Dismay by national aquaculture groups over the federal Liberals’ election promise to move Atlantic salmon production in B.C. to land-based, closed containment pens is being echoed by local industry insiders.
“I was very surprised, I must say,” Odd Grydeland, a longtime Campbell River-based salmon farming proponent and consultant, said. “It was just so much contrary to where we thought the department (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) was going with this whole issue of net pen aquaculture.”
The Liberal pledge is for B.C. only, and doesn’t apply to steelhead, shellfish or other farmed species, only Atlantic salmon which is the backbone of the B.C. industry. It calls for the transition of production to slatwater-based pens to land-based closed containment pens to be made by 2025, a timeline industry representatives say contradicts work that has been done.
It was only last June when the minister announced his advisory process that was to bring “everyone into the room” to provide advice on bringing potential improvement to net pen aquaculture in B.C., Grydeland said. The process created an advisory body that had created three working groups underneath.
These working groups were just getting going when the Liberal Party announced its election platform, almost as a foregone conclusion, Grydeland said.
“That was very surprising,” he said.
Grydeland is looking at the platform announcement within the context of election politics.
“It’s important at this stage of the game, you know, you got to try to find a way of separating the department’s policy on aquaculture and you’ve got (to) separate that from the politics of an election,” he said. “They are making statements like this to try to secure certain seats, especially in the Lower Mainland.
“There might be some votes in Vancouver swayed one way or another by statements like this here.”
In addition, Grydeland believes the platform is not even realistic. The industry has been moving towards diminishing the time the fish have to spend in salt water in net pens, extending the time they spend in fresh water getting bigger before being moved to the farms.
“So that technology is evolving,” he said.
There has been experimentation with closed containment in Norway and in B.C. but nothing has come forward to replace conventional aquaculture yet, Grydeland said. It’s still the most natural method.
“So, for anybody to say that you’ve got to use some sort of closed containment, whatever that looks like, within a certain period, I think that’s counter-productive,” he said. “The industry is looking at it on a voluntary basis but it’s certainly not there yet.”
Another industry insider is Tlowitsis Chief John Smith, whose First Nation operates three fish farms within its territory and is applying for another. He was very blunt with his assessment of the Liberals’ proposal.
“I think it’s a really dumb idea,” Chief Smith said.
Salmon farming is an important part of the nation’s livelihood.
“They’re a great economic driver for our Nation,” Smith said. “And we know it creates all kinds of work.”
Fish farms account for 30-40 per cent of the Port Hardy area economy, he said.
“And they don’t cause any problems,” Smith said.
First Nations fishermen in the North Island are still making a living off the commercial fishery in and around the aquaculture industry in the area.
“And some of those farms have been there for 30 years,” Smith said.
The Liberals didn’t give this much thought, he added. The announcement is just creating a lot of fear for families in the Campbell River area alone which make their living from the fish farms, either directly or indirectly.
For the Tlowitsis, members of the Nation have found good careers in the aquaculture industry. Forcing the industry to use land-based pens would threaten those jobs because it’s not realistic to make that call, given the state of the technology.
“Nobody can afford to do that,” Smith said. “Certainly would take us (the Tlowitsis) out of the industry.”
Not just because of the cost, Smith said, but also because land-based pens won’t be located in this area, they’ll be installed closer to the markets they serve.
The Tlowitsis’ aquaculture ventures, if the fourth farm site is approved, are worth “easily a million dollars a year,” Smith said. “That’s very nice. We don’t get that much from the government even though they have used and abused our territory.
“It’s been fabulous for us. It’s been almost a godsend.”