The health of our coast and indeed of our wild salmon that bind this ecosystem together are of the utmost importance to me. This long article is in response to the many requests I have received for a more detailed and personal explanation as to why I am conditionally supportive of one of the two proposed new fish farms for which Grieg Seafoods has applied off Sayward.
Many of your requests have been triggered by Alexandra Morton’s non-supportive response to our recent Strathcona Regional District (SRD) board decision. I acknowledge that she is one of the most knowledgeable, respected and passionate leaders in the whole research and advocacy effort to protect the wellbeing of healthy wild salmon stocks. What I want to share with you is both the story of this application and the solution we are working toward at the Strathcona Regional District board that includes both a move toward closed containment as well as more local jobs.
I have recently learned more about fish farms in our waters than I ever thought I would know, which admittedly is still not much. After 5 months of reading, meeting, listening and touring, after two public hearings in Sayward with packed houses, and after reading hundreds of public submission, Brenda Leigh, Jim Abram and I voted, with majority, to approve rezoning for one of the two proposed sites with many conditions. The most compelling condition for me is that this fish farm site will move to closed containment as soon as it is ‘commercially available,’ which according to Middle Bay Sustainable Aquaculture who is developing this technology, is most likely less then two years away. I sincerely hope that early adoption of closed containment technology by Grieg, one of the three largest players in the BC fish farm industry, will be the thin edge of the wedge of change. It is unprecedented that we at the SRD have this kind of leverage to demand the use of closed containment and I believe that this is the best deal we could make for the wellbeing of the coast.
When I was made aware that we would be receiving an application for two new open net fish farms, my position seemed clear. From what I had read and understood of fish farms and their impact on our wild salmon and therefore the health of our coast, I did not see any way that I could support this application, either personally or as a Cortes representative. Through forums, government panels and petitions there appears to be a clear public majority will that the current practices of open-net salmon farming are not acceptable. We are responding to that will through this effort to find a creative and viable alternative. The Application Chronology
In February I toured one of Grieg Seafood’s existing salmon farms, and later met with the owner of Walcan, Quadra’s seafood processing plant that processes all of Grieg’s fish in this area. In March we received Grieg’s rezoning application to make provision for two new open-net fish farms within electoral area C, represented by Jim Abram. In April I met Alexandra Morton and began communication with her as well as with the Georgia Straight Alliance about their work on this issue. In April I organized a meeting between Grieg, Walcan, Alexandra, the Mayor of Sayward and the rural directors voting on this matter to see if there was any way of using this application as leverage to improve the state of the industry’s impact on the coast. In mid April, the Strathcona Regional District held a public hearing in Sayward on this application where we listened to a packed house and received literally hundreds of written and verbal submissions. Shortly thereafter, we received new information from Grieg that outlined a number of voluntary mitigation measures that they were willing to undertake and write in to the licensing agreement with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Receiving this new information required us to go back to public hearing so we could receive further input on this application and the new information provided by Grieg. At the end of May, we held our second public hearing in Sayward to an even more packed house than the first. The evening ended at midnight due to the passion and dedication of people on both sides of this issue – and there are indeed two very vocal and well represented sides. Public Input – the human perspective
- Public input on this issue has been very divided. In the first round of hearings we received 50/50 input for and against this application. The second round of public input largely reiterated the first round, but was overall non-supportive.
- Residents of Quadra and the Discovery Islands are also very evenly divided on this issue. Many people are dependant on Walcan Seafood Processing plant, Quadra’s largest single employer which depends on its farmed fish processing for stability, Grieg being its largest supplier. Many other residents have a livelihood that depend on healthy wild salmon runs. People on both sides hold their own personal value balance between the ecological wellbeing of the coast, as tied to wild salmon stocks, and the economy that we all depend on for the lifestyles to which we have grown accustomed.
- Many people within the industry are very proud of their work and believe that they have made, and continue to make, substantive improvements for the wellbeing of their business as well as the ecosystem in which they operate.
- Elected officials for the Sayward area have been both split and silent.
- We have received scientific input from both sides.The Fish & the Coast – the wild animal perspective
- The feedlot conditions that I witnessed on the farm are troubling, to say the least.
- Wild salmon are the blood and backbone of our coastal ecosystems. They literally feed this coast. The juveniles are eaten by all kinds of creatures, fish, and birds. The adults feed seals, whales, bears, & humans. And at the end of their lives, their decomposing bodies feed the trees and provide critical micro-nutrients and minerals to inland systems.
- The wellbeing of wild salmon is linked to the practices of fish farming.The Board Reality – the political perspective
Currently, all SRD planning and land-use decisions for the rural unincorporated areas (Cortes included) are made exclusively by the four rural area directors. It has not always been this way and could again change. Any municipality that wants to pay its full portion of tax dues can join the rural planning function and vote on all rural area planning decisions. If Campbell River were to pay and join, with their five votes to our rural four, they would have the majority in all votes pertaining to rezoning, development permits, community planning, parks, etc. for all rural areas. There are few issues that could compel Campbell River to pay these fees. However, given that they are the regional economic hub for the aquaculture industry, fish farms may well be one such issue. If this were to happen, this application could come back before the board, in as soon as a year’s time, and be passed approving both proposed sites without any of the conditions we have put on this rezoning. Also worth noting is that the BC Provincial government, at any time, can pass an Order In Council to overturn any regional district decision. We have seen a version of this recently with Bill 30 regarding Independent Power Projects. In this situation, we would not get any creative conditions either. And make no mistake, this application is being watched very carefully at the provincial level. Weighing the Balance of My Roles
- As your Cortes director, I represent you and the majority will of Cortes. We received only one letter of input from a Cortesian into the public input process. In the absence of clear direction from Cortes, I default to the next points.
