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B.C. agrees to freeze on new salmon farms in critical zone

B.C. won't approve any new net-pen salmon farms in the Discovery Islands before 2020, in line with the Cohen Inquiry's call for a freeze in that area to safeguard migrating wild sockeye.

"We're taking the precautionary principle as the commissioner has requested," Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said in an interview after releasing the province's formal response to Justice Bruce Cohen's recommendations last fall into the decline of Fraser River sockeye.

The freeze applies only in the Discovery Islands off northeastern Vancouver Island, which includes a narrow channel where most sockeye pass in close proximity to numerous ocean-based salmon farms.

B.C. could consider new licences in other areas of the coast, but Letnick wasn't able to say if any applications are expected.

The main operator in the Discovery Islands, Marine Harvest, has indicated it has no need for new tenures in that area, Letnick said.

Cohen's did not conclusively tie farmed salmon to the collapse of wild sockeye runs, but heard enough evidence to recommend the limited moratorium until September of 2020, while more monitoring is carried out to assess the risk from aquaculture-spread disease or other pathogens.

He also recommended farms along the migration route be shut down if science can't prove by 2020 that the risk to wild fish from aquaculture is minimal.

"The government of the day in 2020 will have to make those decisions," Letnick said in response.

He said the government has also accepted the intent of the other seven Cohen recommendations that apply to the province.

Some, including the replacement of B.C.'s Water Act, were already in the works, he said.

Other measures require the province to work closely with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Letnick said he expects DFO to meet its obligations in B.C. despite federal budget cutbacks.

No single culprit – not fish farms, overfishing, pollution, natural predators or global warming – got primary blame for the two-decade decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon in the report of the judicial inquiry.

Aquaculture industry reps had previously said Cohen's recommendations would have very little impact on them.

Cohen was appointed by the federal government after less than 1.5 million sockeye returned in 2009, far fewer than the more than 10 million expected.

The latest forecast calls for an improved run of about 4.8 million this summer.

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