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Impending north Island salmon farm closures causing uncertainty

Tired of commuting from the Lower Mainland to her job in northern Vancouver Island, Kaitlin Guitard became a Comox resident last year. The water quality technician works eight days on, six days off at a Mowi smolt site in the Broughton Archipelago. Though she had studied agriculture, Guitard had worked with land-based production before switching careers in 2019.

Tired of commuting from the Lower Mainland to her job in northern Vancouver Island, Kaitlin Guitard became a Comox resident last year. The water quality technician works eight days on, six days off at a Mowi smolt site in the Broughton Archipelago. Though she had studied agriculture, Guitard had worked with land-based production before switching careers in 2019.

“I never thought that I would be working with fish, but here I am,” she said.

When the smolt reach about 500 grams, the Mowi nursery ships the fish to a larger farm where they grow out. Some of the farms that receive the smolt are located in the Discovery Islands, where salmon farming activities are being phased out by the federal government.

“If we don’t have a site to send our fish to, then there’s no need for us to continue,” said Guitard, who feels science has shown that responsible salmon farming can co-exist with wild salmon. “It’s one of the last industries on the Island that offers secure employment…I’m sticking behind this industry. I believe in its sustainability.”

Jessica Leck, also a Comox Valley resident, manages a broodstock hatchery for Mowi Canada West in Duncan. The freshwater hatchery raises fish for a breeding program that supplies eggs for future production. Leck, who moved from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island after earning a bachelor of science in aquaculture, had previously worked on saltwater sites with net pens, mostly in the Broughton Archipelago or Jervis Inlet.

“I feel very fortunate that I was provided a full-time, well paying job right out of university,” said Leck, who had worked on a camp shift of eight and six. She now works Monday to Thursday, which affords time for her favourite activities, namely rugby and hockey. “Right now, everyone in the aquaculture industry is uncertain of what the future holds.”

On Dec. 17, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan announced that all farms in the Discovery Islands are to be free of fish by June 30, 2022. Consultation with seven First Nations, including K’omoks, “heavily informed the decision,” a news release states. Government says it will continue to work with partners on the responsible transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal waters by 2025.

“It’s a lot of uncertainty, it’s a lot of questions that statement has left for all of us,” Guitard said.

Leck said that Mowi stands to lose 13 to 15 production sites — about 30 per cent of its total production — which has a ripple effect on the rest of the company, including hatcheries like the one in Duncan. For every farmer who loses their career, she said about six other people will be out of work, when support industries such as transportation are considered.

“In total, this decision could affect 1,600 jobs on the island,” she said.

READ: Canada ‘stole Christmas’ says Vancouver Island’s aquaculture industry

Opinions vary as to the science behind the decision to phase out the farms.

Pacific Wild considers it to be a step in the right direction.

“Back in 2009, the Canadian Government developed the Cohen Commission in response to a sharp and long-term decline in the Fraser River Sockeye,” said Emmie Page, marine campaigner for Pacific Wild. “The report from the Cohen Commission laid out 75 recommendations to DFO so that they could address and remediate the Fraser River Sockeye decline. One of these recommendations (#19) was to eliminate net-pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands by Sept. 30, 2020.”

Recommendation 19, however, also states that risk assessments concluded that ‘pathogens found in Atlantic salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area pose no more than a minimal risk to migrating Fraser River Sockeye salmon.’

“The world was governed by that Recommendation 19 of the Cohen Commission,” said John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association. “It has been repeatedly and consistently distorted by salmon farming opponents…It says the farms shall be removed unless independent science can confirm no more than minimal risk…Nine years, nine risk assessments later, that is actually the conclusion.

“You get a finding that’s ultimately consistent with what Cohen and that $24-million, three-year report set as the benchmark, and then to find out that’s actually not the basis for the decision,” Fraser added. “We don’t get any explanation, and in the meantime you’re looking at hundreds, perhaps thousands of people’s livelihoods being upended. For me, it’s the hype of irresponsibility, incompetence, and quite frankly, inconfidence.”

Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, the NDP Critic for Fisheries and Ocean, said government has known for years that salmon farms have a negative impact on migrating juvenile Fraser River Sockeye.

First Nations, he added, flatly reject the “minimal risk” argument.

“My conversations with local First Nations, they didn’t embrace the outcome of the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, the peer review process, because it included fish farm companies and industry associations in every step of the process, which they saw as a fixed process,” Johns said, noting the First Nations Leadership Council has called for an end to open-net pen farming. “The accommodation of aboriginal rights is listening to and acting upon the wishes of a First Nation, based upon their inherent and aboriginal rights, which are supported by UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).”

He said First Nations were disappointed that DFO omitted sea lice from its less-than-minimal-risk statements.

“It’s understood that this is a primary risk of juvenile salmon at the most vulnerable time of their life cycle.”

Johns said he has repeatedly met with the fish farm industry, which has rejected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter that says to ‘transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal B.C. waters by 2025 and begin work to introduce Canada’s first-ever Aquaculture Act.’

“This denial is a detriment to the workers, to the communities impacted, and to their own companies,” Johns said. “It’s been frustrating to offer our support in advance of the decision…It’s time for the companies to get on board and work with government. Everybody needs to work together on a transition that protects workers in those communities.

“The Cohen Commission recommendation was clear,” he added. “We need to see an economic transition plan for workers. We’re hoping to see in the upcoming budget a significant increase to salmon restoration and habitat protection to bring wild salmon back. The decision’s been made, we have to move forward.”

Johhs commends North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney for trying to co-ordinate a “collaborative approach to this complex economic challenge.” Blaney recently met with Jordan to discuss the impact of her decision.

“I expressed how unacceptable it is that the announcement came without any sort of plan to support affected workers and address the economic impact on north Island communities,” Blaney said. “I told her the need for a plan is urgent, and that it should be driven and informed by people in our region, but supported by federal resources.”

She said Jordan committed to a “whole-of-government approach” to local challenges, and welcomed requests and proposals on how best to move forward.

Johns said land-based salmon farming is the best solution, but Fraser said it’s not a feasible transition in the short- or long-term. He said the Kuterra on-land facility north of Port Hardy, along with a couple of companies in the Nanaimo area, produces about half the amount of one ring-fenced farm in the Discovery Islands.

Economics consulting firm RIAS estimates the annual fallout from the farm closures will be about $21 million in lost tax revenue.

One of Fraser’s missions is to ensure that all levels of government understand what has been unleashed.

“It could potentially be devastating,” he said. “In the absence of government fully explaining its reasons, you get uncertainty. Everyone wonders, ‘What’s next in our community?’

“The demand and interest in ocean-grown salmon, from the waters of B.C., is tremendous, and it’s going to grow.”