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Carol Linnitt | Desmog Canada

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‘What’s happening in Washington State is really exciting for those of us trying to get farms out of the water in B.C. for the last two decades,’ says Aaron Hill of Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

Photo by Tavish Campbell.

Fish farm opponents and proponents alike are waiting with bated breath as a bill to phase out open-net aquaculture farms in Washington State sits on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk for final approval.

If Inslee signs the bill, it would mean the end of farmed Atlantic salmon reared in net pens in every jurisdiction on the west coast of North America — except British Columbia. Alaska practises a controversial form of salmon ranching, but the state, along with California and Oregon, does not allow open-net fish farm operations.

As pressure mounts on Washington State, where a mere 10 fish farms are in operation, attention has turned to British Columbia where more than 100 fish farms dot the southern and central coasts.

B.C. mulls moving fish farms with expired tenures — but where?

The B.C. government is currently considering whether or not to renew the tenure of 22 operations, 18 of which are clustered in the Broughton Archipelago, a narrow wild salmon migratory route between the mainland and Vancouver Island where many local First Nations have historically opposed the aquaculture industry.

A spokesperson from Inslee’s office told DeSmog Canada the governor has “publicly stated that he supports removing non-native fish from Washington state waters.”

“As fish don’t respect man-made borders, it would likely have an impact on British Columbia,” the emailed statement said. “However, the governor’s office believes that B.C. should do what is best for the province.”

B.C. Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Doug Donaldson told DeSmog Canada “we’re aware of what is happening in Washington state, which does not affect the process we’re following in B.C.”  

“We’re committed to wild salmon,” the minister said in an emailed statement. “We’re engaged with First Nations on a government-to-government basis to address concerns that First Nations have with fish farms in their territories.”

The Washington initiative has heartened opponents of open-net fish farms in B.C.

“What’s happening in Washington State is really exciting for those of us trying to get farms out of the water in B.C. for the last two decades,” said Aaron Hill, executive director and ecologist with Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

“There’s growing evidence that fish farms spread diseases and parasites to wild salmon, and the Washington State government has recognized that and they’ve taken real action that we need B.C. to follow suit with.”

Hill said some B.C. politicians have floated the idea of moving the fish farm tenures to ocean areas outside the Broughton Archipelago, which he said isn’t a true solution.

“Sure, you’d get these fish farms out of these migratory choke points, but they’d still be out there spreading diseases and viruses in someone else’s territory.”

When asked if the B.C. government is considering relocating farmed fish operations from the Broughton Archipelago to alternate locations, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development provided a statement saying “the province is concerned about protecting wild salmon and the migratory routes that they use and is interested in moving to closed containment where feasible.”

The state of B.C.’s salmon stocks

Pressure escalated in Washington State in August after a net at a fish farm owned by the Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture failed, releasing more than 240,000 farmed Atlantic salmon, considered an invasive species, into the Pacific.

In February a multi-agency investigation into the incident found Cooke Aquaculture failed to adequately maintain its nets, which were burdened with 100 tonnes of mussels and debris, showing a “reckless disregard” for the state’s waters and people.

The report was swiftly followed by proposed legislation to phase out the industry.

State Sen. Kevin Ranker, a Democrat, said Washington’s efforts will be less effective if B.C. doesn’t follow suit.

“The salmon, the orca whale, the ecosystem doesn’t recognize the international boundary,” Ranker told the Canadian Press.

“So what we have to do is manage our transboundary region in a responsible way. And I hope Washington state will pass this legislation and move in this direction and I hope that British Columbia will do the same.”

In B.C., where wild salmon stocks have been in a precipitous decline for several years, critics say not enough has been done to monitor stocks and eliminate threats.

The 2012 Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, headed by Justice Bruce Cohen, cost taxpayers more than $37 million and made 75 recommendations designed to save wild salmon runs after the disastrous 2009 sockeye run.

But according to Watershed Watch Salmon Society, very few of those recommendations have been acted on, including the inquiry’s call for removal of fish farms from the Inside Passage if they’re found to represent even a minimal risk to wild salmon.

“There’s this huge range of threats to our salmon runs and the viruses and parasites from salmon farms are something we can actually do something about. We can actually remove that threat,” Hill said.

“It’s not the only thing. It’s not a silver bullet but it’s an important thing we can do.”

Fish Farms Expose Wild Salmon to Deadly Virus, Study Finds READ MORE

Stan Proboszcz, science and campaign advisor with Watershed Watch, said the need to help wild stocks rebound is becoming more urgent.

“Just look at the recent announcement with regard to Fraser sockeye: eight of the 24 populations are listed as endangered. Those fish swim directly through the migratory bottleneck that is filled with salmon farms that amplify parasites and diseases.”

“Removing salmon farms from wild salmon migration routes would go a long way.”

Proboszcz pointed to a 2008 bipartisan provincial report that recommended the aquaculture industry be transitioned to closed containment pens.

“I think the biggest barrier, to be quite honest, is political leadership — and not just currently but for a long time.”

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