Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Oceans Update March 2022

Salmon Aquaculture on Trial: Update

The salmon farming industry's legal challenges to the closure of Discovery Islands salmon farms unfolded in court over five days in October. It was no surprise that the companies argued they'd been blindsided by the decision: even though a judicial enquiry, the Cohen Commission, had issued specific recommendations for closure of these farms in 2020 and even though they'd been on annual licence renewals ever since that recommendation was made, back in 2012, they had "no notice". 

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff continued a ‘business as usual’ approach to those farms, even going so far as to advise the Minister that they posed “no more than minimal risk” to wild salmon. More concerningly, the Certified Trial Record—the collection of documents DFO put before the Minister (then Bernadette Jordan) when she made her decision--contained no trace of the most up-to-date science indicating that their assessment of risk was seriously wrong.

Minister Jordan could have made her decision based on a serious conservation risk to wild salmon, had she been properly apprised of all that DFO scientists knew at the time, about the risks from the bacterium Tenacibaculum maritimum, the virus piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) and sea lice. But they withheld that information from the Minister, leaving her without evidence for making that decision.

We have to thank the First Nations of the Discovery Islands for raising their concerns about impacts to their right to fish and the integrity of their territories; about the implausible risk assessments and their longstanding objection to the farms. Their representations formed the basis of the Minister’s decision to close the farms for lack of social acceptability, one of several criteria on which the Fisheries Act permits a decision to be made.

Justice Heneghan reserved her decision at the close of arguments. We anticipate that the decision will be rendered this spring, before the licences finally expire on June 30, 2022.

The June, 2022 Crossroads

All of the federal licences for salmon farms expire in 2022; most of them on June 30. The federal government’s policy since 2019 has been to transition out of open netpens by 2025. Salmon farming companies claim to have a six-year planning horizon for farm stocking. Wild salmon returns are at such dire low levels that extirpation of many runs is imminent: they are out of time for us to act to protect them.

Clearly, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray has a tough call to make.  She has publicly committed to having the netpens out of the water by 2025.

On the one hand, licences are discretionary; there is no right to re-issuance and abundant evidence that wild salmon conservation requires that the farms be closed. On the other hand, the industry is unarguably a driver of local economies in several North Island communities—and importantly, in many First Nations communities.  All of the remaining, operating farms operate under an agreement with at least one Nation with claims to the territory. As is the case in all communities afflicted with/benefitting from the salmon farming industry, views on licence re-issuance are mixed.

In 2020, Minister Jordan was able to make a decision to shut down the Discovery Islands farms because First Nations made a clear and unequivocal demand that they be removed during consultation with the Minister. To date, no Nation (that we know of) has since come forward to say they want the farms out of their territories.

There simply hasn’t been enough time since Minister Murray’s appointment for her to discharge her constitutional duty to consult with all of the First Nations whose interests would be impacted by her decision on licences, to find what measures are needed to address those impacts and ensure they’re in place. We believe she will have to re-issue licences for this reason alone; but the question remains, ‘for how long?’

Living Oceans has advocated for annual licensing, similar to what was done in the Discovery Islands following the Cohen Commission. That should be accompanied by a clear and unequivocal notice that no netpen—even a so-called semi-closed system—will be permitted to stock fish with a harvest date later than 2025.

Of course, this picture could change if any of the Nations currently struggling internally with weighing the loss of their wild salmon runs against the loss of rents and employment from the farms should come forward and ask the Minister to consult.

Regenerative Aquaculture Opportunities for Coastal Communities

We’ve spent so many years telling you why aquaculture is a bad thing for ocean ecosystems and coastal economies…hang on to your hat, because we’re about to put a big qualification on that.  There are ways to culture food in the ocean without damaging it; and in fact helping restore biodiversity and water quality while reducing local acidity. We’re talking seaweed and shellfish culture, neither of which (done properly) requires any inputs of feed, chemicals or drugs and can provide habitat for young fish.

Cascadia Seaweed Image

(Image credit: Cascadia Seaweed)

Shellfish culture has been controversial in some places in British Columbia because of the loss of public access to beaches and the incredible volume of fouling plastic waste it has generated. But there are better culture methods and certainly no need to use and lose plastic in the process.  A recent study by NOAA has quantified the benefits to the ocean from regenerative aquaculture and the FAO sees both seaweed and shellfish as a high-growth potential industries.

