Canada has an inconsistent stance on fish farms - why?

Scroll down to continue

If they ignore the open-net pen salmon farm outside their front window, Brian Muldoon and Stan Wentzell say their ocean view is the best thing about living on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Although the couple loves watching the waves crash on the rocks and clouds roll in on the horizon, the fish farm amplifies their fears for the natural environment. They worry about the farm’s impact on wild fish, other marine life and the local ecosystem.

In Atlantic Canada, the fish farm industry is on the precipice of a boom. Nova Scotia could see a four-fold increase in open-net pen salmon farming, and significant expansion is planned along the south coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

It’s the opposite story on the other side of the country, where fish farms in British Columbia have been shutting down following decades of opposition from many First Nations, scientists and other opponents who point to research showing the farms exacerbate the spread of sea lice and pathogens that contribute to plummeting wild Pacific salmon stocks.

Brian Muldoon and Stan Wentzell. Photo by Cloe Logan / Canada's National Observer

This contrasting approach to fish farming is due in part to a years-old court case which led to a discrepancy in who calls the shots in the two regions. In British Columbia, the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has shared jurisdiction and ultimate decision-making power over fish farming, whereas in Atlantic waters, it is solely a provincial responsibility.

The federal government has a plan to phase out open net pen fish farming in B.C. by 2025, based on a 2019 election promise from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In B.C., there have already been closures of fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago and the Discovery Islands: areas between Vancouver Island and the mainland, where there is strong pressure from First Nations and environmentalists to get the farms out of the water.

In 2017, the ‘Namgis and other First Nations occupied fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago, demanding they leave their territory. In 2018, an agreement was struck between the ‘Namgis, the Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa’mis and Mamalilikulla First Nations with the B.C. government requiring Indigenous consent for fish farms to operate in their territories.

The agreement is “the first of its kind in British Columbia. And one of the first ones where the Indigenous people had real input,” explained Don Svanvik, a hereditary chief of the ‘Namgis First Nation. It led to 10 fish farm closures between 2019 and 2022. The remaining seven farms in the area were ordered to close in April after years of monitoring by the First Nation.

In February, Then-fisheries minister Joyce Murray reaffirmed a previous decision to close 15 farms in the Discovery Islands because of their potential to harm wild salmon stocks. The Discovery Islands area south of the Broughton Archipelago is a vital migratory pathway for juvenile Fraser River salmon species.

Murray, whose mandate letter included working “on a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025,” delayed her decision on the fate of the remaining farms in June to allow more time for consultation. According to DFO, there are 82 active salmon aquaculture licenses in the province, which are set to expire in June 2024, down from 116 in 2019.

Decisions from the feds have met with pushback: The minister’s decision on the Discovery Islands fish farm closures is being challenged in court by industry, which cites research that highlights fish farms don’t pose a risk to wild salmon.

In March, the We Wai Kai Nation (Cape Mudge Indian Band) and Wei Kai Kum First Nation (Campbell River Indian Band) applied for a judicial review of the federal government's Discovery Islands decision not to reissue aquaculture licences to farms in their because they want to decide if fish farms should operate in their territories.

Now, Diane Lebouthillier has replaced Murray as fisheries minister after July’s cabinet shuffle, and fish farm opponents are pressuring her to keep her predecessor's commitment.

If the fate of the West Coast salmon farming industry is murky, it’s full steam ahead in the Atlantic. The federal government’s decision on fish farms in B.C. and its stand-back approach to aquaculture expansion in the Atlantic make no sense, said Neville Crabbe, an expert with the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a group that works to “conserve and restore wild salmon and wild rivers.”

“We look at what's happening in B.C. and we rip our hair out,” he said. “...The focus deserves to be here as much as it deserves to be there.”

Chapter 1

The East, West disconnect

Scroll down to continue

The reason the federal government can order fish farm closures in B.C. is due to a 2009 Supreme Court of British Columbia ruling, which split the responsibility for aquaculture between the province and the federal government.

The game-changing case, brought forward by biologist Alexandra Morton, argued it was unconstitutional to allow the province to monitor the farms, which were then classified as agriculture. The court ruled fish farms are actually a fishery, making them a federal responsibility.

On the heels of the ruling in 2012, the federal government published a report from the Cohen Commission, a group tasked with probing the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon. A key recommendation from the commission was to cap production at the Discovery Islands fish farms until 2020 to find out if fish farms are harming wild salmon. The report went on to say if the minister of the day finds the farms pose “at most minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye,” the farms should close.

The Cohen Commission, combined with the jurisdictional power provided by the court case, paved the way for the Liberals’ Discovery Islands decision.

On Canada’s East Coast there have been no such legal challenges. Jurisdiction over open-net pen salmon farms remains with the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. Greg McDade, the lawyer on Morton’s 2009 case, explained one province’s court decision doesn’t automatically apply countrywide.

