Alistair MacGregor column: Wild Pacific salmon must be protected from open-net fish farms

These iconic species are at risk from open-net fish farms along our coast.

By Alistair MacGregor

Wild Pacific salmon are an iconic part of B.C.’s economy, environment, and culture, and they provide a vital livelihood to those employed in commercial, recreational, and First Nations fishing industries. Together with the tourism sector, there are about 50,000 west coast jobs directly or indirectly related to salmon, and the sector is estimated to be worth $1.5 billion annually. Unfortunately, these iconic species are at risk from open-net fish farms along our coast.

In March of this year, the Wild Fish Conservancy released lab results showing 100 per cent of escaped Atlantic farmed salmon were infected with the highly contagious PRV virus. And in May, we saw horrifying video footage of virus-laden fish blood spewing from fish farms into wild salmon migration routes.

The B.C. government, with its limited jurisdiction, recently made the bold decision for future fish farm tenures to require First Nations’ consent and a formal declaration from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans that fish farms don’t harm wild salmon. In 2009, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that fish farms fall under federal government’s constitutional jurisdiction, which means that the fate of wild salmon essentially rests with the federal government.

My NDP colleague, Fin Donnelly (MP for Port Moody-Coquitlam), the NDP Critic for Fisheries and Oceans, tabled legislation to protect west coast salmon from open-net fish farms, which put wild salmon species at risk from disease, including sea lice, pollutants, and other harmful substances coming from open-net farms.

Sadly, on Dec. 6, 2016, Parliament defeated Donnelly’s bill, Bill C-228. Only 25 Liberals and eight Conservatives supported the bill — the rest voted to quash it. The bill would have required the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to create a transition plan from harmful open-net pens to safe, closed containment systems within five years, beginning 18 months after receiving Royal Assent. Had it not been quashed by the government with the help of the Conservatives, that transition strategy would be underway today.

The kinds of technologies needed for this transition to protect wild salmon already exist. Florida, for example, is currently building a 90,000-ton closed containment system. Canada has the capacity to be a leader in this field — all that is needed is the political will to make it a priority.

On Wednesday, July 18, along with Fin Donnelly, I held a town hall meeting in Duncan for residents to take part in an important discussion on fish farms and other issues affecting our oceans.

The feedback we heard was overwhelmingly that the federal government must be a leader in protecting wild salmon from the diseases and harmful pesticides leaching into migratory waters from fish farms.

I want to offer my sincere thanks to all those who came out to voice their concerns. It is my hope that, together, we will place enough pressure on the federal government to finally act to protect wild salmon, so that this important part of our vibrant west coast economy and environment is protected for future generations.

Alistair MacGregor is the Member of Parliament for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford

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