Océans en santé. Communautés en santé

Future of Salmon on Trial

February 12, 2024

It would have been hard to tell that the lawyers were all really talking about the future of salmon, if you just dropped into the hearing at Federal Court back in December.  Former Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray’s decision to refuse salmon farm licences in the Discovery Islands was the subject of the hearing, but little was said about her reason for so deciding: the perilous state of wild salmon in the Province of BC. 

Lawyers for the salmon farm companies were talking about their business planning cycle, the jobs and GDP they create, as if in the process of creating all that wealth, they weren’t destroying the incomparable bounty of wild salmon. They claimed the Minister’s decision was unfair and unreasonable, hanging their arguments once again on the Aquaculture Management Directorate’s widely impugned science advice that the farms do no more than minimal harm to wild salmon. They went so far as to suggest that the Minister was incompetent to seek out science advice from leading academics and other scientists within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans—that she simply couldn’t evaluate that evidence without the ‘help’ of her Department’s captured aquaculture regulators. Moreover, they were “unaware” what science the Minister claimed to be relying on, even though they were briefed on that science by the Department before the Minister was. 

Lawyers for We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum First Nations were asserting title rights over the Discovery Islands and arguing that the Minister didn’t give appropriate attention to their plan to continue salmon farming, co-regulated by the Nations and DFO. 

It wasn’t until our lawyers from Ecojustice, a national environmental law charity, stood up that the Court heard the real story: the Minister took a “highly precautionary” approach to the Discovery Islands area based on concerns for vulnerable populations of migrating juvenile salmon, emerging new research, and uncertainties around the cumulative effects of pathogens from the farms, climate change, habitat loss and predation. 

Fisheries Ministers have a primary duty to conserve wild fish. They are empowered to use the precautionary principle to fulfil that duty. They must also act fairly, listening to all submissions and concerns and give reasons for decisions. In our view, Minister Murray ticked all those boxes. It remains to be seen whether the Court agrees: the decision has been reserved and may not be handed down for months. 

Meanwhile, there are some signs that closing farms has had a positive impact on wild salmon survival. Since the Discovery Islands farms were closed in 2020, outmigrating Fraser River sockeye have been far more numerous. They are fatter and virtually lice-free, unlike their condition over the past 20 years. Similarly in the Broughton, where farms were closed by First Nations, pink returns are up by an order of magnitude. It’s early days, as far as the future of salmon stocks is concerned; but we are hopeful that this fall, we will see some improvement in Fraser River stocks. 

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