Parliament needs to write national fish-farming rules, says federal committee

VANCOUVER – A Parliamentary committee wants the federal government to fund projects that would help Canada’s aquaculture industry farm more salmon, but in tanks that don’t interfere with wild stocks.

The recommendation on closed-containment salmon aquaculture was one of several delivered Thursday by members of the House of Commons’ standing committee on fisheries and oceans, which agreed to study the issue in October 2011.

Debate about how farmed salmon are raised has long raged on both coasts, with environmentalists arguing open-net pens threaten the environment, and the industry countering that tanks are just too expensive.

“The debate is no longer centered on whether or not it is technically possible to raise Atlantic salmon in closed containment operations,” states the report.

“It is, rather, whether or not this can be done at a cost that will allow closed containment Atlantic salmon producers to be competitive with open-net pen salmon producers.”

The report notes the vast majority of salmon farmed in Canada are Atlantics and are raised in the ocean and in open-net pens — much like floating cages — after spending between 12 and 18 months in land-based hatcheries.

They are fed dry pellets and are harvested when they weigh between 4.5 kilograms and six kilograms.

The committee looked at two, non-permeable, solid-walled tanks that filter waste feed and feces from re-circulated water and could be located on land or in the ocean.

The technology is more expensive than open-nets and less profitable for the industry, the report says.

Coho salmon raised in the more-expensive closed systems in Montana and B.C. cost $7.70 to $8.80 per kilogram in the store, but Atlantics raised in open-net pens hit a recent low of between $5.10 and $5.70 per kilogram.

But while land-based systems are more expensive, the committee notes it’s possible to grow more fish faster and in densities that are three to seven times higher than in the ocean-based pens.

However, the committee acknowledges any commercial adoption of closed-containment technology will require public and private financial help to complete research and move towards implementation.

Industry and the government should review “financing options” to move the technology along, says the report, adding the government should develop a dedicated fund for closed-containment demonstration projects.

The industry and its opponents responded favourably to the report, although the critics said the committee didn’t go far enough.

“The needs of our fish have to be met and the needs of the business have to be met for there to a viable aquaculture sector in British Columbia,” said Colleen Dane of the BC Salmon Farmers Association.

She said the industry would like to see additional funds to figure out the technology’s long-term potential, which remains an issue for many members.

But John Werring of the David Suzuki Foundation said the report gives the industry licence to operate under the status quo and didn’t put a heavy-enough emphasis on moving towards the technology.

“What is the government’s response going be to these recommendations? Are they going to actually do something about them or are they going to just simply accept them, table them and then move on.”

In his October 2012 report on the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye fishery, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen recommended a freeze on net-pen salmon farming on B.C.’s central coast, saying salmon farms have the potential to introduce disease to wild salmon.

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