Canada Shuts Down 15 Fish Farms in B.C., Citing Risks to Wild Salmon

Salmon net pens
Salmon farm at Barnes Bay off Sonora Island, British Columbia (David Stanley / CC BY 2.0)

Published Feb 19, 2023 10:13 PM by The Maritime Executive

After years of concerns over the impact of aquaculture on wild sockeye salmon, Canada's fisheries department has decided not to renew the operating permits of 15 Atlantic salmon farms in an environmentally-sensitive area of British Columbia. 

In a news release, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray noted that B.C.'s salmon runs are in "serious, long-term decline," and some are at risk of collapse if action is not taken. Wild salmon face many stressors, including warming waters and habitat degradation, and fish farming operations may also have an impact - particularly in the tight, narrow passages of the Discovery Islands, where migrating juvenile salmon have to come into close proximity with salmon farms. Of the 31 identified salmon runs in the Fraser River watershed, 11 are endangered. 

“The state of wild Pacific salmon is dire, and we must do what we can to ensure their survival. This was a difficult but necessary decision. By taking an enhanced precautionary approach in the Discovery Islands area, the Government of Canada will help ensure the well-being of wild Pacific salmon for our children and grandchildren," said Murray in a statement. 

The minister's decision drew on the findings of a commission of inquiry led by former BC Supreme Court Justice Bruce I. Cohen, released in 2012. The commission found that salmon pens in the Discovery Islands' channels pose a risk of "serious or irreversible harm" to wild sockeye salmon runs. Based on current science at the time, the commission concluded that it could not "rule out diseases and pathogens on salmon farms as contributing to the decline of Fraser River sockeye and posing future risks."

Ten years have passed since the Cohen commission's report, and more recent research indicates that the diseases associated with salmon-farming may have an impact on wild salmon in general and on Fraser River salmon smolts in particular. 

"There have been some assessments from [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] that suggest minimal risk and there’s also been science since that main assessment that has been suggesting that there may well be risk from the viruses and sea lice from the farms," Murray told the Canadian Press. 

The decision has been coming for some time. The administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first announced plans to shut down salmon farms in the Discovery Islands in 2020, and is working on a "transition plan" to move the B.C. aquaculture industry away from open net pen farming by 2025. 

Top image: Salmon farm at Barnes Bay off Sonora Island, British Columbia (David Stanley / CC BY 2.0)