VANCOUVER — Several Vancouver Island mayors and members of British Columbia's salmon farming industry say a federal decision to phase out fish farming has left them feeling "disposable and discarded."
In an open letter to Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, they say they weren't consulted before she announced a plan to phase out open-net pen farming in the Discovery Islands over the next 18 months.
Jordan said earlier this month the decision came after hearing unanimous opposition to the farms from local First Nations.
"You made this decision without even speaking to the industry nor locally elected officials who deeply understand B.C.'s salmon farming communities and have a direct interest in your action," the letter says.
"Be advised that we will no longer sit on the sidelines and will be pursuing every possible option to remedy this untenable situation."
The Discovery Islands act as a bottleneck along wild salmon migration routes and eliminating the fish farms was a key recommendation made in 2012 by the Cohen Commission on the decline of Fraser River sockeye.
However, the recommendation was contingent on the Fisheries Department finding the farms posed "more than a minimal risk of serious harm" to the health of migrating sockeye by Sept. 20, 2020.
On Sept. 28, the department said scientific assessments had found nine pathogens from farmed salmon in the islands posed a minimal risk to wild stocks. The risk of the viruses transferring from farmed to wild Fraser River stocks was less than one per cent, it said.
John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said instead of allowing the farms to continue, the government announced a new consultation process that excluded the industry. He learned about the phase out 15 minutes before the government announced it, he said.
"That's what we're looking at here, a decision that was not well conceived, certainly ill-informed and did not in any way contemplate the consequences not just of the Campbell River economy, but really the whole economy of Vancouver Island," Fraser said.
Workers in the industry were classified as essential under COVID-19 restrictions, only to learn before Christmas that their jobs would be lost without a say, he said.
"Now we just feel discarded, you go from thinking you're doing something important and we can build on it to now being treated like it doesn't matter."
The letter says the move will eliminate about 1,500 jobs and could put the entire $1.6-billion provincial industry at risk.
It is signed by mayors in Campbell River, Port Hardy, Port McNeill and Gold River, as well as 11 industry representatives.
Jordan said in a statement that she plans to meet with industry and community representatives in early 2021 to discuss the transition.
"The decision to phase out fish farms in the Discovery Islands was not an easy one. It was made after many consultations and weighing many factors," she said.
Aquaculture plays an important role in British Columbia's economy, but the farms in the Discovery Islands are a "specific case," she said.
The licences were renewed on an annual basis — unlike others that had been granted longer tenures — "always with the understanding that a decision regarding their permanent status would be made by December 2020," Jordan said.
Under the plan, 19 existing farms in the Discovery Islands had their licences renewed for 18 months. The farms are not allowed to add new fish during that period, and can only grow and harvest the existing stocks until they are empty.
Phasing out net-pen fish farming in B.C. waters by 2025 was a Liberal campaign promise in the federal election.
Dean Dobrinsky, director of human resources and communications for fish farm company Mowi, said the company has about 17 farms in the area, although some straddle boundaries and the department hasn't communicated which farms are at issue.
He said the impact of the decision goes much further than the local farms, as supply chains link them with a fish processing plant in Port Hardy and distribution networks in Surrey and beyond.
The Discovery Island farms comprise about 30 per cent of Mowi's B.C. salmon production and the company will have to assess whether that loss means cutbacks in other areas of the business.
"When you take out that production and you don't have an obvious option to replace it, you start looking at whether our business is viable," he said.
The Discovery Islands are in the traditional territory of the Homalco, Klahoose, K’omoks, Kwaikah, Tla’amin, We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum First Nations.
When the phase out was announced, Homalco Chief Darren Blaney said it was a relief to members of the First Nation.
Fish farms are one of several threats facing the salmon, alongside climate change, warming waters and habitat loss, he said.
“It feels like it’s been such a long time, you know, to watch our salmon dwindle and dwindle and our community get less and less food fish each year, it was hard to bear,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 31, 2020.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press