Salmon for sale at Costco in Anchorage. Photo by Margaret Bauman

Open-net pen salmon farming is being phased out in British Columbia over the next five years, with a transition to closed containment technologies, in an effort of the Canadian government to protect threatened stocks of wild Pacific salmon. 

Officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada said on Tuesday, June 25 that when released the draft transition plan will allow First Nations and stakeholders, including industry, to provide input into what factors will lead to a successful transition to closed containment aquaculture. 

As of last February, there were 57 salmon farms operating in B.C. Last February Oceans and Fisheries closed 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms in the Discovery Islands. Major salmon farm operators include MOWI, the world’s largest producer of farm-raised salmon, with global headquarters in Bergen, Norway. 

The government said in an emailed statement in response to a query that there is an opportunity for British Columbia to become a model for aquaculture research, development and production. The potential time scale, use of land or marine technologies and volume of production are to be discussed in upcoming consultations, they said. 

“The potential effects of open net pens on wild Pacific salmon stocks are indeed significant,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, during a news conference on June 19 announcing the upcoming closures.  

“These include concerns about sea lice, but also concerns about viruses and bacteria that may affect wild Pacific salmon stocks,” he said. 

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Brian Kingzett, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, in a related interview the same day, called the decision “the liberal government’s insanity at its best.” Kingzett said that the disease risks the public hears about on social media do not stand up and that the science the federal government has been doing has been ignored. 

Bob Galagame Chamberlin, chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, said the whole process is about protecting wild salmon. “If they are going to sunset them [open net pens] in five years it makes no sense to allow them to plug every farm as full as they can and amplify the risk to wild salmon,” he said in a B.C. media interview. 

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, aquaculture operations in British Columbia in 2022 produced just over 85,000 tons of salmon. “The majority of aquaculture operations farm Atlantic salmon, but there are currently eight farms that produce Chinook salmon,” the federal agency said.  

“In the last decade, Canada has been the fourth-largest producer of farmed salmon in the world, with its fish being sold within Canada, the United States and other international markets.” 

The conservation entity Watershed Watch, in Vancouver, B.C., said the announcement of ending the open-net pen salmon farms was a relief, but parts of it were also disappointing. 

Given the length of the phase-out “it means five more years of wild salmon being bombarded by parasites and disease,” Watershed Watch said. “Allowing the farms to complete their grow-out cycles would only require another three years (i.e. the lifespan of a farmed salmon) and many will finish their current grow-outs much sooner.” 

The environmental group said they plan to keep up the pressure in coming months to make sure the plan is solid, with no escape clauses and loopholes. They also praised the prospect of new rules to solidify the ban and reduce damage that can be done by the farms during the phase-out period, including lower limits on parasitic lice and early removal if farms can’t keep their lice under control. 

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