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NL aquaculture industry at risk of falling behind: coalition

NL-CAR says open-net farming changes are needed; department takes issue with statements

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Open net-pen cages in the Harbour Breton area of south coast Newfoundland.

Another interest group has weighed in on the Dame Moya Greene report, “The Big Reset,” and what it has to say about aquaculture.

The Greene report concluded that it would not be economically viable for the salmon aquaculture industry in this province to switch to land-based grow-out facilities and, if they were forced to ditch the open-net pens and make that switch, the industry might leave Newfoundland and Labrador altogether.

However, the Newfoundland and Labrador Coalition for Aquaculture Reform (NL-CAR) says the only sustainable way to grow the industry is to transition away from the open-net pens.

Leo White speaks for NL-CAR, a group that includes representatives from the Salmonid Council of N.L. (SCNL), the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), the Sierra Club of Canada, the N.L. Outfitters Association, the Miawpukek First Nation and others with interest in local river systems and general environmental issues.

He says the group was disappointed the Greene report seemed to dismiss the land-based option without giving any kind of thought to supporting evidence.

In an interview, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, with SaltWire, White pointed out that more and more aquaculture operations around the world are switching to land-based operations.

According to a document posted on the group’s website, more than 70 companies are building land-based salmon farms with potential production of about 1.8 million tonnes from those sites in the future.

Meanwhile, White said, land-based is not the only solution.

He said closed-containment systems at sea could also be an option.

White said some of the open-net pen systems currently in place in this province are too close to shore and to salmon rivers like the Conne River.

That practice is not sustainable, he said, because it increases the risk of wild salmon becoming infected with sea lice as they pass by the open-net pens. And juvenile salmon that become infected with sea lice don’t usually survive, he said, noting the Conne River salmon population is currently deemed by Fisheries and Oceans as “near extinction.”

White said the industry should have to follow the recommendations of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) and keep farms at least 16 to 20 km away from the mouth of salmon rivers.

“My message is more of the open-net pen model is not the right way forward. We have to look at alternatives and we have to find a way to reduce disease and mortalities,” White said.

He also points to the fact that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) initiated rules in the Discovery Islands area of British Columbia last year, to force 19 aquaculture operations there to move to land-based operations. The federal Liberal made an election promise to phase out ocean-based aquaculture in that province by 2025.

As aquaculture regulations change in Canada, said White, this province may have no choice but to follow suit.

“Major irrevocable changes are now being made in the way that salmon aquaculture is carried on involving a transition from the (open-net pen) model. Newfoundland and Labrador must embrace those changes rather than deny them,” said the NL-CAR press release.

The aquaculture industry is a hot-button issue and to the public it may seem that the level of animosity between the industry and groups like NL-CAR is so high that they can never find common ground.

“That’s not really true,” White says. “That’s why I began our news release with the statement that we’re not against salmon aquaculture.

“Even with aquaculture in the marine environment, there’s better ways to do it than what we’re doing now,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a complete divide. There are people who are against aquaculture, come hell or high water, and we’re certainly not in that camp,” he said of NL-CAR.

“This can be a good industry for Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said, but only if the province is willing to follow the lead of other jurisdictions that are already making changes.

Province responds

In a May 13 interview with SaltWire regarding the Greene report Fisheries Minister Derrick Bragg said the province “strongly supports the aquaculture industry.”

“We have some of the most robust policies for any of those industries,” Bragg said. “We’re probably going to be the leader when it comes to our rules and regulations around aquaculture.”

In an email to SaltWire Wednesday, the department took exception to NL-CAR’s statements that the provincial aquaculture sector was “mired in sea lice,” “plagued by infectious salmon anemia (ISA)” and that “mass mortalities are common.”

The department said those comments are “incorrect, misleading, and frankly, demeaning to the more than 800 women and men who are directly employed in this industry and working to build a strong, safe and world-class aquaculture industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The department said most of the province’s aquaculture policies exceed, or are in line with, highly recognized Aquaculture Stewardship Council standards and focus on environmental sustainability.

Finfish operators are also obligated to provide environmental and waste management plans, have detailed mitigation measures to address mortality incidents, and submit reports to the department.

The province also co-manages an extensive containment program called the NL Code of Containment for Salmonids with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), which requires salmon aquaculture companies to report suspect and confirmed escapes, as well as Reportable Diseases, as soon as they are aware of them.

“Code of Containment annual compliance reports are posted and all suspect and confirmed escapes, and reportable diseases, are publicly reported on the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association website,” the department said, adding, “It is noteworthy that since October 2020, there has been one report of one escaped salmon, and no cases of ISA reported since January 2021.”

As for NL-CAR’s reference to DFO’s recent decisions in B.C., the department said, “It is disappointing that anti-aquaculture groups are using what’s happening in other areas like British Columbia to justify their efforts to paint the aquaculture industry in this province in a negative light.”

The department said it has been assured by federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan that the federal government fully supports Newfoundland and Labrador’s sea-cage aquaculture industry.

“Sea-pen farming for final grow-out remains the most overwhelmingly predominant salmon culture method in world. Our aquaculture sector exports salmon to international markets and our advantage is in utilizing high-quality coastal resources on our south coast.”

Bragg added, “I think we’re really doing our part. We’re stepping up our game and the industry is stepping up their game.”