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Hundred of millions at stake

CANADA - Commercial open-net fish farms were first introduced in BC waters in the 1970s - Canada is now the fourth largest salmon producer in the world.

According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, cultured fish and seafood products accounted for 43 per cent of Canada's total production in 2004. The provincial legislative committee on sustainable aquaculture reports the salmon farming sector accounted for $371 million in 2005 and provided 1,500 full-time equivalent jobs. It's estimated production figures for 2006 will increase by another 15 per cent.

In comparison, the wild commercial sector directly accounted for $216 million and provided 1,600 full-time equivalent jobs, mostly in processing. While the salmon farming industry nearly doubled in size between 1997 and 2005, output from the wild commercial sector fell by more than 30 per cent.

According to researcher Alexandra Morton, some see wild salmon as just too costly to protect - they require a long corridor of protection from the tops of the rivers all the way out to the ocean and "force the politicians to say no to all the hands that feed them."

As a result, "big industry [including logging and offshore drilling] fit well with salmon farms," she says.

Fighting for solutions
Industry, government and independent researchers have not only failed at reaching a timely consensus on the environmental risk posed by open-net fish farms - they can't agree on possible solutions either.

First Nations communities, independent researchers and environmental groups have long touted a closed-containment system as the solution to the problems caused by open-net fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago. And, in mid-May the NDP-led legislative committee on sustainable aquaculture released its final report recommending the government mandate all farms to switch to a closed containment system within five years.

But one week later, Minister of Agriculture and Lands Pat Bell approved an open-net fish farm application for a site off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Bell could not be reached for comment.

"Open-net cages are just a porous transmitter of diseases, infections, waste ... they are an open invitation to predators - all these things could be avoided if the farms moved to closed containment," said Will Soltau, a Living Oceans Society campaigner living in Sointula, B.C.

"I think it's a reluctance of industry to change a system they are comfortable operating with. I think there's a concern that the cost to make the transition would make them uncompetitive in the world market, but that shouldn't preclude BC from developing a made-at-home solution to the problems that we have here."

"The industry is reluctant to make the shift to closed containment - but not just because of cost," says Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the Salmon Farmers' Association. "Current technology for closed systems is such that fish are crowded, swim in their own faeces, and cannot rest because of the pump action used to circulate the water," she explains - something that doesn't happen in open-nets. "We do everything we can to make sure our fish are being raised in a way that is humane and minimizes stress," she says.

Walling also adds closed systems require copious amounts of power, which doesn't make much environmental sense in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Still, DFO acknowledges a transition to a floating closed containment system could be a "significant step forward," but at a substantial cost.

"If you were reasonable and phased it in over 10 years, I'm sure companies would see the value in that, said Brian Riddell," science manager for sea lice research in DFO's Pacific Region.

But closed containment isn't the only way to keep wild salmon safe. In Scotland, for example, the negative impact of sea lice on wild salmon is well documented and regulating agencies have effectively minimized risk to wild stock by removing or emptying farms along key migrations every second year, says SFU marine statistician Rick Routledge.

This is what independent researcher and writer Alexandra Morton has been pushing for all along. "Humanity is starting to believe we can't live in a place without destroying it ... we all know we have to change," she said

Source:Vancouver 24 hours

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