VICTORIA — Both sides of British Columbia's contentious fish farm debate are welcoming Ottawa's move to delay a decision on a planned transition from open-net salmon farms in the province's coastal waters.
Representatives from B.C.'s salmon farming industry and Indigenous and conservation groups said Tuesday they agree the delay gives federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray more time to make the right decision after much confusion.
But the minister's decision to extend consultations is about the only point of the agreement among the opposing sides.
Environmental groups and some Indigenous nations say the farms are linked to the transfer of disease to wild salmon. Industry and some local politicians say thousands of jobs are threatened if operations are phased out.
A Fisheries and Oceans Canada statement says requests from First Nations and others resulted in a plan to extend a consultation period until the end of this summer, with a transition decision coming at a later unannounced date.
"Work continues in the development of the transition plan, incorporating feedback received through consultations," the statement said. "To respond to requests from First Nations and others, we have extended consultation on the open-net pen aquaculture transition to all interested parties through the summer. The transition plan will be shared in due course."
Murray announced last February the government would not renew licences for 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms around B.C.'s Discovery Islands. She was expected to complete consultations for 79 other open-net farms this month.
Murray's mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau included developing the plan to shift from open-net salmon farming in B.C. waters by 2025, as well as working to introduce Canada's first Aquaculture Act.
Brian Kingzett, B.C. Salmon Farmers Association executive director, said the delay will give Murray more time to consider the impact of closing a lucrative industry that supports thousands of jobs.
He said the industry has yet to receive official notice from Murray that the consultation period has been extended.
"She continues to deviate from the process everybody signed on to, and this is troubling because we have over a billion dollars in economic activity, and thousands of jobs on the line and the social health of a number of First Nations communities," Kingzett said in an interview.
Bob Chamberlin, a spokesman for B.C.'s First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, which represents about 100 Indigenous nations opposed to the open-net fish farms, said the extension period should provide more time to build their case to support wild salmon.
"I wasn't surprised the extension occurred," Chamberlin said. "To me, it seemed that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was not as prepared or staffed up as necessary."
He said the alliance made requests for documents and data from the government last January, but still is waiting for them to arrive.
Tony Allard, Wild Salmon Forever and Wild First founder, said it appeared the government was not taking the salmon farming issue seriously, but the extension decision could be a sign the approach is about to change.
The conservation group recently sent a letter to Murray with concerns about the ongoing consultation process, he said.
"I'm glad to see them take more time," Allard said. "The basic problem is the department has never done any serious work on transition planning in the four years it's been stated government policy. If a few more months will help them get started that will be a good thing."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: CLARIFIES details of Wild Salmon Forever and Wild First founder