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January 22, 2009


Deconstructing Dinner


"The Future of Salmon Farms"

Is British Columbia's salmon aquaculture industry seeking to make up lost ground to public opposition?


Jon Steinman


With only a handful of new farm sites approved by the Province in the past four-five years, the growth in British Columbia's salmon aquaculture industry has been quite stagnant.


Within the past year, however, environmental groups have uncovered information that is suggestive the industry is ready to grow.


In 2007, the marine conservation group, Living Oceans Society (LOS), sought information from the Province about amendments to farm sites currently before the Ministries.


"We actually directly asked the-then Minister of Agriculture and Lands, Pat Bell, in a face-to-face meeting, to give us all the information of amendment applications on the BC farms," says the Living Oceans Society's Catherine Stewart - the organization's Salmon Farm Campaign Organizer.


Through her work with LOS, Stewart has learned just how hard it is to access information in BC about salmon farms.


"It's very difficult to obtain this [information] and we were running up against a brick wall," Stewart adds. "The Minister promised us the info in seven days, and about seven months later we finally got it."


According to Stewart, some of the companies are just applying for amendments of the physical layout of the farm, but some are asking for "substantive" changes to stocking sizes.


The prospect of an industry preparing to grow comes as a shock to those who have long been opposed to the presence of open-net caged systems for raising salmon. After all, and as both sides of the debate agree, it's this very opposition that has held the industry at bay and prevented any notable growth.


Posted on LOS's web site, is a map of the proposed expansion amendments and the companies that are seeking the changes.


The largest of the companies operating along the BC coast is Norway's Marine Harvest. The company operates many farms within the Straight of Georgia around the Discovery Islands.


Marine Harvest has proposed a four-fold increase at their Bickley site, a four and a half-fold increase at Egerton, and an almost three and a half-fold increase at Frederick Arm.


The second largest company, Mainstream, owned by Norway's Cermaq, has also proposed substantive changes to their farms in the Broughton Archipelago.


Mainstream is requesting a six-fold increase at their Cecil Island site, a nine-fold increase at Cliff Bay, and a five-fold at Mount Simmonds.


Some people within the industry, however, are insisting that the amendments are not increases to total production, but a consolidating of current sites.


According to Marine Harvest's Clare Backman, the move is one of "efficiencies" and will help address some of their sites that are not as environmentally sustainable as others.


"Everyone sees that as a good way to progress," says Backman, "taking sites that are less sustainable out of the mix, and encouraging the growth and the amendments to increased production on sites that are sustainable sites and can be measured as such."


Surprisingly, Backman does not appear perturbed by the stagnant growth in the industry, which has been in large part a result of public opposition to open-net salmon farms.


Instead, Backman believes that the industry has been growing "slowly", "probably more in keeping with the growth in the market," said Backman. "The capacity for the industry to respond to that growth is currently in place," he adds.


However, a number of factors do challenge such a position.


According to the Province's statistics, annual growth in the industry has not been slow, and has instead been rather sporadic. In 2001, total production was reported at 68,000 tonnes. By 2002, that total increased by 23% and in 2003 dropped by 16%. In 2004, another drop in production by 18%, and in subsequent years leading up to 2007, increases by 14%, 11% and 1% respectively.


Backman's suggestion that there is an adequate "capacity for the industry to respond" to current growth is also challenged by the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) - the trade association of which Backman sits on the Board of Directors.


In a 2007 article published in The Financial Post, the BCSFA's Executive Director, Mary Ellen Walling, indicated that the delay in the approval of farms has cost the industry about $450 million. "The world appetite for salmon is growing faster than our ability to supply it," said Walling.


With such differing positions, it appears that the expansion intentions of the industry remain unclear.


As for the state of the expansion amendments, some have already been approved.


"To our shock and horror, two of the applications were approved, very quietly, no notice given," says Stewart.


Stewart believes the future of salmon farms and the remaining expansion applications needs to become an election issue leading up to the Province's May election.


"It's hard to say with an election in the offing how eager the Province would be to approve expansion in production right now," suggests Stewart. "I would suspect if the Liberals got elected, we could see those approvals come through in short order.


Unless the voters speak up, the policy is not likely to change."


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