Treating wild and farmed salmon equally
Monday, March 09, 2009
The recent decision by the B.C. Supreme Court to grant authority over salmon farming to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans was hailed as a "major victory" by anti-salmon farm activists.
They were gleeful over the court's finding that the province of British Columbia did not have jurisdiction because salmon farming is a "fishery" and not "farming."
It would seem, and I am happy for it, that they have shot themselves in the foot by filing the lawsuit in the first place.
The Constitution Act of 1867 gave the federal government jurisdiction over "Seacoast and Inland Fisheries." In other words, all fisheries. But the provinces own the land, including lakes and rivers, giving rise to constitutional uncertainty regarding freshwater fisheries.
Over the years the federal and provincial governments have negotiated shared management of many freshwater fisheries, including trout.
There were no salmon farms, or any other marine-based aquaculture operations, in 1867. Because the provinces had jurisdiction over the foreshore leases required by marine aquaculture, it only made sense to share management authority for these operations in addition to the freshwater fisheries. A B.C. Supreme Court judge has interpreted this to be unconstitutional with regard to salmon farming. One would imagine this applies to other marine aquaculture, including sablefish, oyster, clam, mussel and scallop farms.
If I were a B.C. government official, I would heave a great sigh of relief at this decision. The province has done its best, since salmon farming began in the early 1980s, to help regulate and manage the growth of the sector, now B.C.'s largest food export industry.
At every step of the way they have been dogged by a coalition of commercial fishing interests, tourism operators, the political left, and anti-salmon farm activists.
There have been near-continuous public hearings, special commissions and legislative committees on this subject for over 30 years. For the provincial government, salmon farming has been a political liability during most of the industry's history.
In the 2005 provincial elections, the Liberals lost every coastal riding where salmon farming is practiced to the NDP. Salmon farming was a major point of contention in all these seats. The anti-salmon-farm lobby had succeeded with its unsubstantiated claims to convince many voters that sea lice from fish farms threatened the wild salmon.
I believe this is one of the most trumped-up fabrications in the environmental debate today.
The court's decision has now made it clear that the provincial government is not responsible for salmon farm policy.
Therefore the political liability has all but vanished as provincial candidates for office can state truthfully that they are not the authority on the subject, that the federal government is responsible.
Meanwhile, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has shown strong support for aquaculture from the beginning.
Many of the aquaculture techniques, including salmon farming and herring roe-on-kelp, were developed at DFO's Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. And the fisheries scientists in DFO have never bought into the activists' hysterical claims of "extinction" for wild salmon that have been carried so widely in the popular media.
In December 2008, the magazine Science published an article by senior DFO fisheries scientists Brian Riddell and Order of Canada recipient Richard Beamish, and others, that argued in typically understated fashion that the activists' "prediction [of extinction] is inconsistent with observed pink salmon returns and overstates the risks from sea lice and salmon farming."
Now that salmon farming has been defined as a "fishery" rather than a "farm," it will be DFO's responsibility to treat salmon farms and other aquaculture operations as equal to the traditional wild fisheries. Both wild and farmed fisheries make important contributions to our coastal communities and our healthy diet.
It is about time that they were treated on a level playing field rather than played off against each other for political advantage.
-- An advisor to government and industry, Patrick Moore was a co-founder and long-time leader of Greenpeace.