Best of all, some studies have shown that culturing seaweed and shellfish together can be beneficial.  The seaweed absorbs carbon from the ocean and can reduce local acidity, making it easier for shellfish to form shells.  What better use for a former salmon farm?  Remove the nets, replace them with lines of cultured seaweed and shellfish; operate on a scale suited to the community that owns the licence.

Several First Nations have now partnered with Cascadia Seaweed, a company that is pioneering industrial-scale seaweed here in BC.  This is a new and as yet unregulated industry, but one with great potential for coastal restoration and reconciliation all in one.

Clear the Coast 2022

As we approach the marine debris cleanup season, we really have no idea what to expect. The spill from the Zim Kingston container ship back in October continues to foul beaches with every tide.  Most recently, our friends at Epic Exeo discovered some new material at Palmerston Beach that is so extraordinary it can only be explained by another of the lost containers having ruptured.

Living Oceans will be joining Epic Exeo and Rugged Coast representatives in an overflight of the beaches we believe to be impacted later this month, to assist with planning for Clear the Coast 2022.  Stay tuned!


International Women's Day: Stop Funding Overfishing

Around the world, women are working to end harmful fisheries subsidies and keep fisheries afloat. This International Women’s Day, we are celebrating the contributions of these scientists, leaders, activists, fishers, and more, and recognizing the interconnected relationship of gender inequality and sustainability in our ocean.

Red rating challenges farmed salmon certificates

In case you missed it, in December, B.C. farmed salmon was red-listed by U.S. seafood sustainability rating program, Seafood Watch (SFW). The downgrade confirms seafood shoppers should avoid buying B.C. open net-pen farmed salmon due to the industry’s devastating impacts to wild salmon (though if you’re reading this newsletter, you likely do already!). 

Given the rise of seafood sustainability policies in the marketplace over the last decade, the red rating sends a strong signal to North American supermarkets, restaurants and food service providers to remove B.C. farmed salmon from their fresh cases and menus. This should be particularly the case in the US, where the majority of B.C. farmed salmon is sold and where Seafood Watch ratings are prominently used by businesses and consumers.

But here’s the kicker. Salmon farmers have a get out of jail free card that enables them to keep selling their product to the market as “sustainable” and “responsible”: certification.

Concerningly, most supermarket and seafood brands rely on certification as part of their sustainable seafood policies. For example, Costco accepts farmed salmon that is Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certified, while Walmart accepts the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification.

The problem? All active B.C. grow-out farms are ASC and BAP certified. These are the very same farms that produced the red rating.

Certifications and their associated labels make open net-pen farmed salmon appear sustainable. In actuality, these certifications are failing to protect wild salmon from disease and sea lice due to their loopholes and many “business as usual” criteria for farm certification. 

Case in point: that SFW used data from ASC and BAP certified B.C. salmon farms to come to its red rating due to uncontrolled sea lice outbreaks is evidence of the fact that these certifications are not protecting wild salmon.  ASC farms in B.C. have had sea lice counts as high as 149 times the level ASC prescribes in its Standard. The farms were simply exempted from complying with this aspect of the Standard.

Yet even SFW, which assigned the red rating, recommends ASC-certified salmon as a “buy” option (but does not recommend BAP-certified salmon). This contradiction was quickly seized on by ASC who eagerly told seafood buyers to ignore SFW’s red-rating and follow SFW’s “buy ASC” endorsement instead.

In the past, SFW’s endorsement of ASC salmon was based on an out-of-date and inaccurate equivalency assessment that compared the ASC’s written criteria with their own. Today, SFW has confirmed that they no longer perform these assessments. Leaving the questions: how can SFW credibly continue to endorse ASC salmon, when it doesn’t even have a current assessment of the ASC Standard? And when their own assessment of the very same farms came up red?  These are questions to which we are actively seeking answers and remedies.

Another related and significant development occurred in December – the Minister of Fisheries’ mandate letter re-committed the government to transitioning the open net-pen industry by 2025.

This commitment has the potential to ensure the industry is actually observing “best practice” and its product is “responsibly farmed” – and not just certified with the claim to be so. The red rating of B.C. farmed salmon as “avoid” due to its impacts on wild salmon reinforces the need to transition the industry from coastal waters to land-based recirculating closed systems. Such farming systems have earned a SFW green, or “best choice” rating. 

In the meantime, Living Oceans and our SeaChoice allies will continue to watchdog certifications and call out the greenwashing of this red-rated industry.