B.C.’s fish farming industry is in murky waters thanks to government regulations

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) conducted an internal report on fish farming and sea lice—but some scientists are calling it fishy.

Credit: Tavish Campbell

The DFO conducted an internal report on fish farming and sea lice—but some scientists are calling it fishy

The fish farming industry is fighting for its life on British Columbia’s coast. For the second time in as many years, three of the biggest players in the salmon aquaculture sector have turned to the courts to challenge a decision by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to shutter 15 fish farms in the Discovery Islands due to concerns about the impact of sea lice and other pathogens on wild salmon migrating through the archipelago between Campbell River and the mainland coast.

Four years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to get open net-pen fish farms out of B.C.’s coastal waters by 2025. Open net pens are essentially floating fishnets attached to rafts that are anchored to the sea floor. Though farmed fish do occasionally escape, for the most part they are contained in the nets. However, fish waste, disease and sea lice aren’t, and can pass into the surrounding marine environment and infect wild fish.

In a letter dated December 13, 2019, Trudeau told then-DFO minister Bernadette Jordan to “work with the province of British Columbia and Indigenous communities on a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”

A year later, following up on Trudeau’s directive, Jordan put companies on notice, saying that all Discovery Island fish farms would be closed by June 2022. Last spring, however, three B.C.-based salmon farming companies—Mowi Canada West, Cermaq Canada and Grieg Seafood—asked the courts for a judicial review. The companies argued that they were not properly consulted and that the decision lacked proper procedural fairness. A federal court judge agreed. In a ruling dated April 22, 2022, Justice Elizabeth Heneghan sided with the fish farmers and overturned the decision.

It was a brief reprieve for the Discovery Islands fish farms, which have been a flashpoint in the fish farming debate for years. In 2012, Justice Bruce Cohen, who led an inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon, noted the importance of these islands for migrating wild salmon smolts and the threat of sea lice and disease from fish farms.

Following Justice Heneghan’s ruling, the DFO, now led by Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray, was sent back to the drawing board. An internal report on sea lice from DFO’s Canadian Scientific Advisory Secretariat, commissioned last summer, was meant to help guide Murray’s decision on the fate of the 15 fish farms in the Discovery Islands.

Released in late January 2023, the report was met with applause from the industry and widespread criticism from scientists and environmental groups. A group of 16 independent fisheries scientists sent a letter to the federal government, saying that the report, which was produced by staff from DFO’s fish farming regulation and science branch, downplayed the impact of sea lice and fell below the threshold of acceptable peer-reviewed science. Conversely, the fish farming industry hailed it as proof positive that their operations had minimal impact on wild salmon.

On February 17, 2023, Murray announced that the federal government would not renew licences for the 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,” she said in a news release. “This was a difficult but necessary decision.”

Murray said that uncertainty about the risks posed by fish farms to wild salmon demanded an “advanced precautionary approach,” and also called the fish farm closures an important step toward “developing a responsible plan to transition away from open-net farming in coastal B.C. waters.”

The salmon farming industry is again up in arms. On March 21, Mowi, Grieg Seafood and Cermaq applied to Canada’s federal court for a judicial review of Murray’s decision.

Stan Proboszcz, senior scientist with the Vancouver-based Watershed Watch Salmon Society, is not surprised that the fish farmers are back in court but says that Murray’s decision is the right one.

“There is an incredibly large body of independent scientific research demonstrating the link between fish farms and sea lice on wild salmon. Scientists from SFU, University of Toronto and the Pacific Salmon Foundation have published on this topic for years,” Proboszcz says.

He notes that the paper trail is stacked with letters dating back to June 2022 from the minister to all the companies, “giving them a heads-up, with detailed reasons of what she was considering, along with an open ear to their thoughts. They had months to convince her, and they failed to do so.”

In a parallel legal action, the We Wai Kai Nation of Cape Mudge on Quadra Island and Campbell River’s Wei Wai Kum First Nation are also asking the courts to overturn the decision. In an open letter to his community, We Wai Kai Nation Chief Councillor Ronnie Chickite said the court action is not an endorsement of fish farming but “is about our right as titleholders to make decisions about how our territory is used.”

The legal battles “will probably continue until the federal government starts properly using science in their decisions as opposed to following that of campaigners trying to incorrectly scapegoat the sector for the decline of wild salmon,” says Brian Kingzett, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association.

“The minister is on dangerous ground with respect to First Nations rights and title,” Kingzett adds.