Federal fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson says he wants to pursue a precautionary approach to fish farms in B.C. waters amid polarizing debates about the future of the aquaculture industry.
People need to be convinced that aquaculture is environmentally sound before the economic potential of fish farming can be realized, said the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.
“Clearly there has been a lot of debate in British Columbia about a range of different issues,” he said in a phone interview from Ottawa on Wednesday. “There are increasingly two camps that don’t listen to each other very well, and often don’t have the ability to have an appropriate dialogue.”
He said the government is looking at an “area-based management” approach that considers environmental, social and economic concerns related to the location of fish farms.
He wouldn’t comment about whether that would mean removing fish farms from the migration routes of wild salmon, but said the approach would vary depending from place to place.
“There are communities that are very supportive and are interested in economic development and there are clearly some communities that have concerns about involvement in aquaculture, and I think we need to take those into account,” he said.
In December, First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago who oppose open-net pen fish farms signed a deal with the provincial government phasing out at least 10 fish farms by 2023.
The other seven fish farms in the region will require consent from local Indigenous groups to continue operations beyond that four-year window. Wilkinson, along with Premier John Horgan, First Nations leaders and officials from the aquaculture industry endorsed the agreement.
The government is also studying closed-containment options, Wilkinson said on Wednesday.
The Liberal MP for North Vancouver said he wants to move beyond the polarizing fish farm debate by applying a precautionary principle to potential ecological harm.
“What I’ve said is, ‘Let’s assume that some of the concerns that have been expressed by those that are opposed to open-net farms are true, even though I would tell you that within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans the science would tell you that some of those concerns are not correct,” he said.
He said that among scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), there is “a pretty strong scientific consensus on the vast majority of issues” but acknowledged that some disagreements exist.
“This is a government that said we’re not going to muzzle scientists, and we want to make sure there is robust debate as we move through these issues,” he said.
Wilkinson’s latest comments come on the heels of events that raised questions about potential risks for wild salmon caused by farmed fish.
Earlier this month, a Federal Court judge overturned a DFO policy that allows young salmon to be transferred into open-net pens without screening them for piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV.
Justice Cecily Strickland found that DFO’s threshold for acceptable harm to wild salmon was too high and that its policy didn’t comply with the precautionary principle.
The court also found that DFO breached its duty to consult ‘Namgis First Nation about PRV. Strickland gave the federal government four months to review the policy.
However, DFO also stated this month – shortly after the Federal Court decision – that PRV from fish farms in the Discovery Islands pose no risk to Fraser River sockeye, based on an expert peer-review study that involved 33 participants, 15 of them from DFO.
That led to controversy when John Werring, a member of the peer-review expert panel, said there was no consensus among members of the panel.
Wilkinson downplayed the level of disagreement, but said he’s not dismissing people’s concerns.
“We need to get beyond this debate that nobody is winning right now,” he said.
Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) said in an email that the aquaculture industry “has long supported area-based management, along with a greater role for First Nations. “We will be engaging with DFO, as our regulator, in how that approach will be implemented over time,” he said.