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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Left behind

Farmed salmon. — File photo

It sometimes feels that we’re perpetually jumping onto a ship just about the same time as everyone else is abandoning it.

 

And nowhere does it seem more like that than in the aquaculture business.

As the plans steamroller ahead for a new massive Placentia Bay open pen Atlantic salmon project with the provincial government (and key regulator) fully onside, it’s hard to ignore that many others are moving in the other direction.

In the state of Washington, a large-scale fish escape saw that state announce a ban on Atlantic salmon pen farming and a wind-down of existing operations. (The salmon aquaculture business in Washington is back under the microscope this month after 800,000 juvenile salmon had to be destroyed because they were found to be carrying a strain of Piscine orthoreovirus, which is dangerous for wild stocks of salmon.)

In British Columbia, 17 fish farms in the Broughton Strait are being moved or closed to protect wild salmon stocks — a clear and definite recognition that open pen aquaculture is directly harming native species.

Meanwhile, Scotland is promising stronger legislation on open pen operations after a recent study by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) found that one out of every five aquaculture operations was not meeting basic environmental standards. SEPA also wants stronger pollution controls for sea pens, and has finished a study that suggests chemicals used to control sea lice are doing far more damage in the environment than was known before.

SEPA also wants an enforcement unit to demonstrate that “compliance is not negotiable.”

But it’s not only that regulators are shrinking open-pen operations or promising to regulate them more stringently after years of salmon escapes, disease outbreaks and other environmental problems.

New competition is showing up in the industry.

The real growth seems to be in on-land recirculating aquaculture systems, or RAS. New RAS operations seem to be announced on a weekly basis.

It’s obvious why we’re not looking at closed RAS systems in this province — the systems are destroying the only advantage to locating here (besides an endlessly supportive provincial government). That advantage is the fact that we have open cold-water ocean where fish farming can operate with low fees and limited oversight.

As the issues become more obvious, the opposition to open-pen fish farms becomes louder.

One of the advantages RAS systems offer is that they can be far closer to the actual markets for their fish — transporting fish to market quickly is very expensive. We can’t get any closer to the market.

Here’s Norwegian seafood analyst Alexander Aukner, quoted by Salmonbusiness.com, talking about the fact that land-based farms have doubled in just the past two years: “And I think this growth will only continue. On paper, the economy of land-based farms looks like it’s going to work and be very attractive. It is lower investment cost, (the) same production cost, and has a large freight advantage.”

Or Martin Fothergill, an investor in Pure Salmon’s plan to grow and harvest 260,000 tonnes of salmon per year in RAS systems. “Also, we think the whole environmental factor is very important: from sea lice and other issues with salmon farming, to the fact that a RAS facility can be built where the consumer is and you don’t have to fly the salmon, which is a major change in the dynamic of the industry,” Fothergill told Fishfarmingexpert.com.

Sticking open-water pens in otherwise-pristine waters is beginning to look a lot like last year’s technology, a technology where the problems are obvious and the solutions to those problems are limited. As the issues become more obvious, the opposition to open-pen fish farms becomes louder.

The only question is whether the provincial government will listen, or whether the promise of new jobs will continue to buy uncritical support.

Recent columns by this author

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Learning to expect the unexpected

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Survival of the fittest, indeed

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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