Wading through it

🕔Jan 30, 2007

Since February 2006, ten BC MLAs have been up to their necks in one of the most contentious debates to grip communities who depend on salmon: the future of aquaculture in BC.

As appointed members of the Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture, they’ve been travelling around BC, holding formal hearings to solicit British Columbians’ views about salmon farming.

Their mission: navigate the highly polarized debate about its sustainability by sorting through more than 100 hours of testimony and 3,000 pages of written submissions. Six members of the committee hail from the provincial NDP, a party which is arguing for a reinstatement of the moratorium on new fish farm licenses on the grounds that they are decimating the province’s wild salmon stocks. Four members are from the BC Liberals, which have a decidedly friendlier stance towards fish farms. Somehow, committee members must reconcile their divergent views and issue a coherent set of recommendations to government by May 2007.

The stakes for northern BC are high. Salmon farming is well established on the south-central coast of BC, but has yet to make its debut on northern BC’s Skeena River system. A Norwegian multi-national corporation is hoping for government approval to locate three farms here, providing up to 100 jobs for the First Nations community of Gitkaatla, about 72 km southeast of Prince Rupert.

The issue is contentious partly because the BC government has been promoting increased aquaculture development on the BC coast despite public opposition (a 2005 Synovate poll showed that 72% of British Columbians are opposed to the expansion of industrial fish farms until health and environment issues are resolved).

Aquaculture opponents argue that it will endanger still-healthy wild salmon stocks, not just on the coast but as far inland as Houston—profoundly affecting ecosystems, economies, and particularly First Nations, for whom wild salmon remains an important food source and cultural symbol.

In December, the aquaculture committee issued its anxiously awaited interim report. Perhaps not surprisingly, it offered little more than a recounting of meetings and submissions received by the committee—and no hint of which way the committee might be leaning.

In hopes of getting an insider’s look at how this political hot potato will be handled, Northword Magazine posed a series of questions to two MLAs on the Committee. Both represent coastal communities where salmon farms are a hot issue, and both have absorbed the same information for the past several months. Yet, with few exceptions, their views diverge at least as sharply as when they started.

Gary Coons is an NDP MLA from Prince Rupert, and Ron Cantelon is a Liberal MLA from Nanaimo. For brevity, we have paraphrased key points from their responses.

1. Whose presentation to the committee stood out as most memorable?

Gary Coons:
My home community of Prince Rupert, where about 200 [First Nations people] showed up in their traditional regalia [demonstrating against the introduction of aquaculture to the North Coast]. I was shocked, amazed, surprised at the intensity of the meeting, the concern…I’d say we heard loud and clear that the north coast should be fish-farm free …and that more research would be needed so we can proceed very cautiously on the north coast.

Ron Cantelon:
In Tofino, a First Nations chief told a story about his son, who moved away in an urban setting, lost his way and ended up dying. He attributed that to having no future in his community…While [the chief] had been reluctant to bring in fish farms…[they] brought employment, economic stability, gave people a reason to stay, a source of hope. That was the most touching.

2. Whose presentation was surprising, or challenged your previously held views?

Gary Coons:
I can’t think of an example of that.

Ron Cantelon:
We were told, in more than one location, that people were finding two-headed [farm-produced] salmon…dogs wouldn’t eat them. They seemed quite certain that this was a fact—nothwithstanding the fact that the U.S. can’t get enough [farmed salmon]. After encountering those kinds of stories, nothing surprised me. [Editor’s note: In Bella Bella, Raija Reid offered the Committee a second-hand account of two-headed salmon.]

3. On what key points may committee members be leaning towards a consensus?

Gary Coons:
I’d say we agree that we need to look closer at the economics of closed containment [a possibly land-based alternative to ocean-sited net-pen aquaculture—which exposes wild salmon habitat to fish-farming byproducts]. On Nov. 30, we learned that the provincial government and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are researching this. We haven’t yet gotten a briefing on this, and still know almost nothing about it—which [at this late date] is amazing.

