Fish farm phaseout draws criticism from premier and industry

By Shannon Waters February 16, 2021

Premier John Horgan had some harsh words regarding Ottawa’s approach to phasing out open-net pen fish farms in the Discovery Islands by summer 2022.

“The federal government took action in Discovery without consulting us at all — they told us after the fact,” Horgan told reporters last week.

As it stands, the plan will result in “significant” job losses, according to John Paul Fraser, president of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, something the premier also said he is worried about.

“We’re looking at 1,500 hundred families who work in the Discovery Islands whose careers and livelihoods are either directly or indirectly impacted,” Fraser told Black Press last week.

The Trudeau government signalled its intentions to reform B.C.’s aquaculture industry during the 2019 election campaign amid concerns that in-ocean farms are adversely harming the province’s salmon population by spreading disease and impacting migration routes.

But Fraser said Ottawa is “creating the wrong kind of environment to even consider transitioning to land-based” fish farming, which is considered less environmentally invasive.

He described the plan as “quite possibly the most impactful, careless, reckless, thoughtless decision” he has ever seen.

“What the government is saying makes no sense, because what we are currently doing is working,” Fraser said, adding that the sector is meeting “all of the environmental requirements, and [is] successfully producing healthy food that is in demand all over the world.”

In December, the association joined the mayors of four North Island communities in sending an open letter to federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan decrying a lack of consultation ahead of the “shocking decision” to phase out the industry in the Discovery Islands.

Federal minister ‘surprised’ Horgan didn’t go to him before venting to the press
Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who served as fisheries minister until November 2019, said Ottawa’s consultation process may have centred on Indigenous communities but included “lots of conversations with environmental organizations and the fish farming community.”

Wilkinson did allow that communications with the provincial government could probably be improved but said Horgan gave no sign of his dissatisfaction with the plan before last week.

“I’m a little surprised he didn’t call me or the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Fisheries — who is also a British Columbia MP — before making those statements,” he said.

Minister Jordan’s office also maintained the B.C. government was “repeatedly” briefed by the minister and Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials.

“The licences in the Discovery Islands were only ever renewed on a yearly basis, always with the understanding that a decision regarding their permanent status would be made by December 2020,” her office said in a statement, which also noted the federal government’s aim is to “make British Columbia a world leader in sustainable, prosperous aquaculture.”

While B.C. consulted widely by bringing Indigenous communities and industry reps to the same table before announcing a “slow reduction in open-net pens in the Broughton Archipelago,” Ottawa “didn’t do that” with its Discovery Islands plan, according to Premier Horgan.

Fraser said the industry only got a single, 15-minute session with federal officials, during which Ottawa’s preordained decision was outlined. He also pointed out that, by the federal government’s own assessment, the Discovery Islands farms post “minimal risk” to Fraser River sockeye stocks.

“There is no amount of science, and there is no scientific process, that will satisfy certain people,” Fraser said.

The Discovery Islands fish farms aren’t going down without a fight: Cermaq Canada and Mowi Canada West are seeking an injunction against the plan until their arguments that it is unfair and unlawful can be heard in court.

On the campaign trail last fall, Horgan also said he would start phasing out fish farms by 2022 if the industry didn’t get buy-in from Indigenous communities.