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Oceans Update Fall 2019

Letter from Executive Director Karen Wristen:

It may be oxymoronic, or it may be the breakthrough we’ve all been working toward for a quarter of a century. This summer, the Minister of Fisheries hurriedly appointed many of the leading voices for and against open netpen salmon aquaculture to an initiative he called “Enhanced Sustainability in Aquaculture”.

A linguist would probably call it an oxymoron. I’m an optimist, so I’ll venture to say it looks like a breakthrough. Of course, the Minister in question is no longer the Minister and we don’t even know what party will form government, so whether the breakthrough leads to action is a very open question.

Living Oceans sits at two of the four tables convened under the Initative, while the other two are ably covered off by colleagues. We are charged by the Minister with delivering a report that will contain consensus-based recommendations on pretty much all of the issues we’ve been raising about netpen aquaculture since Living Oceans was formed in 1998.

I’m not that much of an optimist: there won’t be consensus on all issues because we’re sitting with the industry and the Fisheries staff whose job it has been all this time to defend and promote the industry. This will be the first time, however, that a multi-stakeholder group takes a serious look at the deficiencies in management of open netpens and our marching orders open up the potential for making huge improvements immediately, as well as paving the way for transitioning netpens out of the ocean.

One of the working groups is specifically charged with making recommendations to incent the use of new technology. It has as a starting point a new report commissioned jointly by B.C. and the federal government. “State of Salmon Aquaculture Technologies, 2019” concludes that both land-based recirculating systems and hybrid systems that reduce the open netpen grow-out time are commercially viable technologies today. Hybrid systems won’t do much to improve conditions for wild salmon, but we have always maintained that land-based aquaculture can be managed to completely isolate the marine environment from adverse impacts.

I’m working on the Area-based Management table, which should be producing some concrete recommendations that can be implemented immediately to control lice and disease impacts, while longer-term recommendations will help level the playing field between land-based and netpen systems by making netpen operators pay the real cost of using the ocean as a sewer.

I also sit on the Advisory Board that will write the final report, drawing together the work of all tables.

The simple fact that this Initiative has been convened is in itself evidence of more movement on the aquaculture file than I have ever seen.  However, I’ve been around the block enough times to know how reports can sit on the shelf unless there’s overwhelming political pressure to implement change.

This is where your help is vital. If you’ve read this far, I know you’re dead set against open netpen salmon farming. The people who need to know that you feel that way are only a mouse-click away: Tell your local candidates! Read on, for an easy tool you can use to do that online. Share the tool with friends and family and ask them to use it, too. Go to your all-candidates’ meetings and ask what they’ll do to get netpens out of the ocean. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. These things work—in fact, they’re the only things that work. If reason alone could prevail, we’d have won this over a decade ago!

Help us put this one through the goalposts, won’t you? Your donation today would be a huge help—you know they convened this Initiative at such short notice that we couldn’t write a grant proposal, and the government won’t even pay our meeting travel expenses, much less compensate for the time we have to put into the process?

This election, vote for wild salmon!

Salmon returns in B.C. have plummeted to such an extent that many are calling it a crisis and predicting another disaster like the East Coast cod fishery. We aren’t there yet, but we will be if the federal fisheries department doesn’t take immediate and decisive action to eliminate threats to salmon survival, like open netpen salmon farms. That’s going to require political leadership and that’s where you can pitch in to help wild salmon.

We’ve made it easy for you to tell all of your candidates in the federal election campaign to get the netpens out!  Just visit us at www.safesalmon.ca – a few quick clicks is all it will take to send a letter to each of your candidates, demanding action to protect wild salmon.

You can even monitor how your candidates react, whether or not they respond to your letter!  Our colleagues at Wild Salmon Forever are holding candidates’ feet to the fire by tracking their responses to a pledge to transition netpens out of the ocean by 2025.  See their pledge tracker at https://www.wildfirst.ca/pledge-tracker/

Trans Mountain: Where have all the Court Challenges Gone?

If you’re having trouble keeping up, it’s no surprise! This pipeline might just be the most-litigated project in Canadian history. Here are some of the highlights.

Living Oceans and Raincoast Conservation Foundation asked the Federal Court of Appeal for leave to bring a new challenge to the Reconsideration Report and Cabinet re-approval of the project. (The Reconsideration Report was the National Energy Board’s response to our successful court challenge of the original environmental assessment.) Our grounds are pretty straightforward: the government has still failed to protect Southern Resident Killer Whales, in violation of the Species at Risk Act.

