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Salmon inquiry final debate targets farms

A net pen salmon farm on the B.C. coast. - BC Salmon Farmers Association
A net pen salmon farm on the B.C. coast.
— image credit: BC Salmon Farmers Association

The Cohen Inquiry is being urged to recommend the removal of ocean-based salmon farms from the B.C. coast – even if science has yet to prove the farms are to blame for the decline of Fraser River wild sockeye stocks.

Gregory McDade, the lawyer acting for a coalition of groups opposing salmon farms, said in his final submission Monday it would be wrong to leave farms in the water while scientists study the risks to passing sockeye for another five to 10 years.

"The real issue here is proof versus risk," McDade told Justice Bruce Cohen, who is heading the probe of Fraser salmon returns.

"The risk here is real. Don't wait for 10 years until this is proven and we have no fish left."

The potential role of aquaculture has been the most acrimonious topics for the inquiry, which was named in 2009 to investigate the steep plunge in Fraser sockeye returns that year.

But two researchers dispatched by the inquiry to investigate the impact of farmed salmon came back in September deeply divided on the severity of the threat.

No smoking gun emerged that pointed to a single pathogen or illness – or other potential cause – for the decline.

"Which particular disease and when is not the issue," McDade said. "We're creating a dramatically changed environment every time we create a fish farm."

He disputed aquaculture industry claims farmed fish are generally healthy and said the year-round presence of large populations of farmed salmon in water where wild runs pass by is inherently dangerous.

Every other fish farming country has suffered devastating disease outbreaks, he said.

"Do we have to wait for that to occur before we do something about it?" McDade asked. "Put them where the wild salmon aren't migrating."

Provincial government representatives said some scientists who appeared before the commission spoke beyond their areas of expertise, feeding what one expert witness termed "pure speculation" that farms are harming wild stocks.

"It is unlikely that aquaculture caused the long-term decline in productivity of Fraser River salmon or the decline in 2009," said the province's Tara Callan in B.C.'s final submission.

"The evidence points to global features, including marine ecology and climate change," added Clifton Prowse, another member of the provincial legal team at the inquiry.

Alan Blair, representing the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, argued aquaculture has had little if any impact on wild stocks, rejecting the "fanciful attacks" in blogs and newspaper columns "where facts and fiction merge seamlessly."

He noted that opponents of fish farms, who previously targeted them for spreading sea lice, have moved on to disease allegations like Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) after researchers testified lice were unlikely to be the culprits causing the sockeye decline.

Aquaculture accounts for 39 per cent of B.C. seafood exports, accounting for 6,000 direct and indirect jobs and $348 million in annual revenue, the inquiry heard.

While closed containment aquaculture systems have been touted as an alternative, provincial government reps told the commission it's too early to tell if they will prove viable.

Tim Leadem, who represents conservation groups at the inquiry, agreed with the criticism of the aquaculture industry, but also sought to inject concern about the potential threat to salmon from various other sources, such as industrial pollution, municipal sewage and the salvage logging of Interior forests killed by mountain pine beetles.

He said those factors can have "sub-lethal effects" that taken together contribute to the mortality of salmon, or amplify the impact of other hazards.

Leadem argued the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is in a conflict of interest because of its dual roles to protect wild salmon while regulating and enabling the aquaculture industry.

The final arguments also heard submissions from commercial fishing groups and First Nations, who are at odds over the allocation of the Fraser sockeye catch.

The Cohen Inquiry will reconvene in mid-December to consider evidence on the threat from ISA virus.

Federal tests have so far found no sign of the virus in sampled fish, contradicting earlier tests commissioned by independent researchers

Cohen is to deliver his final report by June.

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