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A salmon in mid-jump while swimming upstream.

Closure of open-net fish farms is a key step in regenerating healthy wild salmon populations.

press release

Big win for nature as Federal Court upholds decision to keep open-net fish farms out of Discovery Islands 

June 11, 2024

Conservation groups celebrate this victory in the fight for wild salmon  

VANCOUVER/UNCEDED xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (MUSQUEAM), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (SQUAMISH) AND səlilwətaɬ (TSLEIL-WAUTUTH) TERRITORIES – Conservation groups are celebrating the federal court’s ruling to uphold the government’s decision to keep fish farms out of the Discovery Islands — an important migratory route for wild salmon.  

Ecojustice, on behalf of David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Living Oceans Society, Watershed Watch Salmon Society and independent biologist Alexandra Morton went to court in December 2023 to support the former Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Joyce Murray’s decision to protect wild salmon populations by refusing to re-issue licenses for open-net pen fish farms off the coast of British Columbia. 

Last week, Justice Paul Favel upheld the Minister’s decision by concluding that there was adequate evidence regarding the risks fish farms pose to wild salmon to make a precautionary decision. Justice Favel emphasized that the Minister is granted broad discretion under the Fisheries Act which must be guided by principles of conservation and requires the Minister to “consider public interest factors that extend beyond the private interests of license owners.” 

The operation of open net-pen fish farms in B.C.’s coastal waters pose a direct threat to wild Pacific salmon health. Research shows fish farms expose wild Pacific salmon to viruses and sea lice that spread like wildfire, leading to disease and depleted stocks, impacting the ecosystem and innumerable coastal and interior communities that rely on these stocks.  

The fish farms in the Discovery Islands have been empty since 2022, after an 18-month phase-out of open net-pen salmon farms between December 2020 to June 30, 2022. Scienctific evidence has shown that the removal of fish from the farms in the Discovery Islands resulted in significant decline in sea lice on juvenile wild salmon.   

The groups say the court’s decision is a major victory for wild salmon and a critical step towards ensuring wild salmon stocks continue to have an opportunity to recover and thrive for generations to come.  

Imalka Nilmalgoda, staff lawyer, Ecojustice, said: “The Court’s decision affirms the Minister’s broad discretion under the Fisheries Act to make precautionary decisions to protect wild salmon populations off the coast of British Columbia. The importance of this decision, in the context of the serious and significant decline of wild salmon, cannot be overstated. We encourage Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Diane Leboutillier to continue taking a precautionary approach when make decisions that impact the future of wild Pacific salmon.” 

Kilian Stehfest, marine conservation specialist, David Suzuki Foundation, said: “The Minister’s decision to remove open net-pens from the Discovery Islands was a momentous win for wild Pacific salmon. We applaud the court’s ruling to uphold the Minister’s decision. It means that the narrow passages of the Discovery Islands, one of the world’s most important salmon migration routes, will remain free of the diseases and parasites from open net-pen fish farms. It gives young Fraser River salmon a fighting chance on their perilous journey out to the open ocean.” 

Stan Proboszcz, senior science and policy analyst, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said: “The decision to keep pathogen-spreading fish farms out of the Discovery Islands will give wild juvenile salmon relief as they migrate through this spectacular region. This decision continues British Columbia’s trajectory toward being free of marine salmon farms. We now look to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Diane Lebouthillier, to continue removing salmon farms through her commitment to transition the remaining sites from B.C. by 2025.”  

Alexandra Morton, independent biologist, said,: “Thanks to Ecojustice and the other lawyers, Canada now knows they can follow through with their mandate to protect wild salmon and close salmon farms.” 

About

Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, public interest lawsuits and advocacy lead to precedent-setting court decisions and law and policy that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax. 

The David Suzuki Foundation (DavidSuzuki.org | @DavidSuzukiFdn) is a Canadian environmental non-profit organization, founded in 1990. We operate in English and French, with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. We aim to collaborate with many different people in Canada, including Indigenous leadership and communities, all governments, businesses and individuals to find solutions to create a sustainable Canada through scientific research, traditional ecological knowledge, innovative policy and legal solutions, communications and public engagement. Our mission is to protect nature’s diversity and the well-being of all life, now and for the future. We envision a world where we all act every day on the understanding that we are interdependent with nature, and with each other. 

Georgia Strait Alliance Grounded in environmental justice, GSA mobilizes and supports collective action to protect the Salish Sea region to achieve their vision of a Salish Sea teeming with life where thriving and just communities live in balance with the environment. 

Living Oceans works to ensure that Canada’s oceans are sustainably managed and thriving with abundant and diverse sea life that supports vibrant and resilient communities. It has maintained a campaign to reform open-net pen aquaculture for over 20 years. 

Watershed Watch Salmon Society is a science-based charity working to defend and rebuild B.C.’s wild salmon. We advocate for B.C.’s wild salmon and the waters where they swim. Since 1998, Watershed Watch Salmon Society has been exposing threats to salmon and their habitats, calling for conservation action, and promoting solutions. 

Alexandra Morton is an Independent Biologist who has dedicated her life to restoring the balance between the people and the wild salmon off the coast of British Columbia. 

Background: 
This decision is the latest development in a legal battle that began in December 2020, when the former Minister announced a phase-out of open net-pen salmon farms over 18 months between December 2020 to June 30, 2022, after consulting with the seven First Nations with territory in the Discovery Islands.  To implement the ‘Phase-Out Decision’, Minister Joyce Murray temporarily renewed aquaculture licences on a transitional basis but restricted transfers of fish into the farms.  

The decision was followed by a strong reaction from four fish farm companies (Mowi, Cermaq, Grieg and Saltstream) who launched a judicial review of the Minister’s decision to phase out their farms in the Discovery Islands despite scientific evidence provided during and after the Cohen’s Commission inquiry into the decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.   

The 2012 Cohen Commission’s final report found that infectious diseases and open-net fish farms were some of the most urgent risks to wild salmon. The final report’s recommendation #19 states that the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans should prohibit net-pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands by September 30, 2020, unless they are satisfied that such farms pose at most a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon.   

In December 2021, federal Fisheries Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Joyce Murray reaffirmed her intention to honour a 2019 election promise to phase out open-net fish farms in British Columbia by 2025.   

Environmental groups are now calling on the current DFO Minister – Diane Lebouthillier and the Federal Court to both stay the course on this larger policy.