UPDATED: First Nations, conservationists and industry react to fish farm regulations

New provincial regulations to take effect by 2022

Responses to newly announced conditions on fish farms in B.C. were sharply divided, with critics saying the measures are coming too slowly, while voices from the aquaculture sector defended an industry facing new requirements.

Their reactions came as the province imposed new conditions on ocean-based salmon farms, requiring them to have agreements with “relevant” Indigenous communities to have their provincial land tenures continued.

The new provincial regulations take effect by 2022, B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said Wednesday, just as 20 provincial tenures in the Broughton Archipelago expired. Those tenures will carry on month-to-month until new conditions are met.

A second new condition is that Fisheries and Oceans Canada provide assurances that wild salmon runs are protected from salmon farms. The federal government has the bulk of responsibility for ocean-based aquaculture on all coasts of Canada, including assessing risk for disease and parasite transmission.

READ MORE: B.C. sets deadline for Indigenous salmon farm consent

Homalco First Nation Chief Darren Blaney expressed disappointment about the changes, saying the government didn’t address pressing concerns about the effects of salmon farming on wild stocks.

“They didn’t say anything about all those diseases that go along with those farms,” he said. “They needed some courage, but they just punted it down the road.”

Blaney said other jurisdictions are embracing land-based aquaculture, which involves raising salmon in tanks, and that B.C. would miss out on economic opportunities in that mode of fish farming.

“They’ll be down in Florida and elsewhere,” he said. “We’ll have lost those jobs.”

Meanwhile, Tlowitsis First Nation Chief John Smith spoke in favour of the fish farming in B.C.’s coastal waters, arguing that the provincial government should “make up their mind” about the industry’s future and foster more stability for open net-pen salmon farming companies.

“It’s a pretty important industry and for us it’s very important,” he said. “You want to know that you can continue your process.”

He said that salmon farms that lease territory from the First Nation provide badly needed funds for his people for social services including education.

“It’s money that our nation can count on on a regular basis,” he said, adding that confidence among investors would result in more jobs for his people.

On fish farms, he said, “the pay’s decent, better than what you’d get on welfare.”

As for the concerns about negative effects of open net-pen farming on wild salmon, he said that fish farming is a “clean process” and suggested that concerns of conservationists are overblown.

“We know that wild stocks are still there, because we have commercial fishermen that would attest to that,” he said. “And we have guardians that monitor the area where the fish farms are, and they haven’t seen anything deleterious yet.”

READ MORE: Campbell River protesters want fish farms stopped

But conservationists said that wild salmon are in crisis.

Aaron Hill, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, called the changes an “historic step forward” but said they‘re happening too slowly.

“Four years is a long time to wait when our salmon stocks are in peril and we’re facing unprecedented fishery closures up and down the coast,” said Hill, adding that farmed salmon was “hammering young wild salmon with diseases.”

But he said it’s encouraging that farms in the Broughton Archipelago may be removed earlier than 2022, pending the outcome of talks with First Nations in the area.

“We know that First Nations in Broughton want those farms gone, as do the majority of British Columbians,” he said.

As for conditions requiring assurances from Ottawa that salmon farming is safe, he said it was a positive step but expressed wariness about the handling of the matter by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

“We’ve seen serious concerns raised by the auditor general about DFO’s management of this industry and the science,” he said. “But we have seen even DFO science now showing serious risks posed by the industry to wild salmon.”

Meanwhile, Green Party MLA Adam Olsen released a statement expressing outrage at the pace of change, saying the measures scheduled for 2022 should already be happening.

He said the new policies put wild salmon at risk and failed to address the concerns of First Nations across the province, while also accusing the B.C. government of “using First Nations as cover.”

Olsen also raised concerns about federal handling of the fish farm issue, saying the DFO “has proven to be absent, at best, and negligent, at worst, when it comes to protecting wild salmon.”

Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said the industry group wasn’t involved in discussions about the consultations with First Nations and was still reviewing the announcement.

He stressed the importance of jobs in the industry, saying that 6,600 jobs result directly or indirectly from salmon farming. And he said that many fish farms have positive relationships with Indigenous peoples, and that 78 per cent of salmon produced in B.C. by members of the industry association resulted from partnerships with First Nations.

Hall also said the provision requiring federal assurance of safety to wild stocks were encouraging and that scientists had established “no definitive link” between farmed salmon and the decline of the wild fish.

– With files Tom Fletcher/Black Press Legislative Reporter

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