- You have also voted me into office to be an innovative leader, to make bold moves and do my best to activate positive change.
- As a director to the Strathcona Regional District (SRD) I must consider the wellbeing of all people, critters and the places we live.
- As a new member to the board, I hold fresh perspectives and ask challenging questions yet also have the steepest learning curve.
- As a member of the electoral area services committee, which represents all the non-incorporated areas of the SRD, in most circumstances I would follow the well-reasoned perspective of the director for the specific area in question. In this circumstance it is Jim Abram. I would generally expect the same from them when it comes to issues on Cortes. Limited Local Government Authority and Our Creative Resolution
We at the SRD have jurisdiction over broad land use but not over specifics of aquaculture licensing and operations, nor do we have any jurisdiction over what happens below the water – that rests with the Provincial and Federal governments. To be creative and push this jurisdictional envelope, we have made one of the rezoning conditions that Grieg write many extra mitigation measures into their licensing agreement with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). For the resolution, see: Grieg Resolution – Public Hearing Minutes – Bylaw No. 29 (Grieg Seafood BC Ltd) https://www.strathconard.ca/section_srdb/minutes.asp?id=2754&collection=63&AgendaType=1&MeetingDate=6/25/2009&MeetingType=52
Although these measures are interesting to me, they are not compelling enough to gain my support. What I am interested in is change to the industry overall for the increased health of our wild fish and the coastal ecosystems that they sustain. The only way that I am aware of to do that, is to separate wild and farmed salmon. This means either taking the farmed salmon out of the water or putting them in closed containment systems. Neither the Province nor the Feds so far have been willing to take that step and DFO is not willing to write any closed containment provisions into their licensing agreement with Grieg, even if Grieg was willing. Because we want to push in this direction, we have also made a condition of rezoning that Grieg sign an agreement with the SRD committing to two things: 1. that they will offer this site as a closed containment test-site if one is needed, and 2. that they will move to closed containment as soon as it is commercially available. (These words were carefully chosen and are quite different from ‘economically viable’ which were not used.) This means that as soon as a technology exists they must use it.
The vast majority of BC fish farms, including the ones in the SRD, are not in compliance with the regional district zoning. Either they went in prior to the SRD taking jurisdictional control over marine zoning, or they needed to extend their zoning area dues to new provincial regulations that forced them to take in the anchoring systems and have just not done so. Only now that we have a closed containment system so close to being ready at the scale needed by the current industry do we get the leverage opportunity that this application provides.
None of the higher levels of government and their various departments have been willing to take on the closed containment issue, despite major public pressure to do so. Marine Harvest (the largest fish farm company on the BC Coast) and the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, comprised of five major environmental groups, jointly approached the provincial government along with the SRD, requesting funding for closed containment research. So far we have had no response from Victoria. In spite of this, Middle Bay Sustainable Aquaculture has been doing extensive research and engineering toward the development of a large-scale commercially available closed containment system. They believe that they are within two years of having a product ready for market. However there is resistance from within the industry to transition to closed containment technology. For this reason, I believe that early adoption by a major player will help turn the tide.
We can choose to deny this fish farm application, or we can do our very best to use all the focus and momentum provided here and redirect that energy into an attempted solution.
This application has passed the first three of four readings with many conditions. Once Grieg meets the conditions, they will come back to us for final consideration. If we are not satisfied at that time that the spirit or practice of our conditions will be met, we will not give it final approval. Folks, this is not over yet.
At the same board meeting where we passed third reading of Grieg’s application, I also presented a resolution to take to the Union of BC Municipalities annual convention that outlines the need to fund closed containment research and transition the industry in that direction. If passed at the UBCM, it will become a province-wide directive and call to action from local governments to the Province. To read the resolution, go to: https://www.strathconard.ca/section_srdb/minutes.asp?id=2754&collection=63&AgendaType=1&MeetingDate=6/25/2009&MeetingType=52Conclusion
This is a very imperfect situation. We are doing our best to use our limited authority as creatively as possible. We are aware of the risk. Closed containment technology may never be developed possibly giving Grieg the use of this site regardless. The results of that could be very harmful, especially given the site location in the funnel of Johnston Strait. However, if this works, and one of the largest farms on the coast successfully goes to closed containment, it will be the first large model for every environmentalist, fisherman and politician to point to for the sea change we need.
We are taking a chance, no doubt. We are trying to step into a role that others have not been willing to take, and doing so with a company that says its wants to move in the right direction.
My prevailing sense tells me to abide by the precautionary principle and, given the scientific evidence we do not need another open-net fish farm. Truth is, we are way beyond implementing the precautionary principle in so many global stories including fish farming. What I now believe we need are bold attempts to right our course.