Several Vancouver Island mayors and members of B.C.’s salmon farming industry say a federal decision to phase out fish farming has left them feeling “disposable and discarded.”
In an open letter to Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, they say they weren’t consulted before she announced a plan to phase out open-net pen farming in the Discovery Islands over the next 18 months.
Jordan said the decision came after hearing unanimous opposition to the farms from local First Nations earlier this month.
“You made this decision without even speaking to the industry nor locally elected officials who deeply understand B.C.’s salmon farming communities and have a direct interest in your action,” the letter says.
“Be advised that we will no longer sit on the sidelines and will be pursuing every possible option to remedy this untenable situation.”
The Discovery Islands act as a bottleneck along wild salmon migration routes and eliminating the fish farms was a key
recommendation made in 2012 by the Cohen Commission on the decline of Fraser River sockeye.
However, the recommendation was contingent on the Fisheries Department finding the farms posed “more than a minimal risk of serious harm” to the health of migrating sockeye by Sept. 20, 2020.
On Sept. 28, the department said scientific assessments had found nine pathogens from farmed salmon in the islands posed a minimal risk to wild stocks. The risk of the viruses transferring from farmed to wild Fraser River stocks was less than one per cent, it said.
Salmon farmers feel ‘discarded’
John Paul Fraser, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said instead of allowing the farms to continue, the government announced a new consultation process that excluded the industry. He learned about the phase-out 15 minutes before the government announced it, he said.
“That’s what we’re looking at here, a decision that was not well conceived, certainly ill-informed and did not in any way contemplate the consequences not just of the Campbell River economy, but really the whole economy of Vancouver Island,” Fraser said.
Workers in the industry were classified as essential under COVID-19 restrictions, only to learn before Christmas that their jobs would be lost without a say, he said.
“Now we just feel discarded, you go from thinking you’re doing something important and we can build on it to now being treated like it doesn’t matter.”
The letter says the move will eliminate about 1,500 jobs and could put the entire $1.6-billion provincial industry at risk.
It is signed by mayors in Campbell River, Port Hardy, Port McNeill and Gold River, as well as 11 industry representatives.
Jordan said in a statement that she plans to meet with industry and community representatives in early 2021 to discuss the transition.
“The decision to phase out fish farms in the Discovery Islands was not an easy one. It was made after many consultations and weighing many factors,” she said.
Aquaculture plays an important role in British Columbia’s economy, but the farms in the Discovery Islands are a “specific case,” she said.
The licences were renewed on an annual basis — unlike others that had been granted longer tenures — “always with the understanding that a decision regarding their permanent status would be made by December 2020,” Jordan said.
Under the plan, 19 existing farms in the Discovery Islands had their licences renewed for 18 months. The farms are not allowed to add new fish during that period, and can only grow and harvest the existing stocks until they are empty.
Phasing out net-pen fish farming in B.C. waters by 2025 was a Liberal campaign promise in the federal election.