The Minister who 'Looked Behind the Curtain'

  • National Newswatch

Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray has done something none of her predecessors in the role has been able to accomplish; and it's mind-blowing for those of us who've been fighting industrial salmon farming in the ocean for decades.I'm not talking about her recent decision to permanently close the Discovery Island farms—that was wonderful news to be sure and polls suggest I speak for at least 75% of British Columbians when I say, thank you, Minister Murray!  As I write, juvenile wild salmon are beginning their journey to the ocean and because of this decision, they will be protected from the parasites, viruses, bacteria and pollution that used to pour into the Discovery Islands from salmon farms.No, what Joyce Murray did is far more important than keeping the Discovery Island farms closed. She has finally—FINALLY—broken the stranglehold that DFO's aquaculture scientists have had on public policy for 30 years.Instead of relying on DFO's “risk assessments” that have been extensively criticized, or their recent sea lice advice paper that was panned as “scientific sin” by sixteen prominent Canadian scientists, the Minister reached out to all of the scientists studying the interactions of wild and farmed salmon. She gathered the most up-to-date studies and discussed them with the researchers. And in outlining her reasoning in Friday's media release, she said,“Recent science indicates that there is uncertainty with respect to the risks posed by Atlantic salmon aquaculture farms to wild Pacific salmon in the Discovery Islands area, as well as to the cumulative effect of any farm-related impacts on this iconic species.”She went on to demonstrate for her Department what the Precautionary Principle is all about: in the face of scientific uncertainty, you don't allow business as usual to continue. You eliminate the risk.The industry apologists who have occupied the space at DFO's aquaculture science have worked for 30 years on the theory that, if it couldn't be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that salmon farms are killing enough salmon to put the survival of whole populations at risk, then salmon farms must continue to operate. Controlling the funding and the access to fish and labs, they expected to be able to control the science agenda indefinitely, to ensure such proof never materialized.Industry's incredulous reaction to the Minister's decision is reflective of their deep investment in that science agenda. For many years, they have co-funded and often co-authored DFO's aquaculture science. In itself, that's not a bad thing: science performed by government for the benefit of industry should be on a co-pay basis. But in this case, there was no-one directing the Department to give equal attention to the impacts of the industry on wild salmon—and so, no-one in government did so.Our sincerest thanks go to the many, many brave scientists who had the integrity to ask and answer the real questions that needed to be studied, regardless of the barriers thrown up by the Department. I'm happy to say there are far too many excellent papers published today to be able to recognize all of the authors in this short note; but it would be totally remiss to fail to acknowledge the commitment and dedication of Alexandra Morton and Kristi Miller-Saunders in ensuring rigorous and independent scientific study of the impacts of salmon farms.The reaction of the B.C. Salmon Farmers' Association to the decision to close Discovery Island salmon farms presents a conundrum going forward with transition planning for the remaining 80 or so farms. DFO, at the direction of the Minister, has been consulting on a draft transition plan premised on the industry making significant investments in technology that it claims will reduce interactions between farmed and wild salmon. Now, the BCSFA has announced that its members can no longer co-operate with the transition plan: they claim to be unable to afford the technology upgrades that the draft plan contemplated. And now, the Minister has acknowledged that the state of science requires her to invoke the precautionary principle when making licensing decisions.Perhaps it's not so much of a conundrum after all…there is a solution. The licences cannot be renewed if the industry cannot eliminate its impacts on wild salmon.Karen Wristen, Executive Director Living Oceans Society