fish farms

Reporter Roundtable: Fish farms and seaweed production

In partnership with Cortes Community Radio & Cortes Currents, Folk U Radio offered its first Reporter Roundtable: Fish farms and seaweed production. 

The panel:

The Discovery Island’s fish farms

“By June 20, 2022, the whole region must be free of open net salmon farms. After that, no licenses will be issued. On one hand this issue can look like environment versus industry, but as one looks deeper, it is more complicated,” began moderator Manda Aufochs Gillespie of Folk U Radio. 

“Everything folks argue from opposite sides of the debate is true to an extent, the issue, like most issues, are simply more nuance entangled than they appear to be,” said Rochelle Baker

Was the fish farm decision made correctly?

“In my personal opinion, the writing has been on the wall for a very long time for everyone: the Federal Government, the Provincial Government, the aquaculture companies,” said Binny Paul. “The question that everyone needs to be asking is, was it done correctly?”

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan claims this decision was made in consultation with the seven First Nations that hold title in the Discovery Islands. This is the beginning of a series of processes, in which BC and Canada are supposedly adhering to the or reconciliation process.

“From what I understand (after interviewing one the the chiefs involved), it was not a very deeply consulted process, it was as though a political mandate was present,” said Paul.

Several of the First Nations would have preferred a consultation process with all the stakeholders – Indigenous communities, aquaculture industry and DFO – involved, such as occurred in the Broughton Archipeligo in 2018.

Though the ultimate goal of those talks was removing 17 fish farms, even the President of the BC Salmon Farmers Association said this was the process that should have been used in the Discovery Islands.

Hales pointed out that DFO appears to have ignored the fact fish farms work on a five year cycle (from eggs to harvest). They have been told to vacate the Discovery Islands in 18 months: “so of course there are going to be problems.”

People losing their jobs

The Campbell River Business Recovery Task Force identified fish farms as one of the community’s three first dollar industries, which represents 1,500 direct and indirect jobs (and an estimated $150 million going into the local economy).

“I believe they are talking about 572 direct jobs. One of the foremen mentioned 5 to 8 people to a shift, on 19 farms. There are also fish hatcheries, processing plants, people doing maintenance and other support jobs. The 1,500 figure includes transportation companies and all kinds of other businesses that are affected,” explained Hales.

“We are talking about the reality of people losing their jobs. The island’s economy is mostly resource based and the island has definitely had its run in with resource based economies collapsing with the whole forestry aspect … It is like the same history repeating itself again and again, and there was no plan to diversify the economy beforehand,” said Paul.

“Fish farms are not going to be on land within a couple of years. The technology isn’t developed enough; the facilities aren’t there. So what are we going to do?” asked Baker. 

A closer look at sea lice on 15 salmon farms by Roy L Hales, Cortes Currents Note: this article was not a scientific study, but rather a look at the statistics from nine fish farms believed to be having problems with sea lice (identified with an L beside their name in the chart above) and six farms that, during January 2019, did not.

Environmental Issues 

Asked about the environmental impacts of salmon farms, Hales replied, “I am not convinced that you can pin all the blame for diminishing fish runs on salmon farms.”

A number of other factors have also been responsible. For example, DFO blames the failure of the recent Chum runs to most of Cortes Island’s creeks on a new patch of warm water in the ocean. Most of the salmon returning to Whaletown, James and Hansons creeks are believed to have passed through it and died. (This did not happen on Basil Creek, where there was a good run.) A similar rise in water temperatures wiped out 96% of the returning adult sockeye – a quarter of a million fish – on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in 2015. Rising water temperatures, disasters like the recent Bute Inlet landslide , human infrastructure (dams, culverts, roads), and overfishing have all negatively impacted salmon runs.

That is not to say that there aren’t environmental issues with fish farms.

Some sites are constantly exceeding the allowed sea lice limit (3 per fish), which prompts critics to claim the drug used to control lice is no longer working. (Industry responds that the problem isn’t the drug, but rather the amount of sea lice in the ocean.) There are also fish farms where the number of sea lice isn’t an issue.

