Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Salmon farming committee dodged key question

The legislative committee on salmon farming was supposed to set out a direction for the controversial industry.
But after almost 18 months of work, community meetings and more than 800 written submissions, the committee members chickened out. They failed to answer the critical question about the industry's future.
People who don't live on the coast might wonder why they should care. The industry provides about 1,500 jobs and generates about $370 million in economic activity, significant but not huge.
But a long battle involving commercial and sport salmon fishermen, environmentalists, industry, First Nations, communities and politicians could cause damage that reaches far beyond the coast.
The issue has been around for more than decade. The NDP government struggled with it, then commissioned a scientific review that said the industry could operate safely in B.C. But it still allowed only limited growth. The Liberals were more enthusiastic and the industry expanded significantly.
So did criticism, especially after research showed sea lice populations from the farms were a risk to migrating young wild salmon.
In the 2005 election, the Liberals lost every riding where the industry operated. Which lead to the committee. Premier Gordon Campbell established it and gave New Democrat MLAs a majority. Clever trap, said some. Pragmatic response to the issue, said others. It doesn't matter who was right.
The committee came up with useful recommendations. It proposed a ban on salmon farms north of the tip of Vancouver Island, a proposal that seems to be supported along the north coast, where wild salmon stocks support commercial fishing and tourism. It called for better rules to reduce the sea-lice problem and more independent enforcement of all regulations.
But when it came to the big salmon farming issue, the committee bailed.
Salmon farms keep the fish in net pens in the ocean. That's the accepted model and the cheapest approach, an important factor when salmon farms around the world are producing the same product. But excess feed and waste fall to the ocean floor, there's no barrier between the farmed Atlantic salmon and the environment and escapes and sea lice are problems.
The committee concluded the risks are too high and called for an end to salmon farming using open-net pens.
One alternative would be closed containment systems on land - big swimming pools for salmon. But that would be expensive, energy-intensive and create waste problems. And, no one on the world is doing it. The committee rejected the idea.
Another option is closed-containment pens in the ocean, not watertight but with much reduced contact between farmed salmon and the environment.
Again, though, there are problems. The industry says it would be a much more costly way to raise the salmon. Buyers would turn to other countries, most likely Chile's growing aquaculture sector.
The committee's solution was pull out a magic wand. Presto, an effective closed containment system would be developed within three years. Abracadbra, the fish farms would all be using the new system within five years.
Instead of magic dust, money would be sprinkled about. Provincial and federal governments should subsidize the research, the report said, and provincial taxpayers should help pay for the company's conversion costs.
That all seems a little casual. How much money to develop the technology? And where's the business case for spending that money, or helping out the companies' shareholders?
That's not even the big problem. The committee says open-net pens are unacceptable. But it acknowledges there is no viable alternative today. A strong research effort should see solutions in place within three years, it says.
Perhaps. But what if that doesn't work?
Ron Cantelon, the Liberal deputy chair of the committee, said the recommendations would kill the industry. A little precipitous in leaping to judgment, but it raises the question.
If the choices are open-net pens or no industry, which would the committee reluctantly accept?
That question needed to be answered.
Footnote: The government hasn't said what it plans to do with the report, but it's likely to be ignored. That would be unfortunate. Despite the failure to tackle the big issue head-on, the committee offered useful recommendations in a number of other areas. Even the proposal to move to ocean-based closed containment merits proper assessment.


Anonymous said...

It's not as hare-brained as it sounds when you consider the significant impacts of eco-certification and market boycott campaigns -- the Feds are righfully worried about that. If BC could pull it off, we'd have a huge marketing advantage for our farmed fish AND an opportunity to recoup the investment by marketing our closed-containment technology to the rest of the world. And we'd keep the folks up north happy and able to continue to reap benefits of commercial & sport fishing tourism AND polish BC's "green" image. It sounds like win-win for everyone - I think the NDP committee has given the Premier political gold on a platter.

Anonymous said...

Either way Gordon can tell us it was his idea. Even if the closed system isn't yet build, it should be no big deal to do so. The companies don't want to spend the money, is the reason for foot dragging.It's not rocket science , there has been flusing systems since a guy named Crapper build the firts indoor toilet.
But to get a lot of us to eat the fish will require modification of the food supply and less drugs. But a great maount of the present stuff is sold offshore anyway.

Anonymous said...

Globe and Mail reports this evening that the BC government just allowed another fish farm on west side of Vancouver island.
so much for committees. Gordo does what he wants.

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