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Ocean geese meet ocean gander


What’s in a word?

Or, more importantly, what’s in three words?

Late last week, on the other side of the country, Terry Beech, the Liberal MP for Burnaby and the parliamentary secretary for the federal minister of fisheries, gave a news conference about the progress of an election promise to stop open-pen salmon farming off British Columbia.

“Our primary goal here is to transition away from open-net pens toward more sustainable technology. What that technology is, and what best fits for British Columbia for the near future, is part of what needs to be examined,” he told the news conference.

There are a couple of things to unpack there — one is that, though the election is well back in history now, the Liberals still don’t seem to have a clear plan about just where they are going with their promise. Right now, everything seems to be waiting for a report in the spring that will address concerns from the industry, from First Nations, and from environmental stakeholders. Consultation is an excellent idea, but it’s rarely quick.

The other issue, for Newfoundland and Labrador, along with other Atlantic provinces, is just three simple but significant words — “more sustainable technology.”

Why are they important? Well, because if what’s going to be required in British Columbia is more sustainable technology for the aquaculture industry, the fact that we’re staying with net pen farms for aquaculture operations in the Atlantic region fundamentally means an admission that it’s OK for us to use less sustainable technology.

And the federal government knows it, even if it isn’t saying it in so many words.

That’s a problem.

It’s even more of a problem because, at least at his news conference, Beech seemed to suggest that that there’s a need to move quickly to move away from the existing net pen system.

“I can tell you that I approached this file with urgency,” he said. “I think it’s going to be important to move forward on this transition as quickly as we can in a responsible way.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial government has been a pretty enthusiastic partner in the open ocean pen aquaculture business. There have been loan guarantees and public backing, and even fast-tracked environmental assessments that were later overturned by the courts.

Sea lice, the health of wild stocks and the transmission of salmonid infections have been the impetus for the changes in British Columbia.

Problem is, we have consistent and serious issues with sea lice and salmonid infections here, too — along with clear genetic evidence that escaped aquaculture salmon have full contact with wild Atlantic salmon and are regularly breeding with wild stocks.

In other words, everything that’s a problem in British Columbia is a problem here, too. Yet, for some reason, British Columbia rates a more sustainable aquaculture technology on an urgent basis, while we do not.

The thing about federal rules is that there aren’t supposed to be second-class citizens or poor cousins. If something is a clear environmental issue for wild salmon stocks off British Columbia, the federal government can’t just turn around and say “but, of course, it’s fine to have them over there in Atlantic Canada.”

There aren’t different standards for what constitutes ocean pollution from one side of the country to the other, or for what constitutes, say, allowable contamination in drinking water. If the federal government says salmon aquaculture operations have to meet a new basic standard, lobbying from the province or not, that standard will eventually come here, too.

Because, as MP Beech said, the risks are great enough to be dealt with urgently.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.