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Whale death on B.C. coast sparks debate as vote moves to House of Commons

Debate bubbling up over fish farms in B.C. after dead humpback found last week at an abandoned site

By Joanne Pearce , in Environment Food , on November 23, 2016

VANCOUVER – Debate has bubbled up over fish farms in B.C. after a dead humpback whale was found last week at an abandoned site.

The discovery of the whale at Marine Harvest Canada comes just two weeks prior to a vote on a private member’s bill in the House of Commons, which aims to ban traditional “open-pen” fish-farm operations in British Columbia in an effort to make fish farming more environmentally friendly.

The idea with closed-containment systems, which are easiest to operate on land, is that other sea life wouldn’t be endangered, as happened with the unlucky whale found near Klemtu on B.C.’s central coast.

“If it was closed containment, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Port Moody-Coquitlam MP Fin Donnelly, the initiator of Bill C-228, who sees the nets as a significant danger to marine wildlife.

“On land, you can control the impact, but in the ocean in the open-net system, industry has a much harder time controlling it,” said Donnelly. “It is a compromise, a way forward. It doesn’t, say, get rid of those fish farms, it’s not that extreme. It’s if you are going to do business in the Pacific sea, you need to respect it. It is a way for the industry to not only survive but flourish.”

Concerns remain for salmon industry owners and sellers

Convincing salmon-farm operators and fish-sellers of the economic feasibility of such a change continues to be a challenge for advocates like Donnelly.

Local Granville Island Longliner Seafoods Ltd. business owner Scott Moorehead said, while in a perfect world all the salmon would be raised on land, he doesn’t see the change happening soon.

“The only farmed salmon we are selling now are from an open-pen systems and whether that is economically feasible for them to take that ashore to a closed-pen system— I don’t know if they would be able to do it or not,” he said.

Moorehead receives his fish from a variety of sources, both fishermen who catch wild fish and fish farmers. One of his suppliers, Creative Salmon Farms, has already invested millions of dollars in an organic open-net operation that the company hopes to run for years to come.

Granville Island Longliner Seafoods Ltd. business owner Scott Moorehead holds up Pacific Chinook salmon for sale.
Granville Island Longliner Seafoods Ltd. business owner Scott Moorehead holds up Pacific Chinook salmon for sale.

Moorehead sees the high cost of closed-containment as a hurdle, but says that he would sell land-based salmon if he could get a good quality product.

“I could care less if it was raised in an ocean pen or a closed-pen as long as the quality was good— and I don’t want to screw the environment up. I want things to get better not worse.”

‘We need to stop using the ocean as our toilet’

Donnelly says that while concerns about costs in the change-over are legitimate, they aren’t new.

“That argument of energy use and energy costs for closed containment facilities — they have gotten that under control.” He said that while it is cheaper to start an open-net farm, the costs of managing both types of operations are similar.

A 2016 investigative research paper comparing the two operations found, however, that return on investment for the open-net system is still twice that of land-based closed-containment systems.

Living Oceans Society, a B.C.-based environmental non-profit organization, also wants fisheries to move to closed-containment tanks.

But Karen Wristen, executive director for Living Oceans, has lost hope that a private member’s bill is the solution.

“Yes, I think we should we should be moving to closed containment,” she said. “It’s just that private members’ bills don’t go through — we need to work with the government to do that.”

Living Oceans is working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to improve the range of science investigations examining the impact of salmon farms.

For now, Donnelly is trying to muster public support for the bill by raising awareness on social media. The vote for the bill will occur in the House of Commons on Dec. 7.