WA and BC leaders mull closure of controversial salmon farms

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The Canadian decision will come first. The majority of British Columbia’s 105 net-pen Atlantic salmon licenses are due to expire on June 30, and Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, must decide by then. should be renewed, and if so, for how long. Even if they are renewed, it would be a temporary respite for salmon farmers. The Canadian government has already pledged to phase out open-water salmon farming in British Columbia by 2025.

In Washington, Hilary Franz, the commissioner of public lands, ponders the fate of the state’s two remaining leases. One already expired in March and is currently running month-to-month pending the outcome of a trial, while the other will expire in November. These farms currently hold rainbow trout, not salmon. The farming of non-native fish was banned in Washington after a net enclosure collapsed in 2017, releasing hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into the Pacific Ocean.

Emma Helverson, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, a conservation organization based in Seattle, Washington, says the coincidence of the two decisions made in the same year is an exciting opportunity for the protection of wild salmon. “Here we have two leaders on either side of the border who have the power to make a decision that would remove a major limiting factor to the recovery of wild salmon,” she says.

Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist and science advisor to the ‘Namǥis First Nation, says farms are a huge source of parasitic sea lice, viruses and bacteria that are devastating wild populations. “The damage is catastrophic and there is nothing the industry can do to stop it,” she says.

To their credit, salmon farmers have tried to reduce the spread of pathogens from their farms, Morton says. Aquaculture companies have, for example, brought in specially designed boats to treat salmon for lice using chemical baths or electric scrubbers. But “farms just can’t prevent sea lice,” Morton says.

In March, for example, fish from two farms in Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia had lice counts five times the legal limit when wild salmon were busy migrating through the area. In contrast, after 19 farms were removed from the Discovery Islands region in 2020, Morton found that migrating wild salmon were lice-free for the first time in decades. (A court ruling means the licenses for those 19 farms are back on the table and their fate included in the minister’s next decision.)

Morton says that while she would prefer the farms to be closed immediately, an optimal pragmatic outcome would be for Murray to renew salmon farm licenses until 2025, when the transition from net pens is supposed to happen anyway, but to not allow farms to stock any new fish in pens after September 2022. [of wild runs],” she said. “Half measures won’t save these fish.”

Michelle Franze, communications, partnerships and community manager for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, however, says the industry has strong measures in place to reduce the risk that fish raised in open-net pens pose to salmon. wild, like rigorous testing. to ensure that only disease-free juvenile farmed salmon enter the ocean, vaccination against common pathogens, and increased surveillance for sea lice during the emigration period of juvenile salmon. Franze says the association also supports wild salmon research and invests in infrastructure and practices to optimize the containment of farmed salmon.

Additionally, Franze points out that official reviews by Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists have concluded net-pen salmon farming in British Columbia poses a “minimal risk” to wild salmon. (These reviews are controversial among salmon experts.) She also says aquaculture is an important economic driver for the province’s remote coastal communities. A report by the BC Salmon Farmers Association notes that in 2019, the industry generated economic output of C$1.6 billion and employed more than 6,000 people.

In Washington, without a government commitment to phase out open-net enclosures, conservationists are taking a different approach: they are competing directly with industry for leases. Wild Fish Conservancy and its partners submitted their own bids for the leases, offering fair market value to the state to conduct a large-scale natural restoration project and restore public access to the leased areas. Helverson says their offerings are better aligned with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ legally required goals of providing environmental protection and encouraging public use.

Neither Morton nor Helverson want to see the total end of salmon farming. Around the world, companies are using approaches other than open-net pens to farm salmon, such as closed-loop farms or raising fish in tanks on land. However, Morton says industry in Canada and the United States has shown little interest in these approaches. But if adopted, Helverson says, it would allow aquaculture to continue without risking the health of wild fish populations. “It’s a way to eliminate all risk to the ecosystem and create a green economy we can be proud of,” says Helverson.

This story was produced for Hakai Magazine on June 22, 2022.

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