In a major victory for wild salmon and its defenders, the Canadian government said on Dec. 17 it is ordering a phase-out all of the salmon farms near British Columbia’s Discovery Islands by June of 2022.

“This is a battle we have been waging for decades,” said Vital Choice founder and former fisherman Randy Hartnell. “I am overjoyed that the wild fish will finally be protected.”

“I absolutely did not expect this. After 35 years of disastrous decisions, this is the biggest, best thing that could possibly have been done,” said Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist who has long battled B.C. fish farms based on her observations of dwindling wild salmon stocks she said were due to the fish farms.

The decision has no direct impact on Vital Choice’s wild salmon products, nearly all of which are sourced in Alaskan waters, as Alaska already does not permit salmon farming. But it is heartening to those who regard North American salmon runs as precious resources in need of protection, especially since those runs are tied to the health of larger ecosystems in complex ways.

The order was especially important to the seven First Nations - Homalco, Klahoose, K’ómoks, Kwaikah, Tla’amin, We Wai Kai, and Wei Wai Kum – who consulted with the government on the decision.

“The First Nations stepped in because they had lost their wild fish,” due to interference such as parasitic sea lice escaping from the farms to the wild-fish populations, Morton said. “They tried being patient, but once they decided something was killing off the salmon, their action was just spectacular – it came from the deep connection they have with the salmon in their diet and culture.”

Morton, who consults with tribal leaders, said there is no doubt that “It was really the First Nations that made the difference.”

A Gradual Draw-Down

Stating that the decision was “not easy,” Canadian Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said she would work closely with First Nations, the fish-farm industry, and the province of British Columbia to ensure a “fair and orderly transition” to a phase-out of the farms near the Discovery Islands by June 30, 2022.

“I am very impressed with Minister Jordan,” said Morton. “She did what no other minister was willing to do.”

Discovery Islands
The Discovery Islands, between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland, consist of 10 relatively untamed islands popular with kayakers and hikers. Environmentalists hope the departure of nearby salmon farms will revitalize the local ecosystem.

The Discovery Islands archipelago is located between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. There are 19 fish farms in the region, but only 10 are currently operating, according to CTV News of Vancouver Island, B.C.

Most of the 19 salmon farms there are owned by three companies: Mowi Canada West, Grieg Seafoods Ltd., and Cermaq Canada Ltd.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association said in a statement that the decision comes “at a bad time, during a pandemic when local food supply and good local jobs have never been more important.”

But the location of the net-pens is a migratory bottleneck, biologists and environmentalists say, with narrow channels that bring migrating schools of wild salmon too close to their penned brethren. That, they say, leads to parasites and disease that pass from the farms to the schools, causing wild stocks to dwindle.

The timing of the decision allows the three million fish now in the pens to be harvested for profit rather than killed outright, a move that will soften the financial blow to farms. An estimated 80 percent of the fish in the pens will be gone by April 2021.

Darren Blaney, chief of the Homalco Nation, told the Victorian, BC newspaper Times Colonist that “It feels like it’s been such a long time, you know, to watch our salmon dwindle and dwindle and our community get less and less food each year, it was hard to bear.”

The Homolco are known as the “people of the rapids” with profound historical and cultural links to the wild salmon runs.

Excited for the future

So can the wild salmon recover?

“I am excited about the fact that the most critical area, the Okisollo Channel, will be devoid of salmon farms for the first time since 1991,” said Morton. “Not all of the fish will recover and return to their spawning grounds,“ such as some of the sockeye salmon that are native to the smallest Fraser River tributaries. “We pushed them to the edge. But generally, salmon are resilient. I am really looking forward to observing their return.”

Morton said she expects other Canadian First Nations to be encouraged by the Discovery Islands victory. There are still over 100 fish farms in B.C. waters. “We have really babied this industry, but I think this decision indicates that time is possibly coming to an end. Many people are watching this.”

Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist and consultant to First Nations in their efforts to protect wild salmon stocks. To support her work, visit www.alexandramorton.ca. 

Sources:

Discovery Islands salmon farms to be phased out of existence over next 18 months | CBC News. (2020, December 18). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/salmon-farms-discovery-islands-closing-1.5845502

Island, C. (2020, December 18). Feds to phase out all Discovery Islands fish farms in 2022. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://vancouverisland.ctvnews.ca/feds-to-phase-out-all-discovery-islands-fish-farms-in-2022-1.5236221

Smart, A. (2020, December 18). Fish farms in Discovery Islands to be phased out by July 2022. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/fish-farms-in-discovery-islands-to-be-phased-out-by-july-2022-1.24256982