Court hears that former Fisheries Minister kept her top officials and the aquaculture industry in the dark before making her science-deficit decision to shut down salmon farms in BC’s Discovery Islands.

Inside the secretive decision to shutter salmon farms in BC

Court hears that former Fisheries Minister kept her top officials and the aquaculture industry in the dark before making her science-deficit decision to shut down salmon farms in BC’s Discovery Islands.

By Fabian Dawson

Bernadette Jordan, Canada’s former Minister of Fisheries kept her top officials and the aquaculture industry in the dark until the last minute before announcing her decision to shut down salmon farms in BC’s Discovery Islands, a Federal Court has heard.

The former minister also mischaracterized the science that was before her when she made the call to shut the farms last December, the court, which is conducting a judicial review of her controversial decision, was told.

Describing the decision by Jordan as irrational, unjustified and lacking in procedural fairness, BC’s major salmon farming companies  are in court seeking the judicial review of the minister’s ruling, which was primarily pushed for by anti-aquaculture activists.

Prior to the decision last December and during the recent Federal election campaign, the activists had pressured Jordan and her fellow MPs asserting they risk losing votes in their Liberal Party urban strongholds, should they not take action against the salmon farms.

Jordan, who described her decision as having more to do with “social acceptability” rather that science, lost her job and her MP seat in the last election.

BC’s salmon farmers have said Jordan’s decision was driven by a political agenda to appease the anti-aquaculture activists  while some of the First Nations consulted said they were “railroaded” by the government.

“DFO itself was unaware the Minister was considering a ban on fish transfers and a prospective refusal of all aquaculture licences from (June) 2022 until mere days before the minister’s decision,” said a submission to the court by Mowi Canada West, which operates 15 of the 19 salmon farms in the Discovery islands.

Mowi said that Jordan’s suggestion that it should have known or ought to have known about the possibility of the closures before her decision as “disingenuous”.

Allison Webb the former Director of DFO’s Aquaculture Management Division (“AMD”) stated that she was not aware of the possibility of a decision on a transfer ban or a prospective refusal of all licences after June 2022, said Mowi in its court submission.

“I didn’t have any of that knowledge to advise Mowi” and “to the best of my knowledge we were consulting on the re-licensing of these farms, so I didn’t consider that other alternative related to that,” said Webb, according to Mowi.

Webb’s evidence included her saying: “I don’t recall if I was specific to say that there would be no licences issued past 2022. I don’t believe that I did make that type of statement […] because I didn’t […] I didn’t […] I do not have knowledge of that direction at that time, so I – I – I’m doubtful that I did that.”

“Even after the decision, the current Director of AMD admitted that she couldn’t explain the criteria by which the Applicants’ Transfer Licence applications were being denied, stating, “I can’t specifically tell the companies exactly what it takes to be socially acceptable for the minister’s decision” because “[p]ersonally, I – I don’t know.”

Mowi stressed that the impacted fish farmers were not informed of the scope of the Discovery Island decision until after it was made.

The fish farmers also claim that the former minister mischaracterized the science that was in front of her while making pejorative references to sea lice thresholds and sea lice treatments in the Discovery Islands.

Studies have shown that, in B.C. regardless of the presence or absence of salmon farms, there is wide variability in sea lice prevalence in coastal locations. Research over the past decade shows the levels of the  naturally occurring sea lice are significantly linked with ocean conditions and variations in wild hosts.

In the court submissions, the fish farmers contend that Jordan does not mention in her defence the  existence and the conclusions of the Discovery Islands, 2011-2019/2020 Compliance and Performance Report.

That report by DFO, which also refutes the false claims by the anti-salmon farm activists states;

(a) the occurrence of fish health events at farms in the Discovery Islands is generally lower than in the other areas of British Columbia;

(b) farms in the Discovery Islands  generally have less disease diagnosed than the industry average;

(c) the Discovery Islands’ farms have performed better than industry average for sea lice management during the critical outmigration period; and that

(d) sea lice management efforts at the Discovery Islands’ farms have generally resulted in reducing lice loads prior to the juvenile salmon outmigration period.

These findings were in addition to nine-peer reviewed scientific studies by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) that concluded farmed salmon pose no more than minimal risks to migrating wild stocks in the Discovery Islands.

Jordan also rebuffed her deputy minister, Timothy Sargent, who recommended a more coordinated approach for the decommission of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands.

In its entirety, Jordan’s almost unilateral decision will see BC losing $390 million in annual economic output with $87 million less in annual salaries and benefits, and 1,535 fewer jobs, mainly in coastal communities of BC.

The interveners in this case – First Nations Fisheries Council of British Columbia, The British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, and The First Nations Summit – contend that DFO risk assessments and the CSAS studies were completed without the participation of the Discovery Island First Nations.

Another set of intervenors described as the “Conservation Coalition” submitted that the former minister acted reasonably because she applied the precautionary principle when making decisions that may put wild salmon at risk.

Submissions by Cermaq and Grieg, who are also parties to the judicial review, said that there was a lack of procedural fairness by the former minister when she made decision to shut down the Discovery Islands’ salmon farms, which have been operating in the area for over three decades with little impact on migrating wild stocks.

The court hearing continues on Monday

Image shows former Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan in Parliament. Photo courtesy of the Government of Canada