ELIZABETH MAY: It’s time to fight for our fish

It’s time to fight for our fish


The degree to which any fisheries minister is successful is in direct proportion to their ability to stare down officials and insist on conservation.

It’s time to fight for our fish – The Hill Times

Recent news articles have focused on the increased risk that last summer’s cabinet shuffle changing fisheries ministers from British Columbia’s Joyce Murray to Gaspé’s Diane Lebouthillier may undermine long-promised actions to get open-pen aquaculture out of B.C. waters. The issue of the threat to wild Pacific salmon from foreign-owned aquaculture operations growing a non-native species of Atlantic salmon is well known. It was the subject of extensive study back in the Harper years conducted by an independent commission chaired by Justice Bruce Cohen. It collected testimony from scientists, experts, fishers, Indigenous Peoples, and conservationists over a year and a half. Its final report, The Uncertain Future of the Fraser River Sockeye, was a roadmap for preserving our wild salmon. Following up on the Cohen inquiry’s recommendations, in their 2019 election platform, the Liberals pledged to transition from open-pen salmon farms to closed-containment systems on the West Coast by 2025.

Years ago, in one of my many town hall meetings, a constituent challenged me to stop calling aquaculture “fish farms.” “Call them what they are,” she urged: “toxic fish factories.” I have done so ever since.

In the House Fisheries Committee, we heard from many experts who detailed the ways in which Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) officials have attempted to censor and squash the science that proved the damage of these toxic fish factories. DFO scientist Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders documented the dangerous viruses that reached wild salmon from the open pen operations. As The Globe and Mail reported, her work was buried by higher-ups in her department, and it took 10 years for her research to be published.

The willingness of DFO to suppress the science and mislead the minister makes sense when one examines the mandate of the department. It has a built-in conflict of interest. DFO is both in charge of regulating aquaculture, and of promoting growth in the aquaculture industry. DFO should have a mandate to protect coastal ecosystems and fish habitat. The Green Party believes that growing fish for food should be done on land and regulated by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

I am so grateful that former minister Murray is following up on the commitment to get open-pen toxic fish factories out of our waters. British Columbians are deeply committed to our wild salmon.

Over the years, British Columbian ministers of fisheries have really fought to protect our salmon. As a Progressive Conservative fisheries minister, the late John Fraser not only fought for Pacific salmon, but he also took DFO to task when he realized the data coming from the East Coast was deeply worrying. As an avid fisher and conservationist, he had noticed the size of the average cod landed was getting steadily smaller. DFO experts told Fraser not to worry, and that the total tonnage of the annual harvest was remaining constant. Fraser was even more alarmed, and he tried to warn subsequent ministers of DFO. If they had only listened, we would not have seen the commercial extinction of the cod, and the loss of 30,000 jobs overnight, as well-documented in Michael Harris’ 1998 book Lament for an Ocean.

It puts me in mind of the many fisheries ministers over decades who have been misled by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In fact, the case can be made that the degree to which any minister of fisheries and oceans is successful in protecting our fisheries is in direct proportion to that minister’s ability to stare down officials and insist on conservation. Former minister Dominic LeBlanc did so to restore the Fisheries Act to what it had been before then-prime minister Stephen Harper gutted it in spring 2012 in omnibus Bill C-38.

Free advice to Lebouthillier: talk to former ministers LeBlanc and Murray, and fight for our salmon.

Wild Pacific salmon is at risk, just as are our whales, from the right whales on the East Coast to the southern resident killer whales that share the Pacific waters with our salmon. This is squarely federal jurisdiction. Fight for our natural ecosystems, protect fish habitat, and move the toxic fish factories to closed systems on land.

Elizabeth May is the MP for Saanich–Gulf Islands, B.C., and co-leader of the Green Party of Canada.