“The findings of a B.C. judge are supposed to be persuasive in other provinces, but they're not binding. So they can legally ignore it unless somebody brings a case … which I've been quite surprised no one has done,” he said.

Chapter 2

State of wild salmon

Scroll down to continue

Wild salmon stocks are struggling on both coasts. In the Atlantic, the inner Bay of Fundy population of Atlantic salmon has been returning in numbers as low as 100 in recent years, and is listed as endangered. Overall, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) estimates a total of between 400,000 and 700,000 Atlantic salmon have returned since 1995. There has been a full moratorium on the commercial Atlantic salmon fishery on the East Coast since 2000, and while Indigenous communities have a right to fish for food, social, or ceremonial purposes, many have voluntarily stopped fishing altogether.

In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, the DFO said the five species of salmon on the West Coast — coho, chum, pink, spring and sockeye — are in “serious, long-term decline, with some runs on the verge of collapse, and the Government of Canada must do what it can to ensure their survival.”

The health of salmon runs differs across B.C. Fraser River returns, for example, have been especially poor: in a statement, DFO said approximately 6.8 million of the 9.8 million forecasted sockeye salmon returned to the river in 2022. Other rivers in the province have experienced shockingly low numbers: the Neekas River north of Bella Bella saw 750 salmon return in 2021 compared to the norm of 47,000 half a century ago. However, 2023 pink salmon returns exceeded expectations, which some say could be the result of the Discovery Island farms closing.

Warming waters from climate change, overfishing, habitat loss and more have impacted the fish, explained Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance and member of the Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation in the Broughton Archipelago. For example, in 2021, researchers at the University of British Columbia found 85 per cent of the historical floodplain habitat for salmon in the lower Fraser River, a vital spawning ground, has been lost.

Atlantic salmon have been dwindling due to similar stressors brought on by dams, habitat loss, overfishing and climate change, and groups like the Atlantic Salmon Foundation (ASF) are researching how fish farms have further impacted populations. In the Magaguadavic River in New Brunswick in 2017, for example, the ASF found no Atlantic salmon for the first time since it began monitoring the river in 1992.

The number of stressors on Pacific salmon is overwhelming, said Chamberlin, noting there are few ways to immediately lessen the burden on fish. The most obvious, as far as Chamberlin is concerned: close down fish farms.

“[People] say to me, ‘You're anti-fish farm.’ I say, ‘No, I'm pro-wild salmon.’ [The Cohen commission] said there were many different stressors, and I want to focus on all of them.”

On the West Coast, sea lice are billed as the biggest threat to salmon by those opposed to fish farms. Although sea lice are naturally occurring, research shows they spread and multiply more easily when salmon live close to each other in fish farms. They’re a common problem in ocean-based farms where farmed fish can spread lice to wild stock. Smolts, which are young salmon leaving for the ocean, are especially vulnerable to sea lice, and although pesticides are used when an outbreak occurs, the lice are becoming resistant.

Sea lice are also a concern on the East Coast, but an information gap makes it difficult to know the scope of the problem, explained Sean Godwin, a researcher who studies Pacific salmon. In B.C., raw data on sea lice at farms is posted by the federal government. The Atlantic provinces don't publicly report sea lice counts, said Godwin, but he notes there have been outbreaks.

A sea louse on a pink salmon. Photo by Watershed Watch Salmon Society via Flickr (CC BYNC-ND 2.0)

Interbreeding between farmed and wild salmon is a concern unique to Atlantic waters, Godwin said.

East Coast fish farms have Atlantic salmon alongside the same wild species, which means they can interbreed in the event of farmed fish escape, he said.

“As these populations are changed genetically, the ability of these populations to respond to climate change or other stressors is being impacted … these populations have adapted to their environments for 10,000 years,” added Ian Bradbury, lead researcher with the DFO.

When biologists from the DFO studied rivers in Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, they found 17 out of 18 rivers had interbred fish. In an interview, Bradbury said the department has monitored juvenile salmon since 2014 for evidence of interbreeding “and we very quickly started detecting offspring,” he said.

Bradbury said DFO modelling shows there are short-term impacts to populations, but more importantly, the long-term health of the wild Atlantic salmon is “likely being affected.”

Industry shoots down the department’s research on interbreeding and disputes claims that aquaculture harms wild fish in general. Susan Farquharson, executive director for the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association, and Joel Richardson, vice-president of public relations at Atlantic Canada’s Cooke Aquaculture, call the decision to shut down fish farms in B.C. “political,” rather than based on science.

“I've lived in the bay all of my life and worked in the traditional fishery and various areas of bay management and I strongly believe in fish farming,” said Farquharson, who stressed the economic benefits and the contribution to food security.

