B.C. Salmon Farmers Throw in Towelby Nathan VanderKlippe
Financial Post, August 31, 2007
Fed up with environmental opposition
VANCOUVER -- Some of the top workers in B.C.'s salmon industry are leaving to nurture ocean farms elsewhere as they grow tired of working in a province in which strident environmental opposition has all but closed off expansion plans -- and, they say, deprived the West Coast of hundreds of millions in potential revenues.
"If you got an honest answer from most people in the industry, they have bookmarked most of the international job site searches on their computers," said Andrew Forsythe, a long-time B.C. salmon farmer who left recently for New Zealand.
Mr. Forsythe worked in B.C. for a decade, first as a feed company vet and then as manager of freshwater salmon production for the Canadian subsidiary of Marine Harvest, the world's largest salmon farming company. He spearheaded the construction of the world's largest recirculation salmon hatchery near Prince Rupert, B.C., and was a pivotal force in the West Coast industry.
But he, like numerous others -- including a number of senior workers who have left to build a salmon industry in Tasmania -- grew frustrated with the pace of expansion of an industry that has been dogged by environmental complaints and political interference. Two years ago, he decided he'd had enough and left for the southern hemisphere where, he said, fish farming is a growth business.
"The salmon industry in B.C. is 10 times the size of the salmon industry in New Zealand, but it is 10 times smaller than the industry in Norway or Chile," he said -- even though B.C.'s suitable salmon farming coastline roughly equals that in those two countries, and the industry here could potentially match them in size.
"While there is enormous scope for development in Canada it has run out of steam. This is not a question of running out of space or transgressing environmental standards. It's politics."
In B.C. alone, applications for 15 fish farms -- most of them salmon -- are currently languishing in the licensing system, some since 2002. The delay in their approval has cost the industry about $450-million, estimates Mary Ellen Walling, the executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association. That is more than value of the industry's entire 2006 sales.
"The world appetite for salmon is growing faster than our ability to supply it," said Ms. Walling. "But even with our wonderful coastline and poverty-stricken First Nations communities that could really benefit from this activity, the environmental lobby in B.C. is so strong that it really limits opportunities. It is really frustrating."
The delays have also created uncertainty that has undermined industry investments.
Take, for example, Mr. Forsythe's Prince Rupert hatchery. Marine Harvest Canada spent millions to build it on the assumption that it would receive farming licences in nearby waters. But when those licences failed to materialize, the company was forced to shutter the plant.
"Without those sites it was a wasted effort," said Mr. Forsythe in an interview from his current office at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, where he is working to diversify and grow the local fish-farming industry.
New Zealand legislators, by comparison, have a far more committed attitude toward aquaculture, and have promised to triple the domestic market's size in the next 15 years, he said.
"Not to put too rosy a face on it -- we have all the same stakeholder issues and the same legislative delays. But politicians here will say, 'We have to listen to the stakeholders, but in the end we want to see it forward.' In B.C. we have politicians that say yes, 'We want to listen to the stakeholders' -- but they won't finish the sentence."
The departure of people such as Mr. Forsythe for greener waters is creating more competition for B.C. products, but is also potentially exposing Canadian salmon farmers to more risk, said Larry Greba, the fisheries advisor to the Kitasoo Nation, which has encouraged salmon farming in its waters near Klemtu, B.C.
"When you run into critical situations -- like a disease outbreak or a plankton issue -- there's only a handful of people that know what to do. You start losing those people, then the company is going to start making more mistakes and maybe cutting corners," he said.
The environmental lobby has little sympathy for the departed.
"I'm welcoming a changing of the old guard. Some of the new people coming into the salmon farming industry have new approaches, fresh ideas and a better understanding of the ecological impact of the industry," said Jessica Lash, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, which has staunchly opposed expansion of the industry. "And people can come and go from industry. But when you lose your wild salmon they don't come back again."
Environmental criticism is rooted primarily in the impacts it has on wild salmon. Ms. Lash contends that salmon farms are breeding grounds for parasitic sea lice, which then spread to passing wild salmon and can kill them. Living Oceans has pushed for salmon farms to replace open net cage systems with closed systems that don't allow any interaction between farmed and wild fish. The economics of closed systems are, however, still under study.
But until they are adopted, she pledged to vigorously oppose any expansion of the industry.
But what environmentalists don't appreciate is that salmon farms benefit wild fish in other ways, said Marine Harvest Canada spokesman Ian Roberts.
"Like everybody else, we have an impact but I would say it's extremely minimal and the benefit of growing salmon far outweighs the risk, and that risk is overfishing," he said.
Still, a dramatic growth of the industry appears entirely unlikely. The issue is "one of the most controversial files probably in the province right now," said Pat Bell, the B.C. Minister of Agriculture and Lands. "Until you have broader public support I think it is challenging to see significant expansion of the industry."
He has, in recent weeks, approved several new licences, although they have mostly been for replacement farms rather than new ones. Later this year, he plans to release a finfish aquaculture plan intended to map out the way forward for the industry to make "thoughtful, methodical" expansion plans.
"I'd like to see the industry be very successful in B.C., and I'd argue they are starting to feel like they are moving forward," he said. "But they need business certainty as well and I think a well-written finfish aquaculture plan will provide them with the certainty they need."
Still, those measures are unlikely to bring back people like Mr. Forsythe who, despite having found better opportunities elsewhere, can't help but feel a twinge of guilt.
"Every time I hear Stompin' Tom Connor's song 'Believe in Your Country' (and in our household we hear Stompin Tom a lot) I feel a bit guilty," he said. "But I wanted to be where I was needed."
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