Fin in the News: Federal NDP, Greens call for Fisheries and Oceans Canada to stop promoting salmon farms

Ainslie Cruickshank, Toronto Star, June 6, 2018

In response to an access to information request, the department released documents to the Star this month that show farms were investigated, warned and, in two cases, charged for failing to follow the rules of either the Fisheries Act or their licences. The names of all companies involved were concealed.

"It just shows that they're not willing to be fully transparent," said Fin Donnelly, a B.C. member of Parliament and the NDP's fisheries critic.

The problem, he said, is the dual mandate that tasks the department with both promoting the salmon-farming industry and protecting wild salmon.

"You've got this conflict that exists and so the department is often torn," Donnelly said, adding that it's at the expense of wild salmon.

"They've got to get rid of this dual mandate in order to be able to do their job properly," he said.

Green party leader Elizabeth May agrees, calling it an "inherent conflict of interest."

Instead, the responsibility to promote the industry should fall to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, she said. Fisheries and Oceans Canada could then focus on protecting wild fish stocks, their habitat and the entire marine ecosystem.

During the 2015 election, the Liberals committed to implement the recommendations stemming from Justice Bruce Cohen's commission of inquiry into the decline of the Fraser River sockeye salmon. One of which recommended that Fisheries and Oceans should not be mandated to promote the salmon-farming industry.

"They haven't addressed it; it's been status quo for two and a half years," said Donnelly.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc was not available for an interview Wednesday. Instead, a statement was provided by a spokesperson.

"Our government understands the very real concerns of Canadians around aquaculture, and we are committed to the development of an aquaculture industry that is both ecologically sustainable and economically viable," said Vincent Hughes in a statement.

"We have a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that our aquaculture industry is safe, healthy and ensures the sustainable use of our marine resources," he said.

But May said that Canada doesn't have "strict laws" around open-net pen fish farms, and that if companies are breaking those rules, the public should know about it.

At least, she said, there should be consistency across departments.

Yet, while Environment Canada in at least some cases publishes notifications that charges have been filed against companies for environmental infractions, Fisheries and Oceans Canada media relations refused again Wednesday to release the names of salmon farms charged since 2016 when asked by the Star.

May's and Donnelly's concerns about the dual mandate extend beyond what the department is or isn't telling the public.

"Farming is by nature disease management, whether it's on land or in the water, but in the water it's even harder to manage disease," Donnelly said.

While the industry has improved its management over the last few decades, issues with parasites and disease remain, he said. Operating in open water means wild salmon and ecosystems could be at risk as well.

"More data all the time is coming out about the spread of viruses, the spread of sea lice," said May.

While she called the government's recent changes to the Fisheries Act "fantastic," noting they fortified the department's commitment to protect fish habitat, they don't address the issues with aquaculture, she said.

And a recent report by federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand found Fisheries and Oceans Canada has failed to adequately manage the risks the industry poses for wild stocks.

"This is not even an issue of transparency( )( )

Hughes, the minister's spokesperson, said, "Canadians rightly expect that aquaculture practices and technology should minimize impacts on wild fish and the environment."

"This is why our government has asked Canada's Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, to lead an expert panel to look at how we use science to protect our waters as we make decisions on aquaculture."

"We will continue to work to ensure that Canada's aquaculture industry is a global leader in producing high-quality aquaculture products in an environmentally sustainable manner," he said.

Both Donnelly and May want to see the industry move to land-based farms.

"The fact that Washington has now banned open-net pens in their state is a game changer," said Donnelly.

"I'm hoping that industry will decide to see the writing on the wall and work with government to make the needed changes to be a world leader in (in closed containment technology)."