In addition, there are less talked about issues like bloody effluence being dumped into the ocean and the eel like salmon Alexandra Morton filmed in ‘Hard Evidence from the inside.’  

Revisiting Phillips Arm fish farm
Photo from the video ‘Hard Evidence from the inside’ used in Revisiting Phillips Arm fish farm by Roy L Hales, Cortes Currents
Healthy salmon swimming past the net from Revisiting Phillips Arm fish farm by Roy L Hales, Cortes Currents

Moving fish farms on land

Binny Paul pointed out that while moving on land may be feasible, “there are other aspects of competitive advantage that we are talking about. Are we too late? Did BC really lose out on its chance to be market leaders with these industries and retaining the industries within the province?”

 “Folks want to move fish farms on land, which could take care of some of the environmental concerns. Yet there are other concerns attached to that in terms of increased energy use, what happens with waste and water. On those large land facilities, the ecological footprint is actually greater,” said Baker.

Ashley Zarbatany added, “I think it is really important, from a climate standpoint, to recognize that the greenhouse gas emissions they are talking about from these land based containments are the equivalent to the size of North Vancouver in terms of energy usage. It was something like 22 million kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions. So this idea that there are ecologically safe alternatives is a false one.”

Could seaweed be a salve to debate over salmon farming? by Rochelle Baker, National Observer (reposted on Cortes Currents here)


Scientists have been looking into the fact that extractive species like seaweed, mussels, or sea cucumbers eat the pollutants from fish farms for over a decade.

Baker pointed out that this system mimics what is already occurring in nature, “The fish eat creatures as food and their waste gets eaten by a sea cucumber or a sea urchin. Smaller particles that don’t fall to the sea floor are filtered by shell fish. Chemical components like phosphorus or nitrogen get absorbed as fertilizer by seaweed.”

This co-cultivation approach could be used to help address the problem of sea lice.

Seaweed farming

There is also a largely untapped market for seaweed in our area.

“We eat seaweed every day, or the larger population does. One of the top uses of the day is seaweed as a food additive, or a cosmetics additive … Besides being a whole food, seaweed is a thickener and an emulsifier. It is used by bakeries and dairies. So that is the target market, along with fertilizer and now there is lots of excitement around using seaweed as cattle feed,” explained Baker. 

Zarbatany was excited about the environmental aspects: “Seaweed farming can sequester carbon at twenty times the rate that land forests can and it is also really important for stopping ocean acidification. Those are things that, if we had a carbon trading system, could be a potential source of revenue for our region.”

Seaweed could be a key element of Cortes Island’s Climate Action Plan

“I love this idea that we could rebrand our extraction economies and one of our main economies could be to be a carbon sink,” said Aufochs-Gillespie. 

Zarbatany added, “Certain kinds of seaweed act as a shelter for wild salmon and other marine creatures. So we actually need to be restoring the original seaweed habitat and seaweed gardens that used to exist in these waters.”

Bring salmon farms on land, by Roy L Hales, Cortes Currents

 This program was made possible thanks to the technical assistance from Bryan McKinnon of Cortes Community Radio; Written article by Roy L Hales.

SoundCloud photo: Clockwise from top left: Binny Paul, Ashley Zarbatany, Rochelle Baker and Roy L Hales

Top photo credit: Mowi backtracks on fish cull losses – 8.3 million to 2.6 million by Binny Paul, Campbell River Mirror (reposted on Cortes Currents here)

5 thoughts on “Reporter Roundtable: Fish farms and seaweed production”

  1. Thanks for the nuanced look at the closure of the 19 farms in Discovery Islands. As the risk to wild salmon is minimal (Monteray Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch gives BC net-pen raised Atlantic salmon a yellow rating – “Good Alternative”) and the economic impact to the Campbell River area is very high – I do not understand this decision by Minister Jordan. It’s not science based.

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