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Election 2013 – On protecting BC’s Salmon

April 30, 2013

Earlier this year, the BC Legislature declared the Pacific Salmon to be BC’s official fish.  Which is no doubt nice for the salmon.  But even nicer would be real legal protection for the salmon.  With the platforms from all four parties now available, what are candidates proposing to do to protect our salmon? 

Controversy is developing regarding the NDP’s rather vague election promise on salmon.  Later in the post we’ll take a closer look at the NDP’s position, but first, here’s where each party comes down:

  • BC Conservatives: Although John Cummins is a former commercial fisher himself, and has been known to take strong positions on fish-related issues, the Conservative party platform does not mention salmon, fish, fishing or anything else directly aimed at addressing fish or protection of fish. 
  • BC Liberals: The BC Liberal platform only makes one specific promise related to fish: “Direct all revenues from fishing licences be provided to the Freshwater Fisheries Society for conservation activities ($2.4 million), by 2015/16.”  According to the platform costing, this would represent $2.4 million for fish conservation activities.  (Although not in the platform, the current, Liberal government has taken some recent steps related to fish farms, discussed later in this post). 
  • BC Greens: The BC Greens have a series of promises related to salmon and other related species, including negotiating to take over the management of fisheries from the federal government, addressing the impacts of run-of-river projects, mining and forestry on fisheries values, etc.  The BC Greens also promise to remove fish farms from the “East Coast of Vancouver Island and the West Coast of the Mainland”.  More on this below.  This brief summary does not fully capture the several promises in the party’s Green Book 2013 related to fish and fisheries, which readers interested in fish protection may wish to review.
  • BC NDP: The BC New Democrats election platform has only one major commitment directly related to salmon.  Notably, they promise to: “Protect wild salmon stocks by working with the federal government to implement the Cohen Commission recommendations, and to support sustainable aquaculture.”  This is the promise that we’ll examine in more detail below.  The NDP platform also commits more generally to “ensur[ing that] government decisions are supported by robust science-based evidence to better manage BC’s wildlife and fisheries resources….” 

In this post we’re focused on promises that are actually directed at protecting fish and fish habitat.  Other election promises may incidentally protect fish.  For example, NDP and Green pronouncements against oil pipelines and tanker traffic are good for fish (the Green party platform explicitly makes this link).  Similarly, the NDP and the Liberals are both promising a revised Water Act which is expected (although the platforms don’t say it) to expand government powers to ensure that fish get water (Organizing for Change has more on the party positions on the new Water Act).  But fish are only one of the many reasons for taking these stands. 

The NDP and the Cohen Commission

So what does the NDP mean by:

Protect wild salmon stocks by working with the federal government to implement the Cohen Commission recommendations, and to support sustainable aquaculture.

The Cohen Commission was appointed by Prime Minister Steven Harper to examine the collapse of the Fraser River Sockeye runs in 2009.  The Commission held hearings over two years, heard from 179 witnesses, and examined 573,381 documents, trying to get a sense of what needs to be done to maintain and enhance Fraser sockeye runs.  The Commissioner made 75 recommendations, primarily directed at the federal government.

It’s worth noting that the federal government has not, to date, indicated whether it will accept or implement the Cohen Commission recommendations.  With a possibly unwilling partner in the federal government, it’s unclear whether the NDP would be able to implement all 75 recommendations, which ones they would prioritize, and what they would do if the federal government will not cooperate. 

This vagueness has led one of BC’s foremost salmon activists, Alexandra Morton, to blast the NDP for what she sees as backing away from past commitments to regulate the fish farm industry and protect wild salmon:

The freshly minted NDP Fisheries policy literally that put salmon farms first, sets a course that conflicts with itself and the NDP’s previous position to remove salmon farms from BC waters. … Whoever wrote the NDP fisheries policy feels certain British Columbians don’t read the news because astonishingly they thought telling us the NDP would work with DFO would inspire confidence.

Clearly the NDP platform, if it is to get serious about protecting fish, needs a little more detail. 

