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How Canada’s push for land-based salmon farms failed

How Canada’s push for land-based salmon farms failed

Ottawa’s salmon policy overlooks scientific advice in favour of policies based on unproven assertions

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Salmon farming in Canada is a study in good intentions gone awry: an attempt to balance environmental concerns against the economic benefits of British Columbia’s largest agricultural export sector that has ended up doing more harm than good.

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In 2019, the just re-elected Trudeau government embarked on a six-year phase-out of “net-pen” farming of Atlantic salmon in B.C. This kind of farming involves raising fish to maturity in floating pens in the ocean, a practice activists believe exposes wild salmon outside the pens to sea lice and viruses. (Why Atlantic salmon in Pacific farms? They are the cows of the salmon world: relatively docile and good at gaining weight. Moreover, if they escape from pens, as happens on occasion, they don’t breed with wild species. Even when deliberately introduced to Pacific streams, Atlantic salmon have never established themselves.)

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Those opposed to net-pens propose a green and novel alternative: land-based salmon farms. Fish are raised in tanks, either outdoors or indoors, in which they swim in purified water in artificial currents until they’re mature enough to harvest. As you might imagine, replicating the vastness of the ocean on land has proved challenging and, so far, economically infeasible. It’s also not always good for the fish. In 2021, a single land operation in Florida lost 800,000 fish due to stress and a design failure. Even brief power interruptions can be deadly, a problem that does not arise in ocean pens.

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On-land aquaculture is not a crazy idea. Plenty of species are raised that way. And all farmed salmon begin their life in hatcheries. Yet for the Atlantic variety that dominates salmon farming worldwide, success remains elusive. A 2022 study found it would require at least 10 years for a significant RAS (for “recirculating aquaculture system”) production sector to emerge in British Columbia. Of course, if B.C.’s salmon production does eventually move onto land, any natural advantages enjoyed by coastal communities will vanish. The on-land industry eventually will be located adjacent to where its output is consumed — which for B.C. means the U.S., where 96 per cent of B.C. farmed salmon goes.

Though there is no successful large-scale Atlantic salmon land farm anywhere in the world, the issue remains surprisingly polarizing. In B.C., the scion of a cable fortune funded an elaborate lobbying effort to persuade the Liberal caucus to back the idea. For its part, the beleaguered aquaculture sector continues to maintain — with backing from the federal government’s own fisheries scientists — that the risks of net-pen farming are minimal. Industry has invested millions to clean up farming practices and incorporate ocean-based systems that feature many of the advantages of the land-based model but few of the disadvantages. It has made no difference. In a stratagem familiar from fossil fuel policy, the government chose a year for when the promised transition would be fully in effect — 2025 — and has brooked no further opposition.

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Many sea-based farms have already closed and if on-land farming advocates have their way, all of them will go. There have been serious consequences already and an analysis I have seen, prepared for the BC Salmon Farmers by RIAS Inc., says the full plan threatens to reverse Indigenous economic development, eliminate 4,690 jobs and slash Canadian agri-food production by 400 million meals annually. If she has her way, Joyce Murray’s legacy as federal fisheries minister will be a $1.2-billion loss in annual economic activity, a $447-million reduction in GDP, and a $485-million cut in spending on everything from veterinarians to feed to fish processing plants affecting over 1,000 vendors across B.C. Yet the government presses on.

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The human impact of its policy was painfully evident at the Indigenous Partnership Success Showcase (IPSS) held in Vancouver last month. Isaiah Robinson of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation highlighted the threat to his community. Through development and self-determination, it has effectively beaten the once-rampant scourges of suicide and alcoholism. It now boasts a 99 per cent employment rate and not one suicide in 18 years, developments that coincided with the success of the local salmon farm business.

Minister Murray represents a Vancouver riding where the average income is above $100,000. No doubt her constituents see the complexities of environmental and economic balance differently. So it’s not surprising she seems indifferent to the carnage her workplan means for those like the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, located in an area of the remote central coast where more than a quarter of children live in low-income homes, the highest child poverty rate of any B.C. regional district.

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“Listen to the science” has been one of this government’s best-known slogans. But its salmon policy overlooks scientific advice in favour of policies based on unproven assertions. Unsubstantiated theories about seaborne fish pathogens have fuelled a persistent lobbying campaign. Anti-farming pressure groups with mysteriously deep pockets continue to harangue Murray and her caucus colleagues. To them, every scrap of data is proof that despite extensive evidence to the contrary large-scale on-land money-making salmon farming is just around the corner.

