A deep look

🕔Mar 09, 2006

Was it a brilliant political move on the part of the B.C. Liberals, or a genuine opportunity for people most affected by, and critical of, aquaculture to be part of the solution?

We’re talking, of course, about the special committee for sustainable aquaculture, convened by the Liberal government in September. It’s been tasked with finding answers to the contentious issues around fish farming, and has about 18 months to review the science, consult with stakeholders and come up with some recommendations of how to move forward.

A sustained, all-party look at the issue is arguably long overdue. It’s been 16 months since B.C.’s Auditor General issued a report which slammed the provincial government for “weak” reporting on performance relating to sustaining wild salmon, and lacking a “clear vision and an overarching strategy for wild salmon sustainability.” It declared that B.C.’s guidelines for siting fish farms “are based on scientific information that is less than complete,” and called for “prompt, concerted action … if salmon fisheries and salmon aquaculture are to be sustainable.”

Meanwhile, salmon-lovers of all persuasions are turning blue around the edges waiting for a decision by the Ministry of Environment about Strout’s Point, the third of three related applications by Pan Fish Canada Ltd. for new fish farms at the mouth of the Skeena.

There’s nothing new about legislative committees being asked to develop solutions to complex issues in a suitable time frame. What is unusual is that six of the 10 members are NDP, which has registered its intent to reinstate a moratorium on open-net fish farms and explore contained alternatives.

This fact has not gone unnoticed.

In November, political pundit Vaughn Palmer questioned whether it was a make-work project, a distraction for stakeholders, or an attempt to put the NDP in the political hot seat.

Luanne Roth, president of the Prince Rupert Environmental Society, which has launched the Save Our Skeena Salmon campaign, disliked the idea.

In Roth’s view, the committee’s majority-NDP makeup could easily lead to its final recommendations being dismissed as biased. When asked whether she’d prefer to see a Liberal-dominated committee instead, her answer was unequivocal:

“We don’t need a committee. We don’t need expansion of fish farming,” said Roth, citing results of an April 2005 McAllister Opinion Research poll which showed that seven out of 10 residents on B.C.’s North Coast are opposed to salmon farming, and 62 per cent want the fish farm moratorium reinstated. “We need a moratorium,” she told Northword in January.

Equally unimpressed was Ian Roberts, who is the president of Positive Aquaculture Awareness (PAA), an association which formed in 1998 to enhance the image of aquaculture through education and community involvement.

He attacked what he called the “biased and scientifically baseless approach to decision-making” of chair Robin Austin, who reportedly told media of his intention to change the way aquaculture is done in B.C. before holding any hearings.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association is decidedly more diplomatic. “We’re looking forward to working with the committee,” executive director Mary Ellen Walling said from the association’s Campbell River headquarters. “We see it as an opportunity to provide information to MLAs, some of whom have never been on a fish farm before.”

When asked about the comparatively more confrontational view of the PAA, Walling emphasized that although Roberts’ association is a member of her organization’s board, there is “no formal relationship” between the Salmon Farmers’ Association and Positive Aquaculture Awareness. She characterized the PAA as a “grassroots organization” which represents aquaculture workers and organizes community events.

Gary Coons, NDP MLA for the North Coast Riding, rejects the idea that the committee might not be able to objectively evaluate the science, given his party’s intent to reinstate a moratorium on the open-net fish farms, which are the industry norm.

“This is not an NDP committee,” he said from his Prince Rupert office. “It is a legislative committee and we are legislated to listen…. Our policies don’t come into play and have nothing to do with this.”

Coons points out that any legislative committee, for example one on oil and gas issues, would rightly be stacked with members whose constituents are directly impacted by the issues. And the NDP members mostly come from coastal ridings.

As far as Pan Fish Ltd.’s third application goes, Coons’ statements suggest they’d better be prepared to be patient.

“I’d expect that the approval [of Strout’s Point by the Ministry of Environment] would be based on our committee’s recommendations,” he said, indicating that the committee has until May 31, 2007, to issue those recommendations.

Coons can’t yet say when community consultations will begin, but did say that he’s interested in hearing from everyone—especially First Nations, who make up about 40 per cent of his riding.

Is this a clever handing off of a political hot potato to politicians who will face the fish farm lobby, including the aquaculture workers represented by Positive Aquaculture Awareness? Will the B.C. government take the committee’s recommendations seriously, or is this a make-work project?

“I hope it isn’t,” said Coons. “There’s a real concern about sustainable aquaculture, and we will do the best job we can … I’m pretty optimistic.”

Some observers have pointed out that the presence of four Liberals, including Liberal MLA and longtime fish farm defender Dan Jarvis, will ensure that the committee’s conclusions are anything but a given.

In the meantime, another dimension of the debate is heating up. The B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association and Positive Aquaculture Awareness have repeatedly claimed that more than 4,000 jobs are tied, directly and indirectly, to aquaculture in B.C.

But when asked to clarify how many of those jobs may also be tied to wild salmon (for example, in processing), Walling indicated this isn’t yet clear.

Nor is it clear how the economic value of direct and indirect employment in aquaculture stacks up next to the value of employment generated by wild salmon, including tourism and sustenance/ceremonial needs of First Nations.

A new study promises to shed some light on the question by examining the economic value of wild salmon in the Skeena watershed. Sources indicate that the report, which is being prepared by IBM Consulting Services (formerly Price Waterhouse) and formally released by the Northwest Institute of Bioregional Research in March, will demonstrate that the direct value of the Skeena wild salmon economy exceeds $75 million annually.

© Larissa Ardis 2006