Confusing matters somewhat is the fact that some individual NDP Candidates have made statements that do provide more detail about their positions on fish farms and salmon, but it is not obvious that the party is standing behind them.  For example, Agriculture Critic Lana Popham reportedly posted the following to her Facebook Page, but it doesn’t appear there any longer:

New Democrats have clearly stated that if we form government in May, we will work with the DFO to act on the recommendations from Justice Cohen including:

  • regularly revising salmon farm siting criteria to reflect new scientific information about farms on or near Fraser River sockeye salmon migration routes as well as the cumulative effects of these farms;
  • explicitly considering proximity to Fraser River sockeye when siting farms;∙
  • limiting salmon farm production and licence duration;∙
  • using the precautionary principle to re-evaluate risk and mitigation measures for salmon farms in the Discovery Islands, including closing those farms that are determined to pose more than a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye.

In addition, we will maintain the existing moratorium, introduced in 2008, on new fish farm licenses on the North Coast.

I called the NDP to ask why this post has apparently been taken down and what the specifics of the NDP platform are, but did not receive a call back by the time this post was published.  I will update if we hear back from them. 

A few more details might be gleaned from statements made by NDP Incumbent, Claire Trevena in the Campbell River Mirror:

It must be remembered that, as a consequence of a legal challenge brought in 2009, the BC Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction for open-net aquaculture. This ruling severely limits the province’s ability to regulate in this area. …

Last May, my party stated that we are firmly committed to working with and, if necessary, pressuring Fisheries to act if we form the government. …

An area where the province does have jurisdiction is renewing leases for the siting of fish farms.

These statements are interesting.  On the one hand, Trevena downplays the provincial government’s ability to regulate fish farms – implying that this is the reason for the narrow campaign promise to work with the federal government on implementing the Cohen Commission recommendations.  But at the same time she recognizes that the province has the ability to act on the key question of the siting of fish farms (should they be located on the migration routes of wild salmon, for example).  Trevena’s language largely parallels both the NDP’s platform and Lana Popham’s statement, but with the added suggestion that these goals can only be achieved through pressure on the federal government. 

BC’s jurisdiction over fish farms

The court case Trevena refers to is a case brought by Alexandra Morton (with financial support from West Coast Environmental Law), and it does indeed establish that the federal government is responsible for regulating fish farms. 

But she is equally correct that the province retains jurisdiction for determining where fish farms are located (if anywhere).  This is because the provincial government owns the seabed for much of BC’s oceans areas – and so fish farms need a licence from the province to legally operate their open net operations. 

The current provincial government has recognized its continued jurisdiction over fish farms through its control over the “tenures” of fish farms, and intends to use these powers, with or without federal government approval, to signal what amounts to a moratorium (as recommended by Commissioner Cohen) on new fish farms in the Discovery Islands:  

The Province of British Columbia has no intention of issuing any further or expanded tenures for net-pen salmon farms in the Discovery Islands until at least September 30, 2020. … The Province will work with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and with industry and First Nations to implement the intent of this recommendation.

Alexandra Morton was quick to point out in this video (recorded before the NDP platform was released) that the Province, through this statement, is accepting its jurisdiction over fish farms. 

Similarly, the Green party is clear that they intend to use this control over the seabed to eliminate fish farms:

Ensure that the BC coast is free of finfish farms along the length of the east coast of Vancouver Island and the west coast of the mainland from the Fraser River north to the Broughton Archipelago, by not renewing the licenses of finfish farms with annual tenure and by revoking the licenses of finfish farms with long-term tenure. [Emphasis added]

The fact is that each of the specific objectives listed by Lana Popham in her statement could be addressed through the provincial power to control its own lands.  While not every one of the Cohen Commission recommendations could be implemented by the province acting alone, a large number of them could.  The NDP, if it is indeed suggesting that the federal government needs to be involved before it can act, is ignoring its powers as landlord of the fish farm companies. 

Want to know where your candidate stands on protecting wild salmon and other fish species?

If you’d like to see candidates taking stronger stands on salmon and fish protection, tell them so.  On the VoteEnvironment2013 website you can just put in your postal code and then write an email to all your local candidates about salmon (or about any environmental issues of your choice).  This election, vote environment!

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer

This post authorized by West Coast Environmental Law Association, sponsor under the Elections Act, 604-684-7378.

Photos courtesy of Andrew S. Wright /