Ron Cantelon:
I think we’d agree that industry has improved the quality of construction of net pens, which has greatly reduced escapements, over the past 20 years. And I think we now understand that disease [among farmed salmon] is very properly handled. Unlike other industries, such as beef, and chicken, where drugs are administered to prevent disease, you can’t administer antibiotics to farmed salmon until you have a diagnosis and prescription by a vet.

4. Are there any key points that continue to divide the Committee?

Gary Coons:
The key one: trying to sort out the science of sea lice and their impacts. DFO still says: more research is needed. I find it very, very bizarre that the protectors of our wild stocks would indicate that they see no impacts [from lice] at this point in time. They say that the science isn’t there. I would challenge that with: the science isn’t there, because the science hasn’t been done.

Ron Cantelon:
Sea lice: To what extent are they affecting wild salmon? Science is divided sharply on this issue. To what extent do infected fish reinfect others, and what effect does that have on their [mortality]? What about fish that don’t go near salmon farms? When you catch a fish with lice on it, can you say its condition was caused by lice? It may have lice because of its condition.

5. Comments on the “precautionary principle” [The precautionary principle is internationally endorsed, and advocates that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason to postpone preventative action where there is a threat of serious or irreversible harm to health or the environment]:

Gary Coons:
I really find it quite mind-boggling that with so many science gaps [on fish-farm-related impacts of waste, of chemicals, interactions of farmed and wild species, disease transfer, ecological effects, sea lice impacts], DFO continues to promote aquaculture, while trying to protect wild stocks. Canada’s auditor general has done four reports, since 1997, that said the DFO cannot do both. In my opinion, there’s a major concern with DFO and its [lack of] use of the precautionary principle.

Ron Cantelon:
The precautionary principle was cited many times, and then in the last panel [we heard] it more correctly defined for us. It applies to anything that you do that may cause lasting, permanent damage to the ecosystem. Mostly, with sea lice, [damage] can be quickly reversed as we’ve seen. Salmon returns, runs, rebound quite quickly. I think we have the opportunity, by proper management, to control the situation.

6. How important, on a scale of one to 10, is the process of peer-review, such as that practiced by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in determining the soundness of scientific research? [Editor’s note: “Peer review” refers to a process by which scientific papers are reviewed by experts prior to being accepted for publication in a scholarly journal. Traditionally, there is more than one reviewer (or “referee”). To avoid potential conflicts of interest, reviewers are unpaid, their identities are not known to the author, they do not communicate directly with each other, and they do not work for the same organization as the author. Their questions, and suggestions for the paper’s improvement, are relayed by the publication’s editor to the author, who uses these to revise and improve the work until it is acceptable for publication. The peer-review process is meant to reduce errors and produce sound science; not all submitted papers make it through this process to publication. Publications that have not been peer-reviewed are often regarded with suspicion by scholars.]

Gary Coons:
It’s up there as a nine or a 10. The number one question I’d ask is, has it been peer-reviewed?

Ron Cantelon:
At least seven out of 10. I wouldn’t necessarily differentiate the NAS [process] from others…that’s exactly what we don’t do, is say, ‘Our [peer reviewers] are better than yours.’ What you’re saying implies that there’s a natural bias within an organization to support scientists working for that organization. That’s not what my experience tells me; there’s a good deal of disagreement, and scientific competition, within an organization.

[Editor’s note: Here, Northword pressed for clarification]: Does that mean you don’t distinguish between a review of one’s work by peers within the same organization, and peer-review processes such as that used by the NAS? Are both processes equally able to determine the value of the science?
Ron Cantelon: I’m not going there.

7. What is it like to travel around with 10 committee members for months to study this issue?

Gary Coons:
It’s been very enjoyable. When you’re in the legislature, it’s very intense, but when you travel together, there’s a lot of camaraderie. During our travels I broke my ankle, and I had Liberal colleagues carrying my bags. We joked that I should get a picture of this.

Ron Cantelon:
I love it. I enjoy controversy. At the end everything does sort itself out.

© Larissa Ardis 2007