VICTORIA – Fish farming will soon join forestry as a battle ground between government, industry and environmentalists.
A comprehensive Environmental Assessment Report on the state of fish farming in British Columbia is to come out in June, but the battle lines are already being drawn.
In anticipation of the report, the David Suzuki Foundation recently ran full-page newspaper ads, warning of the dangers of industrial fish farming.
"Have we learned nothing from Norway’s $100 million salmon catastrophe?" the headline asked.
"Industrial fish farming poses a grave and immediate danger to our wild salmon stocks. Norway ignored scientific advice and will pay the price in perpetuity. Will B.C. repeat Norway’s mistake?" the ad went on.
In Norway, imported Atlantic salmon smolts infected that country’s wild stock with lethal epidemic diseases, and Norwegian sea farms were forced to slaughter their stock at a cost to taxpayers of $100 million.
Entire rivers have been poisoned in attempts to eradicate the new diseases, and Norway’s wild salmon stocks are perhaps permanently compromised.
Fisheries Minister Corky Evans isn’t unaware of the potential dangers of fish farming, but he also believes he has a responsibility to promote this growing industry, albeit with the proper safeguards.
"Fish farming got off to a bad start in B.C.," Evans told me. "First promoted by the Vander Zalm government, the new industry attracted investors who were more interested in getting rich quick than in biology."
And while he doesn’t want to down-play the potential problems, Evans believes fish farming is essential to provide the protein the world needs. Shrimp farming, he says, is a huge industry in South East Asia.
Other nations, like Chile, he says, are very active in the fish farming industry, but they have an advantage because they don’t have indigenous wild stocks.
Evans says the "get-rich-quick boys" have largely left the industry because increased production of farmed fish has resulted in a corresponding price drop, taking the Vancouver Stock Exchange aspect out of the equation. As a result, the industry is becoming more environmentally responsible.
The Suzuki Foundation proposes 12 "common-sense protections" against any potential Norway-like disaster in British Columbia.
Among them are replacing open salmon net cages with closed systems, raising only native salmon, allowing no fish sewage to enter the ocean, monitoring drug use and the spread of drug-resistant diseases.
Further proposals include requiring the industry to develop site-reclamation plans carry full insurance in the event of disease epidemics, genetic pollution, and other catastrophes.
Suzuki, probably the world’s most prominent environmentalist, says fish effluent is a major problem. The combined effluent entering the ocean from British Columbia’s fish farms every day, he says, is equivalent to that of a city of 500,000.
Mind you, Suzuki may find it difficult to get anywhere on this point, considering that Greater Victoria, which has a population of about 500,000, does dump its sewage into the ocean.
The fish farming industry is undoubtedly here to stay, but the discussion that will follow the release of the report in June will be every bit as acrimonious as that surrounding forestry issues. And just like the forestry debate, the fish farming controversy will be with us for some time to come.