Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Sea Change in Salmon Farm Science

February 21, 2023

photo of Joyce MurrayFisheries Minister Joyce Murray has done something none of her predecessors in the role has been able to accomplish; and it’s mind-blowing for those of us who’ve been fighting industrial salmon farming in the ocean for 30 years or more.

I’m not talking about her decision announced last Friday, to permanently close the Discovery Island farms—that was wonderful news to be sure, but if you’re feeling a sense of déjà vu, it’s understandable. Former Minister Bernadette Jordan closed those farms in December, 2020 and they haven’t had fish in them since. Two of the four-year cycle of Fraser salmon have swum to sea without running that gauntlet of farms in the Discovery Islands and we hope this fall to see the first of those runs return in healthy numbers.

No, what Joyce Murray did is far more important than keeping the DI farms closed. She has finally—FINALLY—broken the stranglehold that DFO’s aquaculture scientists have had on public policy for 30 years.

Instead of relying on DFO’s “risk assessments” that have been extensively criticized, or their recent sea lice advice paper that was panned as “scientific sin” by sixteen prominent Canadian scientists, the Minister reached out to all of the scientists studying the interactions of wild and farmed salmon. She gathered the most up-to-date studies and discussed them with the researchers. And in outlining her reasoning in Friday’s media release, she said,

“Recent science indicates that there is uncertainty with respect to the risks posed by Atlantic salmon aquaculture farms to wild Pacific salmon in the Discovery Islands area, as well as to the cumulative effect of any farm-related impacts on this iconic species."

She went on to demonstrate for her Department what the Precautionary Principle is all about: in the face of scientific uncertainty, you don’t allow business as usual to continue. You eliminate the risk altogether.

The industry apologists who have occupied the space at DFO’s aquaculture science have worked for 30 years on the theory that, if it couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that salmon farms are killing enough salmon to put the survival of whole populations at risk, then salmon farms must continue to operate. Controlling the funding and the access to fish and labs, they expected to be able to control the science agenda indefinitely, to ensure such proof never materialized.

Our sincerest thanks go to the many, many brave scientists who had the integrity to ask and answer the real questions that needed to be studied, regardless of the barriers thrown up by the Department. I’m happy to say there are far too many excellent and influential papers out there today to be able to recognize all of the authors in this short note; but it would be totally remiss to fail to acknowledge the commitment and dedication of Alexandra Morton and Kristi Miller-Saunders in ensuring rigorous and independent scientific study of the impacts of salmon farms.

And of course, our thanks go out to the Minister for doing the hard work to take all of this information on board, to weigh the consequences and to listen to British Columbians. Her work forms an excellent foundation for proceeding with a Transition Plan that will finally remove all salmon feedlots from our coastal waters.