A federal judge has set aside a December 2020 decision by the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to phase out open-net fish farming in B.C.’s Discovery Islands by June 2022.
Ruling on primarily procedural grounds, the judge outlined the proper approach the Minister should follow to make such a decision to remove open-net salmon farms from this area, based on procedural fairness and a requirement that the Minister further explain the reasons for her decision.
“The decision to phase out open net-pens from one of the most important salmon migration routes on the planet was a hard-fought victory for the countless ecosystems, First Nations and communities that depend on wild salmon,” said Kilian Stehfest, Marine Conservation Specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation. “The phase-out must continue despite this temporary procedural setback in court.”
The continuing operation of open-net fish farms in B.C.’s coastal waters poses a direct threat to the health of wild Pacific salmon, a cornerstone species that is essential to the health of surrounding marine and land ecosystems and economies.
“It is deeply troubling that the Federal Court has put a hold on an environmental decision, informed by social and traditional knowledge of several Indigenous nations in the Discovery Islands, their rights and title, as well as the science that shows wild Pacific salmon are in a deep state of emergency,” said Lucero González Ruiz, Biodiversity Campaigner at Georgia Strait Alliance.
First Nations and scientists have long spoken out about the links between open-net aquaculture and a decline in wild salmon. Fish farms expose wild Pacific salmon to viruses, bacteria, and sea lice, which can spread like wildfire in the pens where hundreds of thousands of fish are kept in close proximity. The narrow straits of the Discovery Islands “bottlenecks” migrating Pacific salmon, putting them in close proximity to the farms and increasing the risk of the transfer of pathogens from the farms.
“Make no mistake, the long decline of wild salmon is reaching its end. Either we will offer them the relief they require or they will go extinct,” said Karen Wristen, Executive Director of the Living Oceans Society.
In court, aquaculture companies claimed that the Minister’s decision to phase out open-net fish farms didn’t give them enough time to plan for the future – but wild salmon can’t wait.
“Last spring most of the salmon farms in the Discovery Islands were already empty due to the Minister’s decision,” says independent biologist Alexandra Morton. “The young salmon migrating through were lice-free, healthy and incredibly beautiful. We are calling on Minister Joyce Murray to keep Fraser River salmon safe from these farms every year.”
In December 2021, federal Fisheries Minister 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 Minister to stay the course on both this larger policy and by not renewing licences for farms located in the Discovery Islands.
“The aquaculture licences issued for the Discovery Islands expire in June 2022. Nothing in this Federal Court decision prevents the Minister from refusing to issue new licenses for the Discovery Islands again provided she does so through a transparent decision-making process and with clear written reasons for her decision,” said Ecojustice lawyer Margot Venton.
Wild Pacific salmon are an essential species within the ecologies, economies and spiritual systems of the coastal waters and regions of the Pacific Northwest. It is paramount that the federal government take decisive action to protect them and the ecologies and economies they are embedded in.
“Given the federal government’s commitment to transition salmon farms out of B.C. waters, British Columbians expect Minister Murray to make the decision again to keep the Discovery Islands clear of open-net salmon farms,” said Stan Proboszcz, Science Advisor at the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
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In December 2020, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Bernadette Jordan announced a phase-out by June 2022 of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands, off the coast of British Columbia after consulting with the seven First Nations with territory in the region. While the farms were prohibited from restocking, the phase-out timeline gave the industry the opportunity to grow out the fish that were already in the farms.
The decision was followed by 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. The companies argued that the Minister did not have the right to make this decision and that renewing licences was a routine decision that should have been handled by staff.
A coalition of grassroots environmental organizations and defenders (Alexandra Morton, David Suzuki Foundation, Living Oceans Society, the Georgia Strait Alliance, and Watershed Watch Salmon Society) represented by charity law firm Ecojustice intervened in this case to support the phase out, noting it was critical that the Minister be allowed to phase out fish farms in order to protect wild salmon, and the coastal communities and ecosystems that depend on these fish.
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.
Founded in 1990, the David Suzuki Foundation is a national, bilingual non-profit organization headquartered in Vancouver, with offices in Toronto and Montreal. Through evidence-based research, education and policy analysis, we work to conserve and protect the natural environment, and help create a sustainable Canada. We regularly collaborate with non-profit and community organizations, all levels of government, businesses and individuals.
Formed in 1990, Georgia Strait Alliance is the only conservation group working to protect and restore the marine environment and promote the sustainability of the Canadian waters of the Salish Sea, its adjoining waters and communities.
Living Oceans Society is a non-profit society that advocates for oceans that are managed for the common good, according to science-based policies that consider ecosystems in their entirety.
Watershed Watch Salmon Society is a science-based charity working to defend and rebuild B.C.’s wild salmon.