VANCOUVER – The public will finally get to see to the scale of sea lice and disease infestation on BC fish farms thanks to a successful four-year Freedom of Information battle led by environmental groups T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation and Ecojustice. In a March 1 Order, BC’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner decided the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands could no longer conceal records of sea lice infestations, based on information gathered during visits to salmon farms.
The decision rejects the assertions of fish farm companies that release of the data would harm proprietary commercial interests. The decision acknowledges that release of the records may harm the reputations of fish farms but held that the Act does not protect companies from the public relations fallout that results from the public knowing the true nature of the companies’ activities and impacts on the environment. The decision also held that the Ministry could not give into the threats of companies to simply withhold information, noting that the Ministry does have regulatory powers it could exercise if it chose.
The decision means greater independent scientific inquiry and public oversight into the highly contentious practice of open-net salmon farming along BC’s West Coast. With a high incidence of sea lice and disease on farms, several scientists have predicted that the industry will lead to the extinction of some wild salmon runs in the Broughton Archipelago.
The Freedom of Information decision was a long-awaited victory for the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation and Ecojustice. The Ministry has repeatedly refused to hand over the information, first requested in 2004, arguing that any observations made by government staff during the farm visits were subject to secrecy laws governing commercial information.
Christensen said the stance was a sign of dangerously skewed priorities. “The province has been compromising public interest by protecting these companies. The government should be defenders of the public’s right to know, not the agents shielding companies from scrutiny of environmental performance.”
Unfortunately, transparency into fish farming will continue to be a problem even with improved access to government records,” said David Lane, executive director of T.Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. “Although we now have access to government audit data, the real site-by-site sea lice and disease monitoring data is collected by the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association, not the government. Without access to this information, the public and the government have no idea if parasite or disease levels are dangerously high on a particular farm and the government has no ability to enforce its Sea Lice Management Strategy.”
“This is just the beginning,” said Lane.” The whole process of salmon farm reporting has to change so the public, not the companies are in control.”