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Risley comments on salmon aquaculture make waves

Stop the blame game and focus on solutions, says Conne River, N.L. Chief Misel Joe.

Chief Misel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River says there’s some merit in some of the things John Risley had to say recently about the aquaculture industry.

Risley stirred debate when he alleged in a column for Atlantic Business Magazine that farmed salmon is “a deadly enemy to (wild) salmon’s survival” and “salmon farming, as currently practiced is not sustainable.”

Risley also suggested there ought to be a moratorium on net pens until industry and government can assure the use of sea cages is not causing harm to wild salmon.

Chief Joe agrees it would be a “common sense” approach to hold off on adding more net pens for a while.

Aquaculture is an important part of the economy of the Connaigre Peninsula, and communities like Conne River, St. Alban’s and Harbour Breton.

While there are no net pens at Conne River, there are operations at nearby Harbour Breton and St. Albans.

A salmon hatchery, sea cage sites and a salmon processing plant provide hundreds of jobs for local people. Local businesses also profit by supplying products and services to the aquaculture industry.

Chief Joe said the spin-off business is important to Conne River, where some of those suppliers located.

He also knows that when he was a boy the Conne River, and nearby Little River, were full of wild salmon.

But the fish stopped coming back.

The Conne River Band spent millions of dollars since the 1980s, he said, on work to enhance the rivers in the hope the salmon population could grow.

Yet that hope is dim.

“The Little River, from what I know, is dead. There’s no salmon coming back into … that river system. And Conne River is damned near at that stage,” he said.

A recent stock status report from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said the Conne River salmon were close to extinction.

Chief Joe is not interested in laying the blame solely on the doorstep of the aquaculture industry.

“I don’t know who to point the finger at. There are many things. If you point the finger at seals, people will get mad at you. If you point the finger at fish farming, people get mad at that. If you point the finger at too many people robbing the rivers with nets, they’ll get mad at that.”

The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), however, is a little more blunt.

Canada Commitment to Atlantic Salmon

Neville Crabbe, communications director for the ASF, points to a 2020 study on the status of wild Atlantic Salmon in Norway.

That report was prepared by the Norwegian Scientific Advisory Committee for Atlantic Salmon, which includes 13 scientists from seven institutions.

Crabbe said you don’t have to look any further than page two of the report to find their conclusion about why wild salmon are still struggling, despite many mitigation efforts.

“Escaped farmed salmon and sea lice are the largest threats to the wild salmon,” the report states.

Crabbe calls it “a stark and clear conclusion.”

He does acknowledge, though, that other factors — warm water, seals, habitat changes, pollution and some commercial fishing activities — are at play.

“Our organization has always been really clear on that. What’s affecting Atlantic Salmon in North America broadly is poor sea survival. Fewer smolt today are surviving their first ocean migration and returning to their home rivers to spawn, than just a few decades ago. So that’s having broad impact in all rivers, including those far away from the aquaculture industry.”

Still, he said, aquaculture is a situation created by people, and change is within their control.

Crabbe added Canada, as a member of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO), has made commitments to deal with issues affecting wild salmon.

NASCO involves countries around the North Atlantic that have salmon rivers. Among them are Greenland, Spain, the UK, France and the US, as well as Canada.

A report from NASCO in 2019 — dubbed the Year of the Salmon — notes that of the 2,359 rivers in their database, 174 rivers no longer have unique populations of spawning salmon. Another 1,014 rivers have stocks that are considered to be at risk, or threatened, and just 341 rivers are considered to have sustainable populations. The remaining rivers had not been assessed at the time of the report.

On the subject of aquaculture, the report says fish farming increases the abundance of sea lice in the marine environment to the extent it has a negative impact on wild salmon.

The report also suggests means to mitigate the problem.

“Careful siting of fish farms away from wild salmon migration routes, state-of-the-art containment at sea, use of sterile fish, sea lice and disease management systems can all help.

“A further option is the development of closed-containment salmon production systems at sea or on land as an alternative method of fish farming. Such a system of aquaculture would give fish farmers complete control of the rearing environment and minimise the environmental impact of their activities on wild fish.”

The full report is here.

Crabbe said the parties to NASCO have committed to some key goals to help wild salmon. With respect to aquaculture, he said, the goal is: no escapes and reducing impact from sea lice to zero or close to zero.

According to Crabbe, the Canadian government has not lived up to those commitments.

“In their latest progress report Canada demonstrated no action towards achieving those aquaculture goals. Canada’s efforts were deemed unsatisfactory by the commission,” said Crabbe.

The ASF is not calling for a complete shutdown of the aquaculture industry in Atlantic Canada, Crabbe added. But the group does want the industry, and the Canadian government, to do better for wild salmon.

“We’re advocating for Canada to live up to their international commitments,” he said. “That would entail some difficult decisions but … we should be leaders in wild Atlantic salmon conservation, not laggards.”

Stop blaming, start cooperating

In Conne River, Chief Joe simply hopes the industry, government, scientists and anglers — all those with a vested interest in both farmed and wild salmon — can stop the blame game and focus on solutions.

“Everyone can lay blame but if you’re not willing to step forward to help fix it then nothing gets done.

The stakes are high.

Aquaculture is firing the local economy and it’s difficult to imagine the Connaigre Peninsula without it.

If aquaculture moved out of the area it would be a devastation on the scope of the shutdown of the cod fishery in the area in 1992, he said.

“But have to find a way to make it (aquaculture) safe, there’s no doubt about that,” he added.

It’s also distressing to imagine a day when no wild salmon return to the Conne River.

Those who want to see both survive have to work together, said the Chief.

He agrees with Risley, that the conversation towards consensus-building has to start now.

“If we’re not all pulling on the same rope … we can blame the industry, the scientists, the fishermen, the local farmers, but while we’re doing that, nothing gets done.

“And we need to be doing this yesterday.”