Open-net aquaculture will continue in British Columbia for species other than salmon, such as sablefish states Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Open-net fish farms can continue to operate in B.C.

Open-net aquaculture will continue in British Columbia for species other than salmon, such as sablefish states Department of Fisheries and Oceans

By Fabian Dawson

Open-net aquaculture will continue in British Columbia for species other than salmon, such as sablefish, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has clarified.

In an emailed response to SeaWestNews, DFO said the Liberal government’s recent announcement that open-net salmon farming in BC will be phased out by 2029, “will only apply to all species of salmon.”

“The transition plan and related ban apply to salmon and do not apply to other species of finfish such as sablefish. Cultivation of other finfish species in B.C. takes place at a very small scale. The Department will review applications if or when they are submitted,” DFO said.

It is unclear if DFO will allow open-net farming for Steelhead, sometimes called “Steelhead Trout” which is an anadromous (sea-run) form of Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) that returns to fresh water to spawn.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation states Steelhead are similar to Pacific salmon in many ways but for one glaring exception: they can be repeat spawners (as are cutthroat trout). “Their classification is hotly debated: they used to be placed in the genus Salmo (like Atlantic salmon); now most scientists place them in the Oncorhynchus genus, while others disagree because of their repeat spawning.”

There are currently no licences for ocean-based steelhead aquaculture and three licences issued for sablefish farming in BC.

The open-net pen sablefish aquaculture licences – two in Kyuquout Sound on the northern west coast of Vancouver Island and a third in Barkley Sound in the southwest coast of Vancouver Island – would not be part of the transition plan, said DFO.

Sablefish, also known as black cod, is a native fish to British Columbia. It is a highly migratory ancient species, that has been commercially fished for over 40 years in British Columbia and Alaska.

In 2021, the We Wai Kai Nation (Cape Mudge Band), was given $144,200 in government funding to explore the possible environmental impacts and determine the potential business benefits of sablefish aquaculture.

Today the government announced it will be giving $378,070 to the University of Victoria’s, Department of Biology to identify pathways to improve sustainable sablefish aquaculture.

Specifically, the University will work with First Nations and industry partners to identify sablefish resistant to a pathogen that limits the large-scale expansion of sablefish aquaculture in coastal communities, DFO said in a statement.

The grant was part of  $39.4 million set aside for 15 projects under the second phase of the British Columbia Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund (BCSRIF).

Of the 15 projects announced today, five directly address the effects of climate change events such as droughts, flooding and wildfires on Pacific salmon. Other projects support habitat restoration, improvements to hatchery operations and sustainable sablefish aquaculture.

Since inception in 2019, 170 projects have received BCSRIF funding, representing an investment of more than $257 million in the rebuilding of wild Pacific salmon stocks and supporting the BC fish and seafood sector. 

Meanwhile, the backlash to Ottawa’s ban on open-net salmon farms in B.C., continued this week with the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association (ACFFA) strongly condemning the move.

“The plan announced by the Department of Fisheries and Ocean is an offence to good science and good governance and a disturbing example of reckless political interference by the Prime Minister’s office in the management of our oceans,” said Susan Farquharson, Executive Director of the ACFFA.

“The BC plan is not backed by science and demonstrates that Fisheries and Oceans Canada cannot effectively manage our oceans and should not have the responsibility to manage ocean farming,” she said.

The government’s ban on open-net salmon farming in BC does not apply to Atlantic Canada provinces.

“Despite the recent federal decision on salmon farming in British Columbia, we continue to support marine-based net pen salmon farming in New Brunswick, where we are the lead regulatory agency for aquaculture,” said the province’s Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries Minister Margaret Johnson.

“We are open for business and encourage new investment in this ever-evolving sector that supports many coastal communities,” she said.

The United Steelworkers Union has also expressed concern that Ottawa’s planned ban will increase the challenges facing small coastal communities, which already struggle to recruit and retain workers.

“Working people fear that distant decision-makers, who’ve never visited their communities, are ill-equipped to understand the impact of the loss of jobs such as those in aquaculture,” said Scott Lunny, USW Director for Western Canada and the Territories.

“The federal government can either validate those fears or back their transition plan with meaningful investments, infrastructure and support. Either way, they will be held accountable by workers and communities,” he said.

The USW is the largest private-sector union in North America with 850,000 members in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean.

Farm-raised salmon generates over $1.142 billion of direct economic activity in BC annually, providing over 5,000 direct and indirect jobs and contributes more than a billion dollars to the GDP.

The sector also directly and indirectly employs over 700 Indigenous people and provides $120 million in total annual economic benefits to First Nations, with $42 million going directly to Indigenous communities. Today, 100 per cent of BC’s farmed salmon is raised in agreement with Rights Holder First Nations.

(Facebook image shows Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier meeting with Chief Hasheukumiss of the Ahousaht First Nation this week to discuss the future of aquaculture in his community.)