The Minister’s decision to not reissue licences for Discovery Islands fish farms must stand if the Pacific salmon are to survive.
VANCOUVER/UNCEDED xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (MUSQUEAM), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (SQUAMISH) AND səlilwətaɬ (TSLEIL-WAUTUTH) TERRITORIES: Ecojustice lawyers — representing the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Living Oceans Society, Watershed Watch Salmon Society and independent biologist Alexandra Morton — are back in court to support the federal government’s refusal to renew licenses for open-net pen fish farms near the Discovery Islands.
The Discovery Islands are along a major migratory route for wild salmon, many of which are, in the former Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray’s own words, “at risk of disappearing forever.” The discharge of pollutants, pathogens and parasites from the open-net fish farms contribute to the decline of the wild salmon populations. Research shows fish farms expose wild Pacific salmon to viruses and sea lice that spread like wildfire, leading to disease and depleted stocks impacting the ecosystem and innumerable coastal and interior communities that rely on these stocks.
In February 2023, then Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Joyce Murray, exercised her authority in a “heightened precautionary manner” to protect wild salmon and refused to reissue licences for Discovery Islands fish farms. However, aquaculture companies aim to overturn the Minister’s decision.
Ecojustice lawyers will argue on behalf of their clients that the Minister was acting well within the scope of her discretion to protect wild salmon that are on the brink of extinction. The Minister was right to not put private profits above the public interest and prioritize conservation through a precautionary, science-backed approach to protect British Columbia’s iconic and keystone wild salmon populations. There is clear evidence that the removal of fish farms in the Discovery Islands has benefited wild salmon. Restarting fish farming in the Discovery Islands would put migrating wild salmon on a collision course with the disease, parasites and wastewater associated with these farms. The Minister’s decision must be allowed to stand to ensure the longevity of wild salmon for generations to come.
Imalka Nilmalgoda, Ecojustice Lawyer said — “We are witnessing a deeply concerning decline in wild salmon populations. The Minister’s licensing decision in the Discovery Islands is exactly the type of critical decisive action needed to ensure the continuity of healthy wild salmon populations and B.C’s marine ecosystem for the future.”
Lucero González Ruiz, Biodiversity Lead at Georgia Strait said — “These aquaculture companies would rather waste public resources fighting the inevitable, than ensuring a just transition of their harmful industry out of BC waters for the survival of Pacific salmon and the workers and communities they rely on.”
Karen Wristen, Executive Director at Living Oceans said — “The decisions of the two previous Fisheries Ministers to close Discovery Islands salmon farms correctly applied the precautionary principle and answered their paramount duty to protect wild salmon. We look forward to hearing the Court’s ruling on this.”
Stan Proboszcz, Senior Scientist, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said — “It’s well documented that salmon farms are harmful to B.C.’s coastal ecology, everything from juvenile salmon and herring right up to humpback whales. Ministers Jordan and Murray took appropriate and precautionary action to remove them. I look forward to the court’s decision on this.”
Alexandra Morton, Independent Biologist said — Two things that cannot be ignored – the extraordinary wild salmon rebounds observed as salmon farms are removed and the unprecedented response by Fraser River First Nations to also become intervenors in this case in support of the minister’s decision. Thank you to Ecojustice for representing me and the others in this precedent – setting legal challenge.
This hearing is the latest development in a legal battle that began in December 2020, when the former Minister announced a phase-out of open net-pen salmon farms over 18 months between December 2020 to June 30, 2022, after consulting with the seven First Nations with territory in the Discovery Islands. To implement the ‘Phase-Out Decision’, Minister Joyce Murray temporarily renewed aquaculture licences on a transitional basis but restricted transfers of fish into the farms
The decision was followed by a strong reaction from four fish farm companies (Mowi, Cermaq, Grieg and Saltstream) who launched a judicial review of the Minister’s decision to phase out their farms in the Discovery Islands despite scientific evidence provided during and after the Cohen’s Commission inquiry into the decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.
The 2012 Cohen Commission’s final report found that infectious diseases and open-net fish farms were some of the most urgent risks to wild salmon. The final report’s recommendation #19 states that the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans should prohibit net-pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands by September 30, 2020, unless they are satisfied that such farms pose at most a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon.
In December 2021, federal Fisheries Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Joyce Murray re-affirmed her intention to honour a 2019 election promise to phase out open-net fish farms in British Columbia by 2025.
Environmental groups are now calling on the current DFO Minister – Diane Lebouthillier and the Federal Court to both stay the course on this larger policy while at the same time not renewing licences for farms located in the Discovery Islands.
Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, public interest lawsuits and advocacy lead to precedent-setting court decisions and law and policy that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax.
The David Suzuki Foundation (DavidSuzuki.org | @DavidSuzukiFdn) is a leading Canadian environmental non-profit organization, founded in 1990. We operate in English and French, with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. We collaborate with all people in Canada, including First Nations leadership and communities, governments, businesses and individuals to find solutions to create a sustainable Canada through scientific research, traditional ecological knowledge, communications and public engagement, and innovative policy and legal solutions. Our mission is to protect nature’s diversity and the well-being of all life, now and for the future.
Georgia Strait Alliance – Grounded in environmental justice, GSA mobilizes and supports collective action to protect the Salish Sea region to achieve their vision of a Salish Sea teeming with life where thriving and just communities live in balance with the environment.
Living Oceans works to ensure that Canada’s oceans are sustainably managed and thriving with abundant and diverse sea life that supports vibrant and resilient communities. It has maintained a campaign to reform open-net pen aquaculture for over 20 years.
Watershed Watch Salmon Society is a science-based charity working to defend and rebuild B.C.’s wild salmon.
Alexandra Morton is an Independent Biologist who has dedicated her life to restoring the balance between the people and the wild salmon off the coast of British Columbia.