An aerial shot of a round open-net fish farm pen that has broken on one side. All the salmon swam out.
Photo Credit: Tavish Campbell / Global News

Fish Farmer’s Empty Victory

Don't believe the hype—the recent ruling doesn't mean a whole lot

It’s just not a good look for them

The Fraser River wild salmon migration is the biggest in the world. Many studies have shown factory fish farms are hurting wild salmon.

So, in December 2020, then Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan ordered the closure of 19 open-net fish farms in the Discovery Islands to protect this endangered run. And the fish farming industry sued her to keep polluting it. The federal court just came back with its ruling.

Maybe you’ve seen the headlines?

“Discovery Islands salmon farm ban overturned.” “Federal Judge rules against closures.” “Lack of fairness prompts Federal Court to set aside B.C. fish farm phase-out.”

They all sound very dramatic. But the truth is, the ruling doesn’t mean a whole lot. It just means that the new Minister of Fisheries needs to make the decision again. The new Minister, Joyce Murray, just needs to do so more fairly this time.

Alexandra Morton is a marine biologist on the BC coast. She has been studying salmon around VanIsle for decades. And she was an intervenor in the case.

She spoke with CBC’s On the Coast about the ruling.

According to the ruling, “the minister did not make this decision properly, and so the decision just needs to be made again,” she said.

“These licenses are still going to expire in June, and the new Minister has to make the same decision again.”

So technically, the fish farming companies who sued the government won. But it’s like winning because the other team got disqualified.

What makes things worse, according to Morton, is that the Minister’s own staff undermined her.

The head of aquaculture for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) allowed the industrial fish farmers to pay for their fish farm licenses before the judge’s ruling came in. And then the corporations made a big deal of this in court.

But where have we heard this before? Where has DFO tried to play both sides?

Oh right—DFO hid a report by one of their own scientists for 10 years that showed a harmful virus was escaping fish farms and infecting wild salmon.

And DFO only released data about failing sea lice treatments because local First Nations forced them into it.

Three main corporations are behind the factory fish farm industry in BC. Mowi, Grieg, and Cermaq. They’re all from Norway. And they’re all kind of the same.

“They’re kind of stuck back 10 years,” Morton told CBC. “They don’t seem willing to bend or accept changes.”

A lot of Canadians support moving fish farms out of the ocean and onto the land. But the big fish farm corporations are out of touch.

“It just looks terrible,” Morton said. “They’re suing their host government to put their farms into the biggest wild salmon migration route in the entire world, and that group of wild salmon is headed for extinction.”

“It’s just not a good look for them.”

It’s not a good look for the judge, either.

Justice Elizabeth Heneghan has a history of ruling in favour of big corporations impacting the environment. In 2016, called Justice Heneghan’s decision on an east coast dispute over regulating the fishing industry “[m]ust-read court decision for anyone with an interest in the fishery.”

“The case has a simple theme:” the post reads. “[W]hat rights do you have to take action against the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans if it changes fisheries rules and costs you your livelihood?”

It reads like a hit piece on DFO. Not exactly the picture of objectivity.

Justice Heneghan also ruled that Brazilian mining giant, Vale, could use Newfoundland’s pristine Sandy Pond as a tailings dump back in 2013.

Her ruling acknowledged that the mining waste would pollute the lake. But she also said that anger about this didn’t make ruining the pond illegal.

“The will of the people, with respect to legislation, can be expressed at the ballot box,” her ruling stated.

So far, the new Fisheries Minister has repeated the same message as before the decision: the federal Liberals are still committed to phasing out factory fish farms by 2025.

This ruling by the federal court judge may have gotten a lot of attention. But will it change things all that much in the waters around VanIsle?

It doesn’t look like it.