Aquaculture North America

‘Irresponsible, unrealistic and unachievable’

June 28, 2024
By Jean Ko Din

Industry reacts to DFO’s five-year plan to ban salmon net pens in B.C.

Sun setting on Cermaq Canada's sea site in Clayoquot Sound, B.C. (Photo: Cermaq Canada)

What’s next for aquaculture in B.C.?

In the wake of a shocking announcement from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the North American industry was set alight with this question and what the future could look like.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, commonly referred to as the DFO or its former name as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, held a press conference on June 19 that confirmed a five-year transitional plan to ban net-pen salmon farming in the coasts of British Columbia. The announcement was immediately met with ire and frustration from the industry.

Many have since referenced Min. Diane Lebouthillier’s promise for a “responsible, realistic and achievable” approach, saying that the announcement was instead irresponsible, unrealistic and unachievable.

“Thousands of hours have been spent by employees and partners on developing reasonable, realistic and achievable plans to support the federal government’s objectives. None of these are reflected in the announcement before us,” said Tim Kennedy, president and CEO of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA), in a statement.

The transition plan was first leaked by The Globe and Mail on June 17, where the article cited unnamed sources in the government who teased details of the plan. In addition to the five-year renewals for B.C. salmon net pen farms, a senior government official was reported to have said that the government will be allocating C$1.5 billion (almost US$1.1 billion) towards the industry’s transition to land-based operation.

The DFO has yet to confirm this investment amount publicly. The official transition plan is set to be released by the end of July, followed by “coordinated consultations with those directly and indirectly affected by the transition,” Lebouthillier said at the press conference, as translated from French by a live interpreter.

Economic consequences

Dr. Stefanie Colombo, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Aquaculture Nutrition at Dalhousie University, was at the annual Aquaculture Canada conference when the announcement was made. This year, the conference was hosted at Charlottetown, P.E.I. on June 16-19.

“It was definitely a buzz of conversation,” she told Aquaculture North America. “Last year, when it was in Victoria (B.C.), it was much more of a cloud… It was definitely a weird conference. This time, there were more people there from Atlantic Canada than from the West Coast, so we were all just fired up about it.”

Colombo was presenting academic papers she published with colleagues that explored the economic consequences of reduced salmon supply in North America. The study, which was published in the Sustainability journal in April, explored the socioeconomic impact of the Canadian government’s decision to reduce the supply of farm-raised salmon in B.C.

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Colombo said farm closures will lead the market to seek alternative suppliers, such as Norway and Chile, diverting about C$1.2 billion (US$875 million) away from B.C.’s local economy. The decrease in Canadian salmon supply will also trigger significant price increases to more than C$30 per kilogram by 2026. Canadian salmon is currently priced at around C$22/kg. Increased salmon imports to North America could also mean increased carbon emissions from shipping and transport.

“I don’t think that any of this type of data was deeply considered as much as the natural science data. And this is just presenting some more data that should be considered at the next stage,” she said. “DFO science is involved but what about other departments, like the Department of Labour? Were they part of the decision? Things like that.”

Broken supply chain

According to B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association, about 6,000 jobs will be affected directly and indirectly by the removal of net pen salmon farming in the province. Many local industry suppliers which have been established to support the farms have also weighed in.

“This decision creates a highly uncertain situation for our small business, stalling our plans for growth and development,” said Stephanie King, CEO and founder of equipment supplier, InWater Technologies. “Our plans to expand our office space in Campbell River have been put on hold. This is one small example of the widespread impact of this decision.”

“This decision will signal continued industry stagnation and uncertainty, resulting in a continued lack of investor confidence,” said Trevor Stanley, managing director of fish feed supplier, Skretting North America. “The result is reduced investment in innovation, ultimately forcing us to look for growth and investment opportunities in other progressive aquaculture sectors.”

Indigenous conflict

Part of the government’s transition plan includes issuing nine-year licenses for closed containment projects on land and at sea. First Nations leaders have criticized that this alternative does not consider the infrastructure this technology would demand in their territories.

Hereditary Chief Hasheukumiss, Richard George, of the Ahousaht Nation Tyee Haw’il addressing the press after the DFO’s June 19 announcement. (Photo: Cermaq Canada)

“Five years to transition to land-based or closed containment in my territory is the same as shutting our operations down,” said Hereditary Chief Hasheukumiss, Richard George, of the Ahousaht Nation Tyee Haw’il. Cermaq Canada runs 14 sites in Ahousaht’s waters.

