The unofficial freeze on new farms killed the Englewood plant in Port McNeill

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
20 April 2007, at 1:00am

CANADA - The closure of the Englewood fish processing plant, Port McNeills largest employer, has focussed attention on what many are complaining is an unwritten, bureaucratic moratorium on salmon-farming expansion.

Batchelor Bay Management owner, chairperson and chief executive officer Don Millerd said in interview that the delays in the approvals process through the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands have now become so serious and so extreme - with some becalmed in the system for more than 10 times the ministry’s service-standard commitment of 140 days - that they might as well be the formal ban fish farm critics and the New Democratic opposition have been recommending.

“I think this was all so avoidable and I’m just very, very sad for the people of Port McNeill,” said Millerd. “I think if the lifting of the moratorium had produced all the sites that were anticipated, there would now be more than enough farms to keep both plants busy.”

Formal or informal, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and revenue have still been lost to the B.C. economy, agrees Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.

Millerd, whose family has been in the salmon-processing industry for 100 years and who had his own canning plant in North Vancouver until 2000, fired the broadside at the government after he was forced to announce to his 120 employees at the Englewood processing plant just south of Port McNeill that the facility would be closing as of June 30, despite being a profitable and highly efficient operation, where wages had risen some 27 percent since Millerd and Stolt Sea Farm (now Marine Harvest Canada) opened the shoreline program just over 10 years ago.

MHC, however, was recently bought by Pan Fish, which decided the farmed fish from the combined operation would be funnelled to its in-housing processing plant in Port Hardy.

MHC stated that all Englewood employees would be offered jobs at Alpha, which is reported to have been running at some 70 percent of its recently-expanded design capacity, and those who chose not to go there would receive additional severance packages beyond statutory requirements.

“I’m just really sad and disappointed,” said Millerd, adding that he fully understands MHC’s need to save money by closing the plant.

He said the industry has been unable to get more than a handful of additional farm sites approved since the official moratorium on new sites was finally removed five years ago.

Both Englewood and Alpha deliberately expanded after the moratorium’s formal removal in anticipation of new opportunities within the industry.

Instead, said Millerd, fear-mongering environmental groups supported by equally alarmist NDP politicians have been allowed to malign what he is convinced is an environmentally sustainable salmon farming industry, making expansion politically unpalatable to the government.

Ironically, said Millerd, some months ago North Island MLA Claire Trevena, an NDP member of the legislative committee on fish farming who has called for a renewed moratorium, virtually accused him of fear-mongering among Englewood staff about the committee’s upcoming report.

The Salmon Farmers Association’s Walling supported Millerd’s suggestion that the whole bottleneck in the approvals process has been enormously damaging to the industry and the general economy as a whole.

She said the process is time-consuming and complex, requiring numerous studies and reports, and can cost anywhere between $150,000 and more than $300,000 per application.

The industry has long stopped expecting the Ministry of Agriculture to meet its 140-day service standard; but she calculates that had all 16 applications still going through the process been given the green light within six months, by now the industry would have spent $48 million in capital investment for infrastructure, most of it going straight into the coastal economy, much in remote and money-short remote communities.

By now those 16 sites would have been yielding fish sales totalling $480 million for the economy.

Six of the 16 fish-farm lease applications have been in the system for more than 1,400 days, and one dates back nearly 1,600 days to December 2002. Even the shortest now exceeds 140 days.“To the people who want the jobs but not more fish farms - this is what happens,” said Millerd. “If you don’t want fish farms, you get consolidation and layoffs. I don’t think it takes rocket scientists to figure that one out.”

Millerd said he puts the blame squarely at the feet of top politicians within Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government for allowing the approval delays to become a de facto moratorium, by not living up to their responsibilities to make sure their personnel complete the approvals process in an expeditious manner.

“I think if you have applications in the pipeline for 10 times longer than your service commitment, I would like to think there would be some politicians that would say, ‘That’s not acceptable and the bureaucracy should smarten up,’” he said.

Agriculture Minister Pat Bell was unavailable for comment on the Englewood closure. The government may be seeking to incite public reaction for new licences.

Just days before the announcement of the Englewood closure, Port Hardy Mayor Hank Bood, Port McNeill Mayor Gerry Furney and other members of the Mount Waddington Regional District board voted with one dissent to appeal to Victoria to remove the de-facto moratorium on new fish farms.