming?

“Well, CAAR comprises eight member groups,” says Backman. “They have said that, and I have to respect it; otherwise I wouldn’t be in a relationship with them. But within the member groups, the interpretation of the phrase can vary quite a bit. There are groups like the Living Oceans Society that are committed to finding the best way to do salmon farming. Other groups are more extreme activists and have different outcomes in mind. I’m working with CAAR as a group.”

Creative Salmon Co.’s Spencer Evans has a much different take on the issue and on its impact on his business.

“This whole thing, CAAR and Marine Harvest, in my opinion it’s very detrimental to the industry, and I have no idea why they are doing it. In my opinion, CAAR needs Marine Harvest far more than Marine Harvest needs CAAR,” Evans says.

“The enviros, including CAAR – especially CAAR – have gotten into the [organic-certification] process and hijacked it entirely, both in Canada and the U.S.,” he adds. “This is their Waterloo. They have to stop farmed salmon from becoming certified organic. It’s very important for their overall anti-salmon-farming campaign. They are throwing a lot of time and money at it to make sure it doesn’t happen. And they are winning.”

CAAR and a host of other environmental groups have succeeded in setting the standards for organic certification so high it will be unattainable for Creative. At a three-day symposium in late November in Washington, D.C., the U.S. National Organic Standards Board ( NOSB) was close to adopting a set of standards that would preclude open-net farms from complying and would so limit the amount of fish oil and fish meal in the food that Creative’s feeding policies would not apply.

“The idea is to make sure salmon farmers can’t meet the standards,” Evans says. “The NOSB recognizes there’s a lot of politics – they admit it – but they are all caving in to the pressure.” The NOSB will make a final decision in March, but Evans is not optimistic that the two rules – banning open-net cages and limiting the amount of fish oil and fish meal – will be changed.

It’s the ultimate disappointment for Creative, and it comes after a particularly stressful year. The company reported hundreds of dead sea lions that drowned after getting tangled in the fish farm’s guard nets last year and has spent more than $1 million to avoid a repeat of the problem by installing stronger guard nets.

On top of that, the sea lions, obviously in pursuit of the salmon, killed and maimed hundreds of fish and so stressed the remaining fish their growth suffered. “We’ll con­tinue to see the effects of that in 2008 and into 2009,” Evans says.

All Creative needs now, Evans says with some sarcasm, is for the government to impose a closed containment system on his operation. “That kills everything,” he says.

Related stories:The strife aquatic by Don Whiteley