Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Court Upholds Discovery Islands Salmon Farm Closures

July 8, 2024

Ruling has wide implications for the conduct of science within the  Department of Fisheries and Oceans 

In a ruling released June 7th, the Federal Court of Canada upheld a decision of former Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray to keep fish farms out of the Discovery Islands, an important migratory route for wild salmon. Claims by B.C. salmon farmers and First Nations that challenged the fairness and reasonableness of the Minister's decision were dismissed. The decision in question was made by Murray following extensive consultation with the industry, First Nations and civil society.  

Conservation groups – including SeaChoice partners David Suzuki Foundation and Living Oceans Society-- intervened in support of the decision, with representation from Ecojustice. Our submissions highlighted the unique nature of the region near Campbell River B.C. where the 17 salmon farms in question operated.  

“It’s a great day for Fraser River salmon,” said Karen Wristen, Executive Director for Living Oceans Society. “We have long maintained that the narrow passages of the Discovery Islands confined and retained parasites and pathogens from the farms. Migrating juvenile salmon were forced to swim through this soup—little wonder that their early marine survival was so low.” 

The salmon farming industry and two First Nations challenged the decision to refuse further licences on several grounds, but stressed most of all that the Minister had rejected the advice of her Department to issue the licences, basing her decision in part on more recent science than the Department had conducted or reviewed. This, they contended, was unreasonable and unfair to them, as the Minister was not qualified to assess the significance of the science. 

In making these arguments, industry was attempting to obtain judicial sanction for the stranglehold that the Aquaculture Management Division has had on “official science” for decades. By burying, denying or discrediting independent science and doing little of their own to investigate the actual impacts of salmon farms on wild salmon, Departmental scientists maintained the stance that salmon farms have ‘less than minimal’ impact on wild salmon. Meanwhile, over 50 papers authored by dozens of independent scientists and some within DFO itself say the opposite: sea lice, bacteria and viruses emanating from the farms are all associated with poor outcomes for wild salmon. 

The industry strategy backfired.  Far from obtaining judicial sanction for their comfortable relationship with Departmental science, industry’s arguments had the reverse effect. The Court observed that the Minister, unlike the Department officials who advised her, clearly had her overarching duty to protect wild Pacific salmon firmly in mind when refusing the licenses. Her reliance on all available sources of scientific opinion was reasonable, the judgment concluded. 

The Court’s ruling effectively forecloses any future opportunity for salmon farming in open-net pens in the Discovery Islands. The region formerly produced nearly 40% of B.C.’s production of farmed salmon and was valued by industry for its productivity. The same features that made it an exceptional farming area make it an exceptionally important region for tiny wild salmon smolts to feed and grow.