Wilderness Tourism Association asks the SRD to support DFO’s decision

At the April 28, 2021 meeting, The Wilderness Tourism Association (WTA) of BC asked the SRD Board to support DFO’s decision to remove fish farms from the Discovery Islands. 

WTA President Breanne Quesnel, of Spirit of the West Adventures on Quadra Island, reminded the board that they also represent the interests of 15 of its member companies operating within the Strathcona Regional District.

Photo of sea lice on salmon smolts courtesy Tavish Campbell
Starts 21 seconds into the recording

“Our ask is that threats to wild salmon, which in turn are a threat to our business and this industry, are removed, and our specific ask for the board  is that you do not come out with a letter in support of fish farms,” she said.

If the Board does write a letter, Quesnel asked that it be in support of the DFO and the consultations that occurred.

Some of the areas mentioned in the text – adapted from Google maps by Roy L Hales

Previous SRD statements

Four SRD Directors have come out in support of the Aquaculture sector: Mayor Brad Unger of Gold River, who is also Chair of the SRD Board; Mayor Andy Adams of Campbell River; Mayor Mark Baker of Sayward; and Campbell River Director Charlie Cornfield.  

Subsequent to that, the entire SRD Board signed on to a letter protesting the DFO’s failure to consult them on a decision that will have immense economic impacts on the region. 

“My memory on this one, is that in January we passed a resolution stating our concern about the lack of process. I do not believe this board has taken a position one way or the other,” said Cortes Island Regional Director Noba Anderson.

The presenters

Jim Abram, Regional Director for most of the Discovery Islands, pointed out that two of the three WTA presenters – Breanne Quesnel and Ross Campbell – were his constituents.

Jamie Boulding, President of the Strathcona Park Lodge, intended to inform the board how important wild salmon were to his business, but was not able to speak due to connection problems.  

The Economics of Wilderness Tourism 

Quesnel told the SRD board, “We speak to you today as business owners within the community, as Wilderness Tourism Association members  as well as owner/operators of thriving eco-tourism companies. We are coming before you for several reasons. We want to ensure that the board is appraised of the value of the wilderness and adventure tourism sector in this region … We ask that the SRD work with various governments and levels of government to assist with the transition of the net pens out of the Discovery Islands.

“The Wilderness tourism operators in the region include lodges, whale and wildlife watching tours, bear viewing companies, kayaking companies, boat charters, sport fishing and many others. These companies depend on and thrive when there is healthy wild salmon stock and are considered part of the wild salmon economy.”

She added, “The removal of these farms from the Discovery Islands will benefit the communities and wild salmon economy up and down the coast, including here is the Strathcona Regional District.” 

Quesnel reminded the SRD that while the aquaculture and fishing sectors contribute $3.3 billion in GDP to the province, tourism brings in more than $8.7 billion. 

More than 5.5 million tourists come to Vancouver Island every year, spending over $2.2 billion. This translates into over 60,000 jobs.  

“Within the Discovery Islands, there are over 60 tourism businesses that directly depend on wilderness and wildlife and these businesses of course provide many spin-off benefits to the community. The tourism industry in this region is estimated at between $40 and $50 million per year,” she said.  

Studying samples of wild smolt – Ross Campbell photo

Sea Lice in the Discovery Islands

Ross Campbell is the owner operator of the eco-tourism charter vessel Columbia III, and a member of the Wilderness Tourism Association’s Board.

He has lived on Sonora Island, in the midst of fish farm country, for more than four decades. 

Campbell intended to show the board a presentation with images of smolt samples, but was prevented by technical difficulties. 

Cortes Currents obtained a copy after the meeting. 

 “For over 15 years my 3 kids have been taking samples of out-migrating wild salmon smolts and monitoring them for sea lice and disease. They return to my dock and quantify, evaluate, tabulate and disseminate their findings: thousands of hours of volunteer time. The wild salmon smolts leave the Fraser River estuary and when my kids take test sets near Bowen Island the smolts are free of sea lice. When they sample smolts at the head of Bute and Toba Inlets they find smolts free of sea lice, and they find smolts are free of lice when found off Texada and south Quadra Islands. But as soon as the smolts start to transit the Discovery islands and in particular the Okisollo Channel the sea lice loads are staggering,” explained Campbell.

 “. . .  My kids return to my home dock on Sonora Island and meticulously tabulate their findings, thousands of test plots and years of work . . . And my kids record many, many photos. 

These tiny out-migrating salmon, with their newly formed skin and scale structure have zero capability to withstand the parasitic impact of even a single sea lice. And anyone on this call can see these wild salmon are doomed. All evidence vanishes. . . .  A quick meal for a seagull . . .”

“More than once I have met my children on my dock to glimpse, in action, their years-long commitment . . . and my adult daughter has been crying . . “Dad, in 2020 we are finding numbers as high as 99% infection rate with an average of 9 sea lice per smolt.”

“Note the long “tails” on the adult sea lice . . .  these are actually long strings of eggs about to exponentially expand the sea lice population.”

The DFO set a limit of three sea lice per salmon. There are more than ten times that number on this smolt, as well as four strings of eggs – Tavish Campbell photo

Campbell’s appeal

“This is not a rhetorical discussion. Wild Salmon are THE keystone species for BC, and as Judge Cohen confirmed in 2010, “…based on the information before me, British Columbians will not tolerate more than a minimal risk of serious harm to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farms”. 

