“My vision is for a future where local communities, First Nations, wild salmon and aquaculture are all thriving.” - Jennifer Woodland, Chair of the BC Salmon Farmers Association

Aquaculture transition plan is an opportunity for BC’s salmon farmers

“My vision is for a future where local communities, First Nations, wild salmon and aquaculture are all thriving.” – Jennifer Woodland, Chair of the BC Salmon Farmers Association

By Fabian Dawson

Growing up in the midst of Newfoundland’s cod crisis, Jennifer Woodland lived through the devastating consequences of myopic government policies that decimated the livelihoods of thousands of families.

“When the cod fishery collapsed in 1992 due to years of overfishing, it didn’t just hurt our family it hurt every community, every aspect of the province,” said Woodland, who recently took over as chair of the BC Salmon Farmers Association.

“It dramatically shifted my way of thinking around fisheries, fisheries resources, and our need for sustainable food production,” she told SeaWestNews in a wide-ranging interview on the future of salmon farming in British Columbia.

“I was very much part of the impacts caused by the cod crisis in Newfoundland and my work now is really fuelled to avoid what happened there because of a poor transition process, from happening here in BC,” said Woodland.

After graduating from Newfoundland’s Memorial University, the mother of two spent the early years of her career,  working at a fish farm in BC.

“When I returned to Newfoundland, I was able to witness the turnaround economically of 22 small rural communities that were hit hard by the downturn of the cod fishery that got revitalized through aquaculture. I saw first-hand the importance of this sector to economic development, particularly in places that don’t have a lot of opportunities.”

Today, the aquaculture industry in Newfoundland is worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars supporting thousands of direct and indirect jobs.

The Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers (CCFAM) at its latest meeting last month acknowledged the importance of aquaculture to Eastern Canada and affirmed its support for salmon farming there.

While recognising aquaculture as a legitimate user of the waters in Eastern Canada, Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray reiterated that she is pushing through with plans to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in Western Canada.

This transition plan will impact more than 4,700 jobs and $1.2 billion in economic activity annually in British Columbia.

Woodland, a 25-year veteran of the industry, who has held several aquaculture-leadership roles across Canada sees the plan to transition away from open-net salmon farming as an opportunity to grow the sector in British Columbia

“My vision, particularly around this transition plan is that it is an opportunity for BC,” said Woodland.

“But I’ve got one big challenge right now. That’s to get the clarity needed for business certainty. I mean, all of what we do right now is reliant on the federal government’s transition plan. We continue to work with the regulators on this opportunity, I want it to be an opportunity.

“But the overall lack of clarity in the process so far is adversely impacting all aspects of our business,” said Woodland.

“We have a lot of people that are relying on us for a positive outcome from the transition process,” said Woodland.

Formal engagement on the Transition Plan began between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the salmon farmers, First Nations, and other stakeholders in July 2022. The government earlier this month said it had extended the consultation period through to next year.

The Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFSS) said it wants to see more direct collaboration with Ottawa in the extended consultation process.

The coalition comprises 17 BC First Nations which have agreements for farming salmon in their territories resulting in 78% of all salmon farmed in the province falling under a beneficial partnership with a First Nation.

About 40 per cent of BC’s in-ocean salmon farming sector has already been closed, despite the government’s own scientists and court rulings stating that the salmon farms in BC pose less than a minimal risk to wild stocks.

Excerpts from our conversation with Jennifer Woodland, Managing Director of Grieg Seafood BC and the new chair of the BC Salmon Farmers Association. Woodland has also served as chair of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance from 2020 to 2022.

Aquaculture in BC is a good news story.

“My priorities really are going to be working on developing a better understanding of our industry. It’s important to Canada, both publicly and politically. I think we’re very misunderstood. We are a good news story. We’re part of the fabric of British Columbia. We are BC’s largest agricultural export. We’re a sustainable food producer that provides, healthy low carbon food. We are one of BC Ferries largest customers and a major part of the provincial economy. But a lot of this is not well understood…sometimes when we talk about these facts, it surprises me how surprised people are. We can do a better job to tell our story.”

Meaningful partnerships with First Nations.

“Reconciliation is a core value that aligns with my passions and personal commitments along with sustainable food production and rural economic development. We need to have meaningful partnerships with First Nations to ensure First Nations are leading the growth of aquaculture.  For us, the transition plan is about our future and our ability to work but for First Nations, this transition plan is about their rights and title. There’s nobody I trust more to protect what needs to be protected in the ocean than First Nations and I’m proud of the agreements and the relationships that this industry has created over time to operate in their traditional territories.”

Growing in rural coastal communities.

“With a mixed bag of technologies that reflects the priorities of First Nations where we operate and the region’s environmental conditions, we can build in areas that are both biologically and economically feasible. We’ve always been adaptive and innovative as an industry and within this transition plan, there’s an opportunity to accelerate some of that. I think the future for me is we maintain our presence in rural coastal communities because that’s where we are and that’s where we deserve to be. We must maintain the jobs of the thousands of people who work in the industry and industry-related businesses.”

Jobs, jobs, jobs

“One of the marvelous things about this industry is there is pretty well a fit in aquaculture for almost any skill or expertise. You want to be an electrician, we’ve got opportunities. You want to be a nutritionist, a veterinarian, a water quality specialist we have the jobs. There are not many things that you can list out in the world of careers, that doesn’t have a fit in aquaculture. I’ve been very fortunate that there are many women who have been my mentors…like Dr. Diane Morrison (Managing Director of Mowi Canada West and past chair of the BC Salmon Farmers Association). Aquaculture is an industry that is good to women. It’s been very good to me.”

(File image of Jennifer Woodland, new Chair of the BC Salmon Farmers Association.)