Steve Atkinson, the retired founder of Nanaimo on-land salmon farm company Taste of BC, offers a sobering perspective on the situation. Having spent years perfecting his pilot-scale farm, Atkinson’s efforts yielded a modest 100 tonnes per year of steelhead salmon. That’s a nice business for a tasty little fish but a single ocean net farm can produce 30 times that tonnage of Atlantic salmon.

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You might expect Atkinson to be a big booster of the on-land salmon miracle. Yet his insights highlight the harsh reality of “transitioned” salmon farming. In a recent aquaculture podcast, he expressed his skepticism of individuals and companies that ride the hype of land-based salmon farming, promising big but delivering little: “It’s taken us 10 years (to succeed with Taste of BC’s farm), but there have been people trying to grow Atlantic salmon and RAS the same amount of time. And nobody’s been successful. Nobody’s got it figured out.”

In the past year, the stock prices of land-based salmon companies have cratered. The experience of Blue Star Foods, which owns Taste of BC though its main business is crab meat, is instructive. Blue Star’s stock tripled in price during its acquisition of Taste of BC. And just days before Joyce Murray was named fisheries minister, as Taste of BC announced big growth plans, the price jumped again, from US$126 to US$154. The euphoria was short-lived, however. The share price soon collapsed and is now trading at $1.10, a decline of 96 per cent that Blue Star attributes to short-sellers. That may well be true, but short-sellers are often shrewd. Atlantic Sapphire, which owns a troubled Florida land-based salmon farming operation perpetually on the brink of major breakthroughs that never quite materialize, fell 71 per cent over the past year.

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The irony is rich. In a decade in which “green” and “sustainable” are buzzwords, the government’s plan is anything but. It undermines salmon farmers’ substantial investments to address bona fide criticisms of their industry, ignores advanced-technology solutions that isolate ocean-grown fish from their surroundings, increases consumer prices, rolls back progress in Indigenous reconciliation and destroys a burgeoning B.C. coast aquaculture tech cluster that has evolved over decades.

Advocates for on-land farming try to seize the moral high ground by claiming only their approach protects wild salmon (though many seem to have no issue with catching wild salmon to eat). Trading in the imagery of this iconic fish has proved very effective. To some members of the public, farms have been branded as the enemy of wild species. On the other hand, more farmed salmon means fewer wild salmon need to be harvested for food. Many aquaculture workers I have met say the chance to protect wild salmon is what drew them to the job, and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. Numerous rural First Nations are involved in the pen-farm business, their leadership compelled to tread a delicate path that champions both traditional fishing rights and access to one of the few realistic economic options they have.

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The government’s tangled doctrine even boosts consumer GHG footprints. Because many B.C. salmon farms have closed, local diners are now served farmed salmon flown in from Norway, instead of the 100-mile-diet variety.

Given the mess, an observer might wonder what could have been done differently. What if federal cabinet instead had taken the 2017 advice of its own blue-ribbon advisory panel led by then-wunderkind Dominic Barton? It circled aquaculture as having the potential to triple its GDP contribution. Instead, British Columbia’s salmon-farm communities are foundering.

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If the latest generation of ministerial staffers would accept some free advice, they should reverse course on this important public issue. They should push back on the high-pitched campaigners whose dreams of an on-land salmon nirvana have clearly proved premature. Salmon farming is a complex puzzle, needing an approach that balances sustainability, economic viability and community livelihoods. The rash promises and unrealistic timelines that have characterized so much of this federal government’s policymaking have led nowhere — even though, if First Nations leaders are right, lives are at stake. Let’s hope that’s not lost on policymakers, and that a more thoughtful, pragmatic approach to salmon farming prevails in future. If there are other ways than ocean-based salmon farming to bring more than a billion dollars of new investment to the west coast’s rural and Indigenous communities — without subsidy — let’s give them our full attention, too.

In a tumultuous space in which it seems everyone has a long list of shouty demands, may I make this one modest request of purists who insist on only wild salmon when they dine: Kindly humour the rest of us by accompanying it with wild potatoes, wild tomatoes, wild lettuce and wild ice cream.

Financial Post

Stewart Muir, former business editor of the Vancouver Sun, is founder of the Resource Works Society.

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