VICTORIA — The plight of British Columbia's endangered wild salmon came first Friday in the decision against renewing licences for 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area off Vancouver Island, says the federal fisheries minister.

Joyce Murray said wild salmon are in serious, long-term decline, with some runs near collapse and the government is making their protection its priority.

The minister said her decision was "difficult," and she spent the afternoon providing her reasons in phone calls to First Nations and industry officials before making the announcement.

"I have to take into account the plight of wild salmon, which are in a state of serious decline," she said in an interview Friday. "I decided this was a situation that deserved very precautious measures and that's why I made the decision not to re-licence the Atlantic salmon aquaculture facilities in the Discovery Islands."

The Discovery Islands area is a key migration route for wild salmon where narrow passages bring migrating juvenile salmon into close contact with the farms, Murray said.

Wild salmon face multiple threats, including climate change, habitat degradation and overfishing, but keeping fish farms out of the Discovery Islands area is a move government can make to lessen their challenges, she said.

Murray also said recent science indicates uncertainty over the risks posed by the farms to wild salmon, and the government is committed to developing a responsible plan to transition away from open-net farming in coastal B.C. waters.

The farms off B.C.'s coast have been a major flashpoint, with environmental groups and some Indigenous nations saying they are linked to the transfer of disease to wild salmon, while the industry and some local politicians say thousands of jobs are threatened if operations are phased out.

"There have been some assessments by DFO that suggest minimal risk and there's also been science since that main assessment that has been suggesting that there may well be risks from the viruses and sea lice from the farms," said Murray.

Feds close 15 fish farms in Discovery Islands to protect wild salmon stocks. #cdnpoli

She said the decision came after extensive consultations with First Nations, the industry and others, and the department is taking a "highly precautionary" approach to managing salmon farming in the area.

"From my perspective, because wild salmon are iconic for British Columbians, First Nations and non-First Nations alike, and that there are those cumulative pressures on wild salmon, I have to not only do everything I can to protect wild salmon through reducing fisheries and rebuilding habitat, I also need to eliminate the risk of additional stressors from salmon aquaculture," said Murray.

B.C.'s First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance issued a statement supporting the decision.

"Minister Murray made a strong decision today and demonstrated great leadership advancing the DFO primary objective of environmental protection and safeguarding wild salmon," said alliance spokesman Bob Chamberlin.

But Murray's decision was not universally applauded.

The Coalition of First Nations Finfish Stewardship, representing some First Nations in the Discovery Islands area, said in a statement the decision does not respect their sovereignty to operate fish farms in their traditional waters.

"First Nations from the coast are trying to find their feet when it comes to reclaiming what was taken away from them by the federal government," said coalition spokesman Dallas Smith. "Whether it's creating marine protected areas or deciding whether they want to host fish farms, coastal nations are trying to take back their inherent rights to manage their traditional waters."

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has said an economic analysis concluded the province could lose more than 4,700 jobs and up to $1.2 billion in economic activity annually if salmon farm licences are not renewed.

It called Murray's decision "devastating" for the coastal communities that rely on the aquaculture sector.

“Local communities have been hurting since the decision to remove the farms was announced in 2020, and thanks to this wilfully uninformed decision announced earlier today, these communities will continue to experience negative socio-economic impacts of an outcome that was based on politics rather than science,” said Brian Kingzett, the association's executive director, in a statement.

The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance also said the decision will cut jobs in rural communities and increase food costs.

"This decision goes against First Nations Reconciliation, increases food costs for Canadians and undermines food security and has broad-reaching implications for employment and economic opportunity for people in rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and our global trading markets," the alliance said in a statement.

Murray's mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasked her with developing the plan to shift from open-net salmon farming in B.C. waters by 2025, while working to introduce Canada's first Aquaculture Act.

Fisheries and Oceans said last summer that open-net salmon farms may continue operating during a consultation process, with the final plan to transition 79 farms expected to be released later in the year.

Former B.C. premier John Horgan sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last March saying there was widespread concern the federal government is poised to make a decision that could threaten hundreds of jobs and the economies of coastal communities.

Murray said the federal government is committed to developing a "responsible plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal B.C. waters."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2023.

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Finally, a federal minister with the backbone to stand up to industry. Hats off to you Minister Murray.

Well done, Joyce Murray!

As always, the devil is in the details. There is still time for the lobbyists to sway the government. It all depends on what will replace the open pen farms. A new Aquaculture Act permitting a different form of salmon farming could save the situation, otherwise we will have a dismal repeat of the Cod crisis. Leaving this decision to the last minute is like tightrope diplomacy - who knows what will happen? Both B.C. and the feds better come up with positive plans on the double.

A cautious decision, but still courageous. And it was made by a West Coast MP who seems to get the consequences of any decision she makes on farms, unlike some ministers from the Prairies and Central Canada in the past who prioritized a limited number of jobs over natural salmon runs. Jobs can transition into other jobs elsewhere. Native salmon species cannot.

It's true that the available science was divided, but the Minister chose to protect the remaining wild stocks in the Discovery archipelago, as is the mandate of the federal government. Industry itself provided funding for a lot that science, so it's not a stretch that their version largely supports industry. Yet the minister, fully acknowledging those reports, chose to protect native salmon in this important area, a first after decades this issue has been in the news. It is expressly not the federal mandate to promote or support private fisheries industry over the carrying capacity of the natural environment, and to allow when the industry to take advantage of the natural ecosystem to the detriment of that system.

I don't buy the notion that salmon farming will die. It is perfectly viable in closed containment on land, even by First Nations. So salmon chowder and fillets will cost 5% more. So what. Here's the Namgis operation on Vancouver Island:

There are others. One in particular operates in the Fraser Valley and uses Pacific Chinook stock fed on a vegetarian and bred insect mash diet (sorry, I can't find the link just yet ...), thus avoiding the issue of massively overfished tropical oceans to produce farmed fish feedstock from smaller and less valuable fish species. Not sure about antibiotics, but if the tank water is well filtered and recycling is directed to agriculture (not back into fish tanks), then the need for pharmaceutical bacterial control may be lowered. It's a natural next step for the feds to offer assistance to private and First Nations farm operations to move to closed containment on land and look at locally produced feedstock.

Alaska has a relatively healthy "wild" salmon fishery, but it is heavily reliant on hatcheries. There is a net loss from continuously diluting genetic diversity, but it still produces enough fish to keep an industry active when salmonid habitat has been logged or otherwise damaged. Habitat rehabilitation needs to form part of a fisheries-related climate action program, not just replanting slopes that should never have been logged in the first place, but in planting alder and other fast-growing tree species next to streams to provide lots of shade.

Adaptation is now a key consideration in yet another endeavour.