“In fact, as I know a thing or two about salmon farming due to our decades of working with industry, this is not even logistically possible. Therefore, due to the no consultation on this decision, we will be allowing for a more realistic approach of a 10-year transition in my home.”

Seven coastal tribes were represented during the press conference. Each leader expressed how the DFO decision affirms their right to self-governance in their territories.

Deputy Chief Isaiah Robinson of the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation said his tribal community has established marine protected areas, and has conducted 20 years of scientific research. They also developed a Kitasoo Xai’xais Innovation Plan which was delivered to Ottawa in February.

“We have done everything right. And now the government is excluding us again,” said Robinson. “Failing to properly consult with First Nation leaders is not responsible. Neglecting the fact that we, as coastal First Nations, lack infrastructure, electricity needed to run these closed containment systems makes it not achievable.”

The Kitasoo Xai’Xais nation formed a partnership with Mowi in 1998 – the first agreement developed by a salmon farming company and a First Nation in B.C. There are 17 First Nations who currently have agreements with aquaculture companies in the province.

Washington parallel

Jamestown Seafood CEO Jim Parsons expressed his empathy and solidarity with the neighbouring industry in the north. In his home state of Washington, the local industry has undergone similar experiences with an anti-aquaculture agenda to ban salmon farming in their region since 2017.

“It’s given the Indigenous people a lot of opportunities for growth and for a better understanding of what aquaculture is all about. And for, you know, honestly, for rich white people to say, ‘No, that’s not appropriate for you.’ I mean, that’s really where Jamestown is, in all this,” said Parsons.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Washington Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, to challenge the government’s fish farm closure order.

Last October, a superior court judge ruled that the ban has “no legal effect” due to the DNR’s failure for proper public consultation. The court declared that the “ban” on commercial net pens is an internal directive to begin the rule-making process regarding commercial net pens in state aquatic lands.

“We’re working really hard to bring everybody together to have a larger discussion about all of this,” said Maria Smithson, public affairs advisor for the National Aquaculture Alliance (NAA). “And DNR has used junk science and a lot of angry rhetoric to divide the tribes down here in Washington, and it’s really not okay. And Hillary Franz should be really ashamed for that.”

NAA is hosting a Pacific Northwest Indigenous Aquaculture Summit on Aug. 26-28 in Sequim, Wash. in hopes of bringing tribes and First Nations members to talk about sustainable aquaculture practices, innovations and opportunities.

Closed alternative

Rob Walker had decades of experience exploring closed containment systems before he pursued his latest land-based project, Gold River Aquafarms in Gold River, B.C. Looking at the government’s five-year plan, he is skeptical that these projects can be approved, built, and operating within the timeframe.

“Much of my career has been developing floating closed containment systems. And we’re really familiar with the difficulties in that field,” said Walker, CEO of Gold River Aquafarms.

“It’s really difficult to create systems that are stable enough. The technologies that have been developed for waste treatment are based on land treatment, which doesn’t move. So, you know, putting those onto a barge or whatever, is not that easy.”

Given the many challenges he and his team have faced in their iterations of a floating closed containment system in B.C. waters, Walker concluded that the money required to develop this system would be equivalent to the high capital expenditures that land-based projects also require.

Gold River Aquafarms plans to build a land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) facility in a former sawmill in the town of Gold River, in northern Vancouver Island. Once built, the facility will have the capacity to raise 3,000 tonnes of Steelhead annually. The Gold River project’s permitting process with the DFO took more than two years to complete and is currently, applying for its provincial water permits.

“The Water Sustainability Act, which came in 2016, has put a lot of efforts into preserving water, which is excellent. I’m really happy they’re doing that. But, if you want to use that water, it’s difficult,” said Walker. “We will reuse virtually all our waters, 98 percent plus, will be recirculated in our system… but we’re always looking at ways to tighter up as much as possible.”

Walker said he doesn’t think the government has considered the infrastructure demands of their plans to support these newer aquaculture technologies. British Colombia has had drought conditions in much of the province for a long time. As a result, the province, which is run on hydropower is also experiencing a shortage of power.

Even still, Walker believes there is great potential for land-based projects in the province. In fact, during their site studies, he says his team had considered many potential locations for their project.

“I think the government has really played on that antagonism, setting one industry against the other and it doesn’t make sense to me. We can grow together,” said Walker. “The traditional industry has gone through tremendous change. They’re incredibly innovative, dedicated to environmental issues. It’s unfair to paint them all with the horrible brush of ecological destroyers. It’s not right.”


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