We were surprised to see the court’s decision, which basically said, “No, because we’ve already decided that question.” Remarkable, in that this question has never been asked of the court. Our lawyers at Ecojustice are currently preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court might not hear our case—it’s completely discretionary. But they’ve never before made a ruling about the Species at Risk Act and our case would provide clarity on how endangered species are supposed to be protected from impacts of development. We won’t know for some time yet whether or not the case will proceed.

In the meantime, the same court has allowed several challenges by First Nations, albeit with restrictions on what issues they can raise. Some of those Nations may also appeal the ruling.

On a related matter, the Federal Court issued a ruling in the case brought by B.C. against Alberta’s so-called “turn off the taps” law. The Court has granted a temporary injunction against using the Act to cut off supplies to B.C., which gets about 80% of its gasoline and diesel fuel from Alberta. The injunction will last until the case is heard in full, some time later this year. B.C. had previously taken its case to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, where it was dismissed because B.C. lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of Alberta’s legislation in that Court.

The B.C. Court of Appeal recently awarded a partial victory to Squamish Nation, who were trying to set aside the Provincial environmental assessment certificate. That ruling requires the Province to re-examine the conditions it imposed on the project, in light of the Reconsideration Report. The Province will have to try to come up with some conditions that are within its jurisdiction and respond to the new findings in the Report. One thing is for certain: they’ll need to do more consultation with the Nations, who may have some interesting ideas of their own about conditions.

You likely recall that the government of B.C. submitted a reference case on the question of its right to regulate diluted bitumen flowing through the province. The B.C. Court of Appeal held that the Province couldn’t exercise its authority so as to frustrate federal ambitions. (Some would say, “too late”). That case is also on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Construction is proceeding at several points along the route, despite the court proceedings and the fact that vast stretches of the pipeline’s route have yet to be approved. Landowners, including individuals, First Nations and municipalities continue to object to granting rights of way for reasons of public safety, the integrity of community water supply and the protection of streambanks.

Trans Mountain:  Who’s Paying the Piper?

When the National Energy Board assessed Trans Mountain, it made a finding that the project was in the public interest. It essentially bought Trans Mountain’s argument that it would deliver financial benefits and jobs; and that these outweighed any far-fetched environmental concerns. Even as they did so, though, the Board imposed a condition designed to make sure the project is commercially viable: Three months before starting construction, Trans Mountain should file proof that at least 75% of the total pipeline capacity is contracted out to oil shippers for at least 15 years.

Think what you may about it being in the public interest, now that we own the pipeline project, it’s more important than ever to ensure it’s a sound investment. The government won’t be able to sell it otherwise. You and I will be paying for it, otherwise. And all those alleged benefits would disappear, leaving us with a very expensive hole in the ground.

I should point out right here that there are contracts in place with shippers for 80% of the pipeline’s capacity. But the rates to be charged to the shippers under those contracts support a construction cost of only $7.4 billion. The project today is estimated to cost $10-12 billion.

The federal government won’t tell us how much they think it will cost to complete, but Trans Mountain has told us that they have not gone back to their shippers to re-open the contracts and negotiate deals that would support the full construction cost. They’re holding pat with the old contracts.

So, Canadians build a pipeline for $10-12 billion knowing full well they can’t sell it for more than $7.4 billion; but the plan is to sell it to recoup our investment.  It seems to me that’s a $3-5 billion subsidy to the oil industry and the buyer of the pipeline.

It boggles the mind that we can acknowledge a climate crisis, but massively subsidize the construction of 50-year infrastructure for an industry we need to sunset within a decade in order to solve the climate crisis.  Such is politics, in this great and diverse nation.

Living Oceans has filed a formal request with the National Energy Board (now the “Canadian Energy Regulator”) to review its decision on Condition 57, which requires proof of commercial viability. We say Trans Mountain has to go back to its shippers, in a market where oil is worth half what it was when this pipeline was dreamed up and the cost of the pipeline has doubled from its original $5.4 billion estimated cost. Prove it’s commercially viable by asking shippers again, “Will you pay the piper?”

Shoppers expect sustainable seafood but how do Canadian retailers stack up?

This Summer, SeaChoice released its first annual update to Seafood Progress – an online reporting resource that assesses and compares major Canadian retailers’ sustainable seafood commitments and what they are doing to achieve them. 

