The DFO “cooking their science” on risk to Pacific Salmon from fish farms

Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands)
2020-09-28 20:45 [p.218]

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise in this place in Adjournment Proceedings to pursue a question I asked just last week of the Minister of Fisheries.

The response from the minister was far from adequate, but I did not expect to feel the rage I now feel in taking the question up again. The question last week was about whether the minister was prepared to act on the Cohen Commission’s recommendation 19 to remove the toxic fish factories near Discovery Islands.

I feel as though I am experiencing déjà vu all over again. I am one of those people in the country who remembers the collapse of our cod stocks. I am a Maritimer. I remember the moment when it was really the large offshore dragger companies that declared the moratorium, because the cod stocks were gone.

In 1998, Michael Harris wrote the horrible narrative, the deep details of the corrupted science within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, in his book, Lament for an Ocean. I read it and gave him a blurb for the back of the book, which was that after reading this book, I would not trust DFO with my aquarium.

I did not know that it was possible to be this angry again. I thought the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had begun to understand the notion of sustainability. However, the Cohen Commission, at a cost of $25 million, commissioned by the previous government under Stephen Harper, looked at the collapse of salmon returns when in 2009 only one and a half million salmon returned up the Fraser River, instead of the five million that were expected. This year is the all-time low, a return of 270,000 salmon.

First nations up and down the Fraser, up and down the coast are declaring the collapse of Pacific salmon. It is a disaster. The committee on fisheries and oceans was studying this very matter until prorogation pulled the plug on it.
When I asked the minister if she was prepared to act by September 30, which is the deadline, she said that several steps were under way. I did not know those steps would be fiction from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Once again, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is cooking its science. How? It issued it today, to say that the risk to salmon from those open pen toxic fish factories was a minimal risk, that there was no need to close them down at the Discovery Islands. The minister has launched a consultation with some of the first nations involved, but not all of course.

How is it possible that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could say such a thing? In March of this year, DFO gave those salmon farms virtual permission for out-of-control sea lice. As a result, three different academic studies found that 99% of the 2020 juvenile sockeye migration through the Discovery Islands were infected at levels we know will reduce their survival.

How could it be that DFO now says it is low risk? As marine biologist, Alexandra Morton, said, DFO did not assess the impact of sea lice, the most visible threat. If we are going to do a study to see whether an activity is dangerous to salmon, let us exclude the number one cause of disease and danger to the wild salmon populations, the burgeoning sea lice. There is a reason for these companies in our waters, Norwegian-owned fish farms, but in Norway they are moving to closed containment.

The Liberal government promised in its platform to end open pen fish farms. When will it happen?

Terry Beech (Burnaby North—Seymour)
2020-09-28 20:53 [p.219]

Madam Speaker, when I was first appointed as the parliamentary secretary in 2017, I read the Cohen commission report from front to back. As a person who came to the House to improve the lives and opportunities of future generations, the issue of wild salmon immediately spoke to me as an opportunity to contribute to something that mattered to many British Columbians. I spent time with stream keepers, first nations, fishermen and non-profits to better understand the potential impact of fish farms on wild salmon.

I was happy to serve as the parliamentary secretary who worked on passing all five major environmental bills through the House from the previous Parliament. This included changes to the Fishery Act, which restored protections for fish and fish habitat and created new modern safeguards. I acted to defend the salmon enhancement program and advocated to get more funding into ecosystem restoration through programs such as the oceans protection plan and more recently through the $142-million B.C. salmon fund.

After a brief period in Transport, I returned to my current position during a time when our salmon are facing their most historic crisis. My earliest days on the file were spent on first nation’s territory and on the site of the Big Bar landslide. This devastating slide is putting salmon further at risk and our government has made all possible investments to mitigate the effects of this natural disaster on wild salmon. I say this because I want the member and every member in this House, as well as British Columbians watching this at home, to know that wild Pacific salmon are a top priority of our government.

In the last election campaign, we promised to transition away from open-net pen finfish aquaculture on the B.C. coast, and the minister is committed to delivering on that promise. The minister took some steps in that direction by announcing today that we are committed to an area-based management approach to aquaculture, starting in the Discovery Islands.

I know that the member and others in British Columbia were hopeful that the announcement today was going to be an announcement to immediately withdraw the net pens in the Discovery Islands. While this is well within the minister’s control and power, there are a number of important factors that were not immediately considered when the recommendation was first drafted by Justice Cohen, the primary of which is our government’s commitment to first nations reconciliation and to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

First nation communities have rightfully acknowledged the urgency of the response to the Cohen recommendations, but have also been very clear that they cannot accept unilateral decisions on what happens in their territory. This is an opportunity for us to work together with all affected first nations and stakeholders to build a better future for everyone, and that is exactly what our government is doing.

In terms of determining the risk level posed by farms in the recommendation, DFO created a formal scientific assessment framework and conducted nine scientifically peer-reviewed risk assessments on pathogens that are known to cause disease. I want to be very specific here. We are a government that takes science seriously, and it is important for anyone listening to or reading this speech to understand the entirety of what I am about to say. For each of the nine risk assessments, DFO found that each individual pathogen provided a minimal risk to the abundance and diversity of wild Fraser River sockeye salmon. Their assessment does not include further analysis of the cumulative risk of all nine pathogens taken together, either independently or in conjunction with other cumulative risks on wild salmon, including sea lice, climate change or overharvesting.

We continue to build on our body of science and on our understanding of the marine environment. This includes how we manage aquaculture. While there still remains no direct smoking gun that I can point to today, I can say our government is committed to a precautionary approach and moving forward with a responsible transition from open-net pen finfish aquaculture on the west coast of British Columbia.

Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands)
2020-09-28 20:55 [p.219]

Madam Speaker, if there was a way to add insult to injury, I suppose it would be to invoke the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to block the very thing that first nations throughout British Columbia are urging the minister to do, which is to act.

Chief Judy Wilson of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said, “When a department fails so miserably as DFO, it’s time the federal government says we need a reform here, it’s not working.”

To be very clear, the nine pathogens studied by DFO in deciding there was minimum risk did not include sea lice. I am sorry that the parliamentary secretary is willing to say that this is a top priority for his government. It makes me wonder what could be worse. I guess we need to dig more graves for Canadians, because COVID is our top priority. If Pacific salmon is a top priority and the Liberals continue to allow sea lice to contaminate the wild salmon population, then they do not know what a priority looks like.

Terry Beech (Burnaby North—Seymour)
2020-09-28 20:55 [p.220]

Madam Chair, the protection and restoration of wild Pacific salmon is a top priority of our government. It is why we have taken such strong and immediate action on passing environmental legislation, including the Fisheries Act, and why we have moved to protect 25% of our marine habitat by 2025. It is also why our government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into habitat restoration and innovative programs like the $142-million B.C. salmon restoration and innovation fund. Our government is also committed to transitioning away from open-net pen finfish aquaculture in B.C. and is moving forward on this file in a responsible way.

Our approach must include meaningful consultations with local first nations and communities, and preferably with an approach that is aligned with the Government of British Columbia as well. The future of finfish aquaculture in British Columbia must be clean and sustainable, and prioritize the health and abundance of wild Pacific salmon and the biodiversity of our marine ecosystem.

I look forward to working with British Columbians, including first nations, local communities, the province, the member and all members of the House to find that responsible path forward. Our kids—