”As a resident of the Okisollo Channel, as an eco-tourism operator and as a board member of the Wilderness Tourism Association, I request the Strathcona Regional District support the DFO’s decision to remove the fish farms from the Discovery Islands.”

Tahsis by Tim Gage via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Sea lice in the Tahsis area

Tahsis Mayor, Martin Davis, added, “I’m sure that you would find that there is a real diversity of opinion with the Directors here, based primarily on the economic impacts of fish farms in their communities. My community is on the west side of Vancouver Island. We have seen some pretty serious sea lice and algal outbreaks over the years, since fish farms have come into our area.

“My community has some economic development and development from fish farms, but primarily we are a sport fishing community so we really depend heavily on wild salmon. The smolts have to transit  the fish farms, much as you are talking about in the Discovery Islands.”

“When I was on council ten years ago I had access to information from Grieg Seafood, who operates in this area. They had outbreaks in their farms of up to 22 lice per salmon. Just last year, they had outbreaks of up to 14 lice per salmon. There hasn’t been a lot of documentation on the other side here, but I know that there was some work done last year and the smolts were just getting hammered as they were swimming by these farms. They were just covered in them.” 

He added, “It is having a huge impact on the local economy, not to mention the wild salmon. There are certainly a number of other issues – forestry, acidification of the ocean and all that – but the real crash that we’ve seen has happened since the fish farms have been in this area, so I completely support your point of view.”

In defence of fish farms 

Campbell River Director Charlie Cornfield disagreed. 

“I’ve been involved since before Brienne was born, longer than Sonora Island and the resorts were there. I was born and raised in the times of abundance and I watched, which is why I quit work, went back to school and made that my career,” he said. 

“If you look at the populations of wild salmon throughout our province, whether it is in the northern half, the central coast and down here, it is a very complex issue. Most of it is driven by man’s greed: overfishing; destruction of spawning habitat; the ocean itself and ocean health. Anyone who has been on the coast for any length of time can remember the days when there weren’t whales on the Inside [Passage]. There wasn’t much there in the way of good healthy oceans.”

Cornfield stressed the idea, “Removing fish farms is not going to cause the wild salmon population to explode.”

He pointed out that salmon populations are also in steep decline in northern BC and the Gulf of Alaska, where fish farms are not present. 

Underwater Sea Farm picture
Underwater Sea Farm picture courtesy Tavish Campbell

DFO’s Minimal Risk Assessment

“There is a risk with fish farms, agreed there is a risk, according to DFO’s own staff, that risk is very minimal.” 

Campbell River Director Claire Moglove would later repeat this idea. 

(Note: The ‘minimal risk’ assessment has actually proven to be quite controversial. Scientists from the DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, DFO’s Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies, UBC’s Department of Medicine and the University of Toronto’s Department of Ecology and Environmental Biology have published papers raising concerns about sea lice, and the pathogens found near fish farms. A similar list of scientists, both academic and from within the industry, have come to the fish farm’s defence.)  

Work together to solve the problem

Speaking as sports fisherman, who previously worked for the Ministry of Tourism, Cornfield agreed, “Maintaining wild salmon populations are really important to maintaining wilderness tourism.”

He stressed the idea that the issue wasn’t about blame: “It is only when we all work together to solve the problem” that we will make progress. We need to “force the government to address the issue, which is the wild salmon population decline.”

Easy to pick on fish farms

Regional Director Brenda Leigh said she has lived in the area since 1959 and when her dad went fishing there was often lice on the salmon. 

“It wasn’t unusual, so I don’t think that could be the only factor,” she said. 

“I would just rather have the experts from DFO come and explain what is going on with these fish farms, exactly. I think it is an easy scapegoat  to pick on them, but I don’t think it is fair to that industry,” she said.

The population decline seemed to be much more widespread than just salmon populations. The day before this meeting, she was at a meeting about the decline of shellfish.  

Leigh insisted DFO should have consulted with fish farms and local communities before deciding to phase out fish farms.   

“They just did it from Ottawa and I think that was very wrong to do that. I’m objecting to the lack of sharing information because none of us on our board are biologists and we do not know whether it is right or wrong,” she said. 

‘You have my full support’

Cortes Island Director Noba Anderson told the Wilderness Tourism Association, “You have my full support. I don’t know how the board will go on this one. I don’t disagree with Charlie Cornfield’s statement that removing fish farms will [not] lead to an immediate massive rebound of wild salmon, but it certainly can’t hurt. It is one of the many pieces that are required, as far as I understand, to give them a fighting chance.”

Not that far apart?

Claire Moglove suggested that the two sides are not that far apart. 

When the BC Salmon Farmer’s Association came to the SRD Board last month, they were not seeking to reverse the DFO’s decision tho phase out fish farms. Instead, they were asking for three things: 

  1. Time to get their house in order – the original concept was to phase out the fish farms by 2025, not June 2022 as is the current plan. (As fish farms operate on a 5 year cycle, this does not give them enough time) 
  2. The freedom to transfer the young smolts to industry pens in the Discovery Islands 
  3. A process similar to that used in the Broughton Archipelago,  where all the stakeholders came together to discuss whatever issues arose during the withdrawal process. 
Smolt sampling – Tavish Campbell photo

Links of Interest

Top photo courtesy Tavish Campbell

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