Results show there have been positive improvements by retailers within the last year with national average scores increasing across the board. This is largely due to an increase in transparency on what retailers are doing on seafood sustainability. For example, this year two additional retailers (Sobeys and Safeway) cooperated with SeaChoice to share information about their policies and practices, leading to more complete and representative profiles. There is now only one major food retailer whose profile is based solely on publicly available information. Two other retailers, Walmart Canada and METRO, decided to start publishing information on where their seafood comes from and how it was produced.

Yet much work remains to be done – particularly on seafood labelling. Canada’s lax seafood labelling laws means most retailers continue to provide shoppers with the bare minimum information required about their seafood products.  One retailer however is voluntarily leading the way. METRO includes important information such as the species’ scientific name, geographic origin of harvest and harvest method on their seafood packaging in both English and French.

Crucial work also remains in supporting improvements of typically unsustainable seafood commodities, such as farmed shrimp, farmed salmon and canned tuna. For example, all but one retailer (Buy-Low Foods) continues to sell farmed salmon. However, some retailers do preferentially source closed-containment and eco-certified farmed salmon.  Unfortunately for skipjack canned tuna, many sustainable seafood retailer commitments simply don’t include this commodity.

With shoppers expecting their local grocery store to be doing their part to protect our oceans and SeaChoice’s continued oversight to ensure they are - we expect retailers to continue their progress over the next year.  Stay tuned.

Clear the Coast 2019 Expedition

Just when you think you’ve got a good routine going and you know what to expect, nature throws her curve ball…

Our main expedition of the year, to Sea Otter Cove, started off much the same as it has the past five years: a reasonably warm, calm day for sailing around northern Vancouver Island aboard our sailboat, Viajador, with several volunteers on board and more expected to meet us in the Cove by kayak. The trip out went well enough—just some big rollers as we rounded Cape Scott, but that’s to be expected.  It was about the last thing that went as expected!

The day following our arrival, a gale began to blow from the southeast.  Most summer winds blow from the northwest and our campsite is accordingly positioned to shelter from a northwest wind. We put up a windscreen in the camp cooking area and secured the tents well; and we put an extra line on Viajador to doubly secure her to the mooring buoy. Peeking out of the Cove to see what conditions the kayakers would face coming in from San Josef Bay, we concluded that they’d never arrive: the rocky outcrops we could see were being pounded by waves as tall as houses.

It was with some surprise that we greeted the intrepid kayak crew a few hours after concluding they couldn’t make it! The rollers had been so big that they couldn’t see one another in between them, but everyone arrived safely, if wet.

The gale had barely blown itself out when a storm came in and this one, also southeast, was serious. A neighbouring sailboat with an anemometer clocked the sustained winds at 55-58 knots, with gusts up to 67 knots (that’s 124 kilometers per hour, or hurricane force). We set watches on the sailboat throughout the day and night; and shredded four robust mooring lines before the storm ended, as if a switch had been flipped, at 1:45 in the morning. When the sun rose the next day, the seas outside the Cove were still at 5-7 meters.

Our amazing volunteer crews worked right through the weather. We hiked to the most sheltered beaches when it was at its worst; and took advantage of every calm period to use the boat to transport crews to the more exposed areas. We managed to get to all of the beaches that we’ve cleaned for now six consecutive years; but that’s where the next surprise came in.

There was hardly any debris.  Well, a tonne and a half, as it turned out, but compared with our usual 5-10 tonne cleanups, it seemed like nothing.

I’d like to think that the reduced debris recovery is explained by our consistent efforts on the North Island. We have removed 43.4 tonnes of plastic from the region since 2014. However, something else must have been at play, because there was also a very dramatic reduction in the number of beached logs we encountered. The outer beaches of San Josef Bay, in particular, usually look like a giant game of pickup sticks, but this year, we exited the trail onto a virtually empty sand beach. Winter wind and waves drive most of the debris onto these beaches and we speculate that wind patterns must have been as unusual over the winter as we found them to be in August!

We are greatly indebted to the Canadian Wildlife Service this year, for providing the helicopter services necessary to removing the debris, which would otherwise impact the newly created Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area, a vital nesting area for seabirds. Our thanks as well to the Regional District of Mount Waddington for waiving tipping fees for the non-recyclable portion of the debris; and to Dan Carter of Port Hardy for transporting the debris and looking after us while in town. And of course, our warmest thanks to all of you who contributed to the programme this year: without you, there’d have been no fuel for the boats and no hot food for the volunteers who worked so hard to bring it all in.

Is Aquaculture the Answer to Overfishing and World Hunger?

Science tests two common claims about the aquaculture industry.

You’ve likely heard the narrative: ‘eat a farmed fish, save a wild fish’. It is a claim that the farmed salmon industry is particularly fond of. It’s a simple theory: if consumers substitute farmed seafood for wild, that should alleviate fishing pressure on wild stocks. With a third of the world’s wild fisheries overfished, any solutions to help reduce fishing pressure are certainly welcomed.

But does the theory stack up? A recent study put it to the test and the answer, so far, is no. If the theory is true, then modelling should show that increased aquaculture production is correlated with decreases in wild catch. Instead, Longo et al. (2018) found that aquaculture has been supplementing – not suppressing – wild fishery captures. Since the 1980s, aquaculture production has steadily increased while fishery capture has remained relatively stagnant.

The authors explored several potential factors to explain why aquaculture has not given wild fish a reprieve. The most obvious is the use of wild fish to feed farmed carnivorous fish. While fish feed manufacturers have innovated over recent years, 15 million tonnes of wild fish are still used for aquaculture. It doesn’t help that the ‘global North’ consumes predominantly high-value commodities that tend to be carnivorous and environmentally intensive, such as farmed salmon and shrimp. The authors suggest aquaculture production has focused efforts on “overall expansion rather than environmental conservation”.

So, choosing farmed over wild isn’t alleviating pressure on wild populations – but aquaculture is adding to overall seafood production. Is it true, therefore, that farmed fish are feeding the world’s growing population, again as the industry often claims?

UN report recently estimated over 820 million people suffer from hunger, while 1.3 billion are food insecure (i.e. lack regular access to nutritious and sufficient food). A key element of FAO’s plan to eliminate world hunger is to increase access to fish through fishing and aquaculture.

At the same time, studies have found the world produces more than enough food, including fish protein, for the entire global population. Between 1961 and 2013, world population grew at an average annual rate of 1.6%, while global fish supply increased annually on average by 3.2%. This highlights the need to understand and address the gap between supply and access.

One of the reasons for the ‘gap’ is food loss and waste. Globally, around 35% of seafood is either ‘lost’ during the fishing, farming and/or processing stages (i.e. bycatch, discards, rejected, process waste, etc.) or thrown away as ‘waste’ at the retail or consumer level. Rich countries are the worst offenders. For example, nearly half of the U.S. seafood supply was found to be lost or wasted. The FAO has called on all nations to halve food loss and waste by 2030.

Another reason for the gap between supply and access is that the type of seafood being farmed is frequently inaccessible to those who need it most, because of factors like locality, cost and/or culture. Longo et al. suggest the problem is that the industry often prioritizes the production of high-value seafood as a global commodity, think farmed salmon, rather than the production of seafood that meets human needs, think shellfish and seaweed. Other studies also suggest a shift away from farmed species that rely on feed inputs (e.g. wild fish and edible crops) is necessary to meet the protein needs of a growing population.

Thankfully some places are closing the gap. In Bangladesh, a rapid transformation of the fish value chain – including the diversification of species farmed – has led to more affordable and accessible seafood for the domestic market, including the people who need it most.

In the end, farmed salmon isn’t decreasing pressure on wild stocks nor is it the affordable protein that is going to feed the world (or even all Canadians) – in spite of what the industry says. But that’s not to say that we should avoid eating all farmed seafood – even if it is simply supplementing, not suppressing, the fish we catch. Maybe we just need to rethink which seafood we farm and choose to buy.

Fisheries and Oceans last year announced a “renewed approach” to sustainable aquaculture in Canada – all targeted towards farmed salmon. However, diversifying our approach to aquaculture, beyond salmon, could help provide more accessible and affordable seafood protein options to more Canadians (though we should also ensure it is farmed sustainably). Consumers can help drive this change by purchasing the unsung sustainable farmed seafood heroes, such as shellfish and seaweed – which require no feed inputs. And please, avoid sending that extra seafood to the bin!

Photo Contest Results Are In!

Every year we invite the public to help us showcase the beauty of the ocean as we advocate for its protection, by sharing their ocean photos with us.

This year, once again, we were overwhelmed by how many terrific photos were entered, and we were very grateful to our guest judge Andrew Wright for taking on the task of judging which photos would receive prizes.

Please take a look at this year's winning entries on our website here, and to see all photos entered you can check out this photo album on our Facebook page.