Internal memo shows Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray was warned that she did not have evidence to substantiate her decision to shut down salmon farms in British Columbia.

No science basis to shut down salmon farms, DFO told Minister

Internal memo shows Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray was warned that she did not have evidence to substantiate her decision to shut down salmon farms in British Columbia.

By Fabian Dawson

Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray was warned by her senior staff that there is not enough evidence to substantiate her decision to shut down salmon farms in British Columbia’s Discovery Islands.

She was also cautioned that Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officials “do not have a science basis to apply a higher level of precaution in the Discovery Islands area compared to elsewhere in BC.”

“In other words, the Department’s advice is that the precautionary approach applied in the Discovery Islands should be consistent with that applied across British Columbia,” reads an internal DFO memo to the Minister, which offered up options that would have streamlined the transition of open-net salmon farming in the province.

All the science advice and options were rejected by Minister Murray, who last February announced the government would not renew licences for 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms around B.C.’s Discovery Islands.

“The Government of Canada is taking a highly precautionary approach to manage Atlantic salmon aquaculture in the Discovery Islands area,” Murray, who is ideologically opposed to open-net salmon farming, responded to the memo.

The memo, part of the filings in the on-going federal court challenge to her decision, is “a clear indication of Minister Murray abandoning science in favour of her activist supporters”, said an industry official, who has viewed the document.

“Like the minister before (Bernadette Jordan), Murray is ignoring her own scientists who in multiple studies have found that the salmon farms in the Discovery Islands have less than a minimal impact on migratory wild stocks,” the veteran fish farmer told SeaWestNews.

The original decision to shutter open-net salmon farms in the Discovery Islands was made in 2020 by former Fisheries minister Jordan after an intense fearmongering campaign by anti-fish farm activists.

Last April, the Federal Court ordered the government to set aside this decision due to procedural breaches by Jordan, and reaffirmed an earlier ruling that all the evidence provided showed  “salmon aquaculture in B.C. poses no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon.”

Murray, who took over Jordan’s portfolio after the last election, then ordered up consultations with the stakeholders to meet the procedural requirements before making the same decision as her predecessor. This has triggered more legal challenges by First Nations, aquaculture supply companies and salmon farmers.

Murray is also currently working on implementing an open-net pen Transition Plan for all of BC, that will impact more than 4,700 jobs and $1.2 billion in economic activity annually. She has delayed presenting her options for the transition to cabinet till later this fall.

According to the memo, which was authored by deputy minister Annette Gibbons, Murray was given four options to consider before making her Discovery Islands decision.

The preferred and recommended option by DFO was to allow the Discovery Islands’ salmon farmers to operate until a recommended date of June 30, 2024.  This would allow for the alignment of the Discovery Island licences with the direction of the new Transition Plan.

A second option was to allow for the approval of licences for nine Discovery Islands’ sites, eight of which were specifically put forward by industry and First Nations collaboratively, and one small chinook farming facility. This second preferred option was to defer the decision on the other six licences to coincide with the release of the Transition Plan.

A third option involved deferring the entire Discovery Islands decision until the Transition Plan was ready while a fourth, not recommended by DFO, was to deny all the salmon farming licences in the Discovery Islands, no matter what the science showed.

“I select none of the options described above. My decisions will be explained in letters I will send to Cermaq Canada, Mowi Canada West, Grieg Seafood BC, Saltstream Engineering, and Yellow Island Aquaculture,” Murray wrote in response to the memo on Feb 17, 2023, the day she announced the shutdown of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands.

Several First Nations leaders have said there can be no true reconciliation if Murray keeps pushing her agenda to oust salmon farmers from the traditional territories of aquaculture-dependent Indigenous communities in British Columbia.

The Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS), has also called on the government to respect their jurisdictions and not take actions that would remove salmon farms from their territories.

National agricultural and food associations in a joint statement have said: “These shutdowns were not based on science but on politics and claims by activists that salmon farms are harming wild salmon, which has been proven false through rigorous peer-review science evaluation processes under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.”

Brad Hicks, Director of Taplow Feeds, who has been involved with aquaculture for four decades, accused Minister Murray of propagating the false assumption that removing salmon farms will increase the number of wild salmon.

“There is absolutely no scientific or other evidence to support her thesis that wild salmon will increase by the removal of salmon farms…the human suffering brought on by shutting down these farms will be devastating.”

Hicks said Murray is using the “precautionary approach” as a blunt political instrument to bludgeon indigenous and non-indigenous coastal communities in British Columbia.

“It is unfounded. It is callous, it is uncaring, and it will not end well.”

Given Murray’s track record of ignoring her department’s science and recommendations, the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) recently said it has learned that the minister is leaning towards the further removal of salmon farms in BC.

“A decision like this will result in the loss of thousands of jobs, trample Indigenous Rights, and leave businesses who support the industry scrambling to survive,” said Brian Kingzett, Executive Director of the BCSFA.

“This decision is not based on any credible science, including DFO’s own peer-reviewed studies, and is not supported by the many First Nations who want to continue salmon farming in their waters,” he said.

(Facebook image of Federal Fisheries minister Joyce Murray)