The evidence is in, the recommendations made: In his recently released report Justice Bruce Cohen expressed a high level of concern around the impacts of open net-cage fish farms on wild salmon, something we have been concerned about for over a decade. Open net-cage salmon farms on the B.C. coast are too close to migrating juvenile salmon. It's time, according to Justice Cohen, for considering the removal of open net-cage farms from these migration routes.
Take, for example, the siting of up to 36 huge open net-cage salmon farms, some of which are set to expand, on the most critical migration route for Fraser River sockeye salmon, the narrow Discovery Passage — Johnston Strait corridor.
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Justice Cohen recommends that we freeze production and not allow new sites in this region. Unless sound science shows otherwise, he argues, these farms should be removed from the area. The responsibility should rest with salmon farms to show that they pose only a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating salmon.
Justice Cohen put a red light on farms in the Discovery Islands because this is the region where young Fraser River sockeye migrate, and the focus area for his inquiry. But his reasoning, and the evidence it was based on, could easily be transferred to other areas of B.C., as well as the salmon farms operating near wild Atlantic salmon streams in New Brunswick and other eastern provinces. The evidence suggests that all open net-cage salmon farms near juvenile salmon migration routes pose an unacceptable risk to wild salmon.
Open-net salmon farm cages are suspended in the water and no barrier exists between the farm and the surrounding environment. They can be the size of four football fields and hold up to 750,000 fish. B.C. has approximately 137 salmon farm tenures with about 85 farms active at any one time (84 tenures on Eastern Vancouver Island and Mainland Coast, 48 on Western Vancouver Island and six on the Central Coast).
The weight of evidence convinced Justice Cohen that open net-cage fish farming is negatively affecting wild salmon. Justice Cohen's recommendations signal that it's time to move beyond the debate of whether there's a link between open net-cage salmon farms and declining stocks and move towards solutions that protect B.C.'s wild salmon.
One solution would be for the industry to transition to closed containment farms. This idea is gaining traction in B.C. as entrepreneurs realize that open net-cage fish farming is losing its social license to operate in our waters and as more industry leaders demonstrate financial and technological success with closed systems that are better for the environment. The 'Namgis First Nation is working on a pilot to raise closed containment salmon and Swift Aquaculture in Agassiz is producing fish for restaurants this way. On the retail side, Overwaitea Food Group is the first to sell sustainably raised Coho in its stores.
Moving farms to closed containment would go a long way to addressing concerns raised by Justice Cohen and still support a viable industry. We'd have winners on both sides: protected wild salmon and communities with more sustainable economic development opportunities.
Take action for wild salmon: Tell your MP and the Prime Minister you want to see Cohen Commission recommendations put into action.