As far as the overall health of Atlantic salmon, Richardson says a multitude of stressors are to blame, and that closing fish farms in the West has just led to job loss in rural communities “where fewer other opportunities exist.”

According to Richardson, if the federal government was serious about protecting salmon, then they would address the issue of dams blocking salmon from moving in rivers; habitat loss from development; pollution and more.

At the same time, the federal government hasn’t expressed concerns about aquaculture on the east coast.

According to a press release put out by the Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers in July, Murray “reiterated that the implementation of a federal plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters will not extend to Eastern Canada." The release said Murray “expressed her support for a sustainably managed aquaculture industry, and recognized that aquaculture is a legitimate user of the waters in Eastern Canada.”

Chapter 3

Salmon and First Nations

Scroll down to continue

Salmon has cultural significance to First Nations on both coasts. In British Columbia, over 100 First Nations vehemently oppose the aquaculture industry and are not shy about saying so, Chamberlin said.

There are also supporters, such as the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship. First Nations that support salmon farms are entitled to make economic decisions in their territories and failing to renew operating licences violates the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Dallas Smith, coalition spokesperson and member of the Tlowitsis Nation, told Canada’s National Observer in 2022.

While DFO acknowledges “salmon have been a staple of Indigenous communities on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for generations,” Dorene Bernard, a Mi'kmaq Grassroots Grandmother from Sipekne’katik First Nation, stresses that Mi'kmaq can’t access Atlantic salmon like they once did.

“They have been a staple food for our people for over 13,000 years. We even have salmon in our clans …It's in our stories, they are part of us,” she said.

Bernard opposes fish farms but stresses she is a “Mi'kmaq grandmother speaking her mind” and doesn’t speak on behalf of a First Nation. Indigenous opposition to fish farming on the East Coast is more muted than in B.C.: no Mi'kmaq First Nation has publicly rallied against it. But Bernard says that doesn’t mean Indigenous Peoples on the East Coast support the industry, and she hopes communities in the East can learn from the West.

“We need to embrace those teachings …When you see something that's going wrong, you use that to do better. Bringing that here to the Atlantic region and doing the same thing will get the same results,” she said.

Chapter 4

Looking to the future

Scroll down to continue

In Nova Scotia, the aquaculture industry has proposed more salmon farms in Digby, on the Bay of Fundy, and in Liverpool, a small community on the province’s south shore. While the government recently announced a pause on new applications for fish farms until it wraps up a campaign promise to map which areas are best suited for aquaculture, the moratorium does not apply to applications already put forward.

Douglas Frantz looking at documents. Photo by Cloe Logan/Canada's National Observer

In nearby Lunenburg, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins have become immersed in the fight against fish farms. They moved to the south shore after careers in journalism and private investigating and immediately became consumed by the fish farm industry. After attending a community meeting in nearby Mahone Bay, they started writing a book, Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish, which came out last year.

Although the book spans countries, Collins said some of the most shocking information she came across was in Atlantic Canada — such as in 2019, when Newfoundland saw almost half of its aquaculture salmon die off due to warm water temperatures. Pictures circulated of a boat dumping dead fish debris into the ocean.

She stresses that there is another way: land-based fish farms, where salmon have no chance of escape and don’t spread sea lice and other diseases. In Burlington, on Nova Scotia’s north shore, a company called Sustainable Blue currently produces salmon on land without antibiotics or growth hormones, according to its website. Meanwhile, new research from Alexandra Morton found a huge decrease in sea lice numbers following the decline of fish farms in the Discovery Islands.

While you can’t buy fresh Atlantic salmon at the fish market anymore, nor catch it yourself, Collins remembers a childhood in the region with her father bringing home the fresh, wild fish and her family eating it together for dinner. It’s hard to imagine now, but it wasn’t long ago that wild salmon thrived in the East., she said. Collins believes expanding aquaculture is akin to giving up on the wild population for good.

“I guess it just shocks me that people can see images like what came out of Newfoundland and that nothing gets done. The cynicism that we've encountered in this has been really disturbing. I mean, I tend to be fairly positive. It's been a real eye-opener,” she said.

“I mean, what's good for the West Coast should be good for the East Coast.”

— With files from Rochelle Baker

Chapter 1 photo of a Kelly Cove Salmon (Cooke Aquaculture) fish farm at Rattling Beach in the Annapolis Basin by Simon Ryder-Burbidge
Chapter 2 photo of an Atlantic Salmon in New Brunswick by Matt Hinsta via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)
Chapter 3 photo of water by Conor Sexton via Unsplash
Chapter 4 photo of Tyson Marsel holding a male sockeye salmon while collecting milt — salmon sperm — for the Okanagan Nation Alliance's kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ fish hatchery by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Canada's National Observer

This story has been updated to clarify that sea lice counts in B.C. are posted by the federal government and to include information from a press release from the Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers.