The Canadian decision will come first. The majority of British Columbia’s 105 licenses for open-air Atlantic salmon farms expire on June 30, and Joyce Murray, Canada’s Minister for Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, must decide by then whether to renew them. and if so, how long. But even if they are renewed, it would be a temporary respite for salmon farmers. The Canadian government has already committed to phasing out open-water salmon farming in British Columbia by 2025.
In Washington, Hilary Franz, the commissioner of public lands, ponders the fate of the state’s two remaining leases. One expired back in March and is currently running month-to-month pending litigation, while the other expires in November. These farms currently contain steelhead trout, not salmon. Farming non-native fish was banned in Washington after a net pen collapsed in 2017, releasing hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into the Pacific.
Emma Helverson, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, a conservation organization based in Seattle, Washington, says the coincidence of the two decisions in the same year presents an exciting opportunity for wild salmon conservation. “Here we have two leaders on either side of the border who have the power to make a decision that would remove a key limiting factor in wild salmon recovery,” she says.
Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist and scientific advisor to the ‘Namǥis First Nation, says the farms are a huge source of parasitic sea lice, viruses and bacteria that ravage wild populations. “The damage is catastrophic and there is nothing the industry can do about it,” she says.
To their credit, salmon farmers have tried to reduce the spread of pathogens from their farms, Morton says. Aquaculture companies, for example, have introduced specially designed boats to treat salmon with chemical baths or power scrubbers for lice. But “the farms just can’t suppress the sea lice,” says Morton.
In March, for example, when wild salmon were busy migrating through the area, fish on two farms in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound had five times the number of lice required by law. In contrast, after 19 farms were removed from the Discovery Islands area in 2020, Morton saw migrating wild salmon free of lice for the first time in decades. (A court decision means the licenses for those 19 farms are back on the table and their fate is included in the minister’s forthcoming decision.)
Morton says that while she would prefer the farms to close immediately, an optimal pragmatic outcome would be if Murray renewed the salmon farms’ licenses by 2025, when the transition away from net pens is supposed to happen anyway but doesn’t allow the farms, to store new fish in the stables after September 2022. “If the minister goes part way and allows even a few more stocking cycles, there will be extinctions [of wild runs],” she says. “Half measures won’t save these fish.”
However, Michelle Franze, manager of communications, partnerships and community at the BC Salmon Farmers Association, argues that the industry has taken strong measures to reduce the risks that open-farmed fish pose to wild salmon, such as: These include rigorous testing to ensure only disease-free farmed juvenile salmon enter the ocean, vaccination against common pathogens and improved monitoring of sea lice during the juvenile salmon migration period. Franze says the association also supports wild salmon research and invests in infrastructure and processes to optimize the containment of farmed salmon.
Additionally, Franze points out that formal reviews by scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada have concluded that open-net salmon aquaculture in British Columbia poses “minimal risk” to wild salmon. (These ratings are controversial among salmon experts.) She also says aquaculture is an important economic driver for remote coastal communities in the province. A BC Salmon Farmers Association report found that the industry generated CA$1.6 billion in economic output in 2019 and employed more than 6,000 people.
In Washington, without a government commitment to phase out outdoor enclosures, environmentalists are taking a different approach: They are competing directly with industry for the leases. Wild Fish Conservancy and its partners have submitted their own bids for the leases, offering the state fair market value to undertake a large-scale conservation project and restore public access to the leased areas. According to Helverson, their offerings are more aligned with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ mandated goals of protecting the environment and promoting public use.
Neither Morton nor Helverson want to see the end of salmon farming altogether. Around the world, companies are using approaches other than outdoor enclosures to raise salmon, such as B. closed containment farms or raising fish in tanks on land. However, Morton says industry in Canada and the United States has shown little interest in these approaches. But if adopted, Helverson says it would allow aquaculture to continue without endangering the health of wild fish populations. “It’s a way to eliminate all risk to the ecosystem and create a green economy that we can be proud of,” says Helverson.
This story was produced for Hakai Magazine on June 22, 2022.