The Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) passed a resolution Wednesday calling for a shift away from open-net fish farms and urging the province to begin a consultation process on a “transition plan to closed-containment aquaculture, including a just transition for affected workers.”
Reactions to resolution were sharply divided. An industry spokesperson called the resolution ill-informed, while a conservation group hailed the decision as a sign that public sentiment is turning against open-net fish farms.
The resolution states that open-net aquaculture involving non-native fish “threatens local waterways and wild fish species, undermining the economic, social and ecological well-being of local communities.”
It also states that open-net fish farms have often been set up in Indigenous territories without enough consultation with First Nations, undermining reconciliation efforts.
The resolution calls for consultations with First Nations and local governments, along with conservation groups and industry, as part of a move towards closed-containment aquaculture.
“I think it was kind of a referendum on the issue,” said Stan Proboszcz, science advisor for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “I think it was pretty clear that municipalities in British Columbia want open-net salmon farms off wild salmon migration routes.”
The resolution was brought forward by Victoria at the UBCM’s annual convention of local governments, which took place this week in Whistler.
A separate motion, put forward by Campbell River and also endorsed by the UBCM, calls for the province to make decisions about fisheries – including aquaculture – based on “based on current data, technology, science and traditional knowledge.”
Proboszcz said that a growing body of research indicates that farmed salmon is contributing to declines in wild salmon stocks through the spread of disease.
“We [are] continuing to see new research coming out that highlights that this industry is a risk to our wild salmon and everything that depends on that stock of fish,” he said.
Industry spokesperson Shawn Hall disputed those claims.
“What the science actually says is that as long as salmon farmers act responsibly, that salmon farms and wild fish populations can successfully co-exist in the ocean,” Hall said.
He also said that large-scale closed-containment salmon farming isn’t feasible.
“The technology to successfully raise a large number of salmon on land doesn’t exist,” said Hall.
He argued that the large tanks of water required for land-based salmon farming would leave a major environmental footprint, due to factors including the water and energy required to simulate ocean currents.
He also said that areas of Vancouver Island where fish farms operate are too far from major markets and energy infrastructure to support land-based fish farming.
“Mandating [that] salmon farming move on land would essentially shut the industry down, costing several thousands of British Columbians – many of them living in and around Campbell River – their jobs,” he said.
Proboszcz said there should be a plan for fish farm workers but suggested that industry may exaggerate the number of people actually employed by open-net aquaculture.
“We should have some sort of plan for [a] just transition,” he said. “But we also have to be fair about how much this industry does actually contribute to our economy.”
According to a study commissioned by the BC Salmon Farmers Association – which represents the fish farm industry – more than 2,900 people were employed directly in salmon farming by 2016.
Another 3,600 workers were either employed indirectly – that is, by industry suppliers – or due to spending by workers in the industry, according to the study.
Proboszcz said that B.C. is the only jurisdiction on the West Coast that still allows open-net Atlantic salmon farms, following legislation in Washington State that banned the facilities.
The law rules out new or extended leases for fish farms involving non-native species in Washington. That decision came after tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped from the nets of a fish farm into Puget Sound last year.
In June, the B.C government announced new regulations for the aquaculture industry, and formed a panel to advise the government on developing a strategy to protect wild salmon stocks.
Starting in 2022, the province will only grant or renew permits to fish farms that prove to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans that their operations don’t adversely impact wild stocks, according to the regulations.
The policy also gives fish farms four years to get consent from First Nations to allow the facilities to operate in their territories.