Auditor finds rules, standards fall short in Canadian aquaculture

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Federal Environment Commissioner finds differences between East and West Canada, as she delivers salmon-farming report

There’s a disparity in fish-farm standards on Canada’s Pacific West and its Maritime East that suggests government isn’t properly managing the risks farm salmon pose to wild salmon populations, Ottawa’s Environment Commissioner, Julie Gelfand, has said.

In her Spring Reports on the country’s environmental performance, she chose to focus on fish-farming in open nets, saying that the East’s storms too often wreck of damage fish farms leading to escapes, while in the West disease and other factors post a risk to wild Pacific salmon.

Without naming reports in a country where even government scientists are divided on the risks posed by salmon-farming, her audits of the USD 1 billion industry pointed to a number of shortcomings that pointed to regulatory failure rather than the industry’s shortcomings. The government’s environmental watchdog said, for one, that no level of government adequately protected the seabed beneath fish farms, either by enforcement or law, and that studies on the risk of disease was marred by research gaps.

“The Department is at risk of being seen to promote aquaculture over the protection of wild salmon,” Gelfield said as the results of three audits were brought out in Parliament. One report was dedicated to salmon-farming.

Oddly, she said British Columbia’s salmon farms were of a better standard than those out East, although the East is subject to arctic and southern storms, while the West experiences mild, climatic doldrums. Ironically, Canadian members of parliament from BC have been more vocal in calling for an end to open-net fish-farms than their counterparts out East, where support for fish-farming is tempered only by respect for the wild fishery.

An illustration from the Environment Auditor’s report

Missing 90 percent
The audit, meanwhile, suggests Ottawa’s scientists, with help from their provincial counterparts, had only completed “one-tenth of the risk assessments for key known diseases that were required to understand the effects of salmon farming on wild fish”.

“As a result, (the Department of) Fisheries and Oceans Canada had no way of knowing what impacts salmon farming has on the health of wild fish stocks,” a statement from the Ministry said.

“Among our recommendations, we stated that Fisheries and Oceans Canada should clearly articulate the level of risk to wild fish that it accepts when enabling the aquaculture industry”, Gelfand stated.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s program for auditing the health of farmed salmon in British Columbia was out of date, and the Department had limited laboratory capacity to provide timely surveillance test results.

A-to-Z out East
“In addition, the Department and the (Food Inspection) Agency had not clarified roles and responsibilities for managing emerging disease risks … in addition, the Department did not define limits on the amount of drugs or pesticides that could be deposited, or confirm the accuracy of information self-reported by aquaculture companies,” the salmon-farming audit concluded.

Gelfand’s recommendation was new limits for drug and pesticide (lice treatment) use and better company reporting.

Finally, she asked for a “national standard” on “the quality and maintenance of equipment, such as nets and anchoring systems, to reduce the risk of fish escapes”. Oddly, again, she suggested the DFO should “initiate discussions with its counterparts in the Atlantic provinces to address the quality and maintenance of equipment on salmon farms to prevent fish escapes”.