Fisheries department doing too little to protect wild fish from salmon farms, federal audit finds

The audit found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada is not doing enough to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

The federal government isn’t doing enough to protect wild fish from threats posed by salmon farming in Atlantic Canada and British Columbia, according to a new report from the federal environment commissioner.

The audit found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been slow to study the effects of Canada’s $1 billion salmon-farming industry on wild fish, and is not doing enough to prevent the spread of infectious disease. The department has failed to put limits on the amount of drugs and pesticides that salmon farms can use, and has limited capacity to enforce its own regulations, the report concluded.

“I suggest that the department is at risk of being seen to be promoting aquaculture over the protection of wild fish,” environment commissioner Julie Gelfand told reporters in a news conference Tuesday. 

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said he accepts all the commissioner’s recommendations. “I don’t think there should be any confusion that our government’s primary responsibility is to regulate in a safe way all of these activities and to ensure that there’s no harmful interaction with wild salmon populations or other species,” he told reporters in Ottawa. 

The audit comes amid debate over the future of salmon farming in B.C., after Washington State decided earlier this year to phase out open-net fish farms due to an incident that saw more than 250,000 Atlantic salmon escape into Pacific waters last summer. 

Gelfand’s report, released Tuesday morning, found a number of deficiencies in the department’s oversight of the industry, including a lack of long-term funding for research on the effects of aquaculture on wild fish. The department has also conducted only one of 10 risk assessments of key diseases that it committed in 2015 to complete by 2020, and is not monitoring the health of wild fish. That lack of research, Gelfand said, means “we therefore really don’t know the impacts” of fish farming on wild salmon. 

The report also found that “key elements were missing” from the government’s measures to prevent the spread of disease from farmed fish to wild populations. The department’s audit program of B.C. fish farms, for example, hasn’t been updated since 2006 and may not address new diseases. 

"The department has also failed to develop national standards for nets and anchoring systems to prevent fish escapes."

The audit pointed out that the fisheries department hasn’t set limits for drug and pesticide deposits in open-net pens, and doesn’t require companies to monitor whether wild populations are harmed after their use. The department has also failed to develop national standards for nets and anchoring systems to prevent fish escapes, according to the report.

The auditors also found that the department lacks the capacity to enforce its own regulations. In Atlantic Canada, no new officers were hired after new aquaculture regulations came into force in 2015. In B.C., enforcement officers have limited options to deal with non-compliance. They can give out warning letters to companies, for instance, but cannot issue fines.

“Our audit revealed significant deficiencies,” Gelfand told reporters. “It makes me seriously worried.”

Farmed salmon were identified as a potential threat to wild fish by the Cohen Commission, which published a 2012 report on the decline of sockeye salmon in B.C.’s Fraser River. The commission raised concerns about the fisheries department’s dual role to promote and regulate aquaculture, and recommended that promotion of salmon farming should be removed from the department’s mandate. 

LeBlanc said he’s “wide open” to discussing the department’s role, but said some Atlantic provinces appreciate the federal department’s work to promote the industry. “I’m not going to pretend there’s a consistent opinion about this across the country,” he said. 

Tony Allard, chair of the B.C.-based organization Wild Salmon Forever, said LeBlanc needs to “put wild salmon first.” In an email, he said he’s “confident we are going to see leadership from Minister LeBlanc to clean this up.”

But others caution that it’s very difficult to study the effects of fish farms on wild salmon. Anthony Farrell, chair of sustainable aquaculture at the University of British Columbia, said salmon disperse widely in the ocean and most die naturally, so it’s hard to know how they’re affected by diseases or parasites from farmed fish. 

“It’s an almost intractable problem,” he said. “You could throw billions of dollars at it and I’m not sure that you’d get all the answers that you wanted.”

B.C.’s NDP government is now facing a decision about 22 provincial fish farm tenures coming up for renewal in June, many of which are opposed by some First Nations. Last month, Doug Donaldson, provincial minister of natural resources, told the CBC the government is interested in seeing the industry move toward land-based, closed systems instead of open-net pens. 

Ian Roberts, a member of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said his industry is open to the idea, but added there are no commercially viable land-based systems in existence today. He said fish farm operators are “willing to negotiate, compromise and find solutions” with First Nations, including relocating some farms. But he believes Canada has an “obligation” to grow seafood, in part to keep pressure off wild fish. Canada is the fourth-largest producer of farmed salmon in the world. 

“There’s really no debate anymore about ‘Should we be salmon farming?’” he said in an interview. “Really, the debate is ‘How do we do it best?’”

Maurra Forrest

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