The future of fish farms?

First Nations groups in British Columbia have voiced their praise for a Washington state initiative to phase out the open-net farming of Atlantic Salmon in Washington waters by 2025, and hope that their province will follow suit. 

“Here in British Columbia, the vast majority of First Nations are very clear in their opposition to the operation of open net cage fish farms,” said Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “We welcome the Washington state decision and certainly are going to be pushing for the British Columbia government to do the same and look after this world resource of Pacific salmon.”

On Friday, Washington's state Senate voted to approve the bill and it has been signed by Governor Jay Inslee. The bill follows an incident last August in which tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon accidentally got into open waters after escaping an open-net fish farm.

The San Juan Islands farm is owned by Cooke Aquaculture, which produces more farmed Atlantic salmon than anyone else in the U.S.

Cooke has expressed displeasure with the decision, a sentiment B.C. fish farm advocates agree with.

“We think this is a decision based on emotion stemming from a major incident in the summer,” said Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association. “We think a better approach would have been to strengthen regulations and allow the operator to invest significantly in their operations.”

However, Dunn allows that B.C.’s fish farming industry is vastly different from Washington’s.

“Our members have invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years on new pen equipment, new netting equipment, and new marine designs to ensure that our farms are able to withstand the highest seas and the highest currents at every location that they’re sited,” Dunn said.

Fewer than 100 fish escape from all farms in B.C. each year according to Dunn, an amount he says has "no impact" on the health of local ecosystems.

Chamberlin and others' concerns are salmon that escape from farms can spread diseases to wild fish they come in contact with, even though Pacific and Atlantic salmon can't interbreed. He champions landlocked, closed-containment fish farms as the way of the future, instead of the "old technology" of open net farms.

“What we’re doing is not trying to attack an industry, but look after the sacred salmon that are for all of our people in British Columbia, not just First Nations,” Chamberlin said.

While the new law in Washington will phase out the farming of Atlantic salmon, it won't stop the usage of open net pens.

Dunn would not speculate about how Washington’s salmon farming industry would adjust to these new regulations, but he pointed out that Atlantic salmon are far and away the most commonly farmed fish in the world, constituting the majority of global demand. 

- with files from CTV Vancouver 

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