The polarized debate over fish farming in British Columbia is threatening a viable and sustainable food source for the world, warns Federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.
And if it does not stop, people will come to the conclusion that there is too much risk and we should just stop the industry as a whole, he told provincial business leaders at Vancouver Island’s Economic Alliance Annual Summit in Nanaimo.
“I think this would be a shame for British Columbia…I think this would be a shame for the world in terms of addressing some of the food requirements,” Wilkinson said when answering a question from the floor.
“I think we hear a lot of the time a fair bit of concern in the media and from individual persons about the potential effects that aquaculture may be having on wild salmon.
“And there is a debate even around a lot of the science where scientists on one side will say one thing and scientists on another side will be saying another thing… a very confusing situation for the average person that is trying to actually figure out what is right and what is wrong.”
“At the end of the day protein needs to come from somewhere and so what we need to do is ensure that we are getting to the point where we can actually legitimately say, and convince the average person on the street, that aquaculture is being done in a manner that is environmentally ecologically sustainable such that you have social license, or whatever you want to call it with an industry that could be bigger than what we have today,” he said.
“I will tell you personally that I believe that aquaculture is part of the solution,” said Wilkinson.
Prior to his luncheon address, Wilkinson told SeaWestNews that he preferred closed containment solutions in the oceans for fish farming so coastal communities can continue to benefit from aquaculture.
He said that the federal government with the help of the provincial government plan to get a study off the ground soon to answer the questions regarding the type of technology that will help grow the aquaculture industry in B.C.
“A lot of people talk about the long term for aquaculture being closed-contained, and again there are lots of voices that will tell you that closed-containment is technically and economically viable today, and there are the others on the other side that will say it is not viable, if you force a circle of people to go to closed-containment then you will essentially just shut down the industry.”
“Our view is let’s try to actually close that debate,” he said.
Wilkinson said all stakeholders, including the fish farming industry and environmental organizations and First Nations will be involved to get a term of reference before a third party is appointed to do the study.
The study will look at the barriers to get to closed containment, “whether that is on land or it’s in sea” and whether those barriers are technology or cost related, said Wilkinson.
“So, we are very interested in actually working on both sides of that discussion.”
“Ocean farmers are innovators by nature and in nature. Our businesses prosper, in the truest sense, when the environment we depend on prospers. We welcome openly the opportunity provided by the Minister to dive into this really important conversation,” said John Paul Fraser, the executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA).
Earlier, in his address, Wilkinson said the successful conclusion of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) holds great news and promise for all coastal communities like Nanaimo.
Beyond ensuring tariff free access to Canada’s largest seafood export market, a market worth $4.3 billion a year, the agreement contains significant new measures focused on promoting ocean health, measures that will help to ensure that present and future generations can enjoy the social, cultural, recreational, environmental and economic benefits our oceans provide.
The 2018 State of the Island Economic report presented at the summit said the value of aquaculture production on Vancouver Island increased substantially due to a rise in the price of salmon.
For 2018, export data from the first six months indicate that aquaculture production quantities have increased, compared with the same period in 2017.
“Aquaculture production is expected to remain stable in 2018; however, there is considerable uncertainty about future operations following an announcement by the provincial government of new rules that come into effect in June 2022 regarding the granting of tenures,” said the report.
B.C.’s salmon farmers raise almost three-quarters of the salmon harvested in the province each year on about 0.05 per cent of the coast. Farm-raised salmon is B.C.’s highest valued seafood product, the province’s top agricultural export, and generates over $1.5-billion towards the B.C. economy, resulting in over 6,600 jobs.