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Environmental groups win against British Columbia government in historical lawsuit over salmon farming

Vancouver, February 10, 2009

In an unprecedented jurisdiction, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the federal government - not the province - has exclusive jurisdiction over the management of salmon farming. "The regulation of fish farming by the province is beyond its power," said Greg McDade, the lawyer who pursued the case on behalf of wild salmon researcher Alexandra Morton and several environmental groups.

Salmon farming in ocean net pens has been the subject of a long-standing controversy about the potential transfer of disease and lice to wild stocks of Pacific salmon and the escape of non-native Atlantic salmon. Alexandra Morton, author of the book "Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have Taught Us", believes that multiple impacts of some 20 salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago north of Vancouver Island have driven away the killer whales, in part by infecting the wild salmon the whales eat with parasites called sea lice.

Her research provides convincing evidence that a rapidly growing percentage of young wild salmon carry high parasite loads and die during migration long before they reach sexual maturity. In a study published in the reputable journal "Science" in December 2007, Morton and her co-authors report: "The louse-induced mortality of pink salmon is commonly over 80% and exceeds previous fishing mortality. If outbreaks continue, then local extinction is certain, and a 99% collapse in pink salmon population abundance is expected in four salmon generations."

On the other side, farm operators like Marine Harvest, a Norwegian corporation that is a major presence in salmon farming in B.C., concede that penned fish are vulnerable to microbes and parasites, but say drugs and pesticides minimize the problem, virtually eliminating the risk to wild fish stocks. Kelly Osborne, who manages farm sites in the Broughton for Marine Harvest, said penned fish were treated with an antilouse drug during salmon migration to the ocean. The drug is so effective, he said, that perhaps only 1 in 10 penned fish would have a live louse.

Salmon farms in British Columbia produce CAD500 million worth of Atlantic salmon a year, according to the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association. It is a growing industry, with some 75 farm sites operating in provincial waters, each site containing 500,000 to 750,000 penned fish.

B.C. government officials said it would be premature to blame the farms for declines in salmon runs seen here recently, because those numbers fluctuate naturally. Alexandra Morton's research, however, shows a rapid increase in affected young salmon called smolt in the vicinity of salmon farms. Her work is a challenge to the salmon farm industry and to British Columbia officials who regulate it.

With the recent jurisdiction, the provincial Supreme Court rules that the province has been unlawfully regulating salmon farms for 20 years and attributes regulation of fish farms in coastal waters of British Columbia to federal authorities. Morton expressed hope for wild salmon because the federal fisheries department is "mandated to put wild salmon first." Justice Christopher Hinkson suspended his decision for 12 months to allow the senior governments to sort out the transfer of power.

In his decision, he stated that "fish which are reared in fin-fish farms on the coast of British Columbia are either a part of the overall British Columbia Fishery or are a fishery unto themselves. In either case, they fall under the jurisdiction of Parliament."

Go to "Save Our Salmon" to learn how YOU can help to protect British Columbia's wild salmon.

Go to the University of Alberta's Centre for Mathematical Biology to learn more about the science behind the case.



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