The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an entity established under the North American Free Trade Agreement, determined the petition includes sufficient information that Canada may be violating its own conservation laws to trigger a formal response.
The petition was filed by conservation, fishing and native groups last year out of concern that disease and parasites from proliferating industrial fish farms are harming British Columbia’s wild salmon. This week’s decision by the commission is an important step in moving the petition forward under NAFTA’s environmental dispute process.
“The initial response from the NAFTA environmental commission is encouraging, since the damage being done to wild salmon along the west coast of North America by the aggressive Norwegian salmon farming industry is an environmental and trade issue of international concern,” said biologist Alexandra Morton with the Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society. “I hope the Canadian government acknowledges the extent of the problem and that they need help moving toward immediate action.”
“We look forward to examining Canada’s response and measuring it against the Cohen Commission Report recommendations,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwikwasu’tinuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation. “The government must end their delay, deny and distract approach and safeguard wild salmon.”
“Wild salmon shouldn’t fall victim to diseases, toxic chemicals and parasites from industrial fish operations,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Canada must abide by its Fisheries Act and protect wild salmon habitat.”
“Canada’s open-water fish farms threaten native salmon stocks and our fishing communities,” said Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “This ruling may finally prompt Canada to heed its own Cohen Commission report and begin moving finfish farming onshore to closed ponds that do not allow nonnative fish to escape or spread disease and parasites into the wild.”
The petition challenges the Canadian government’s violations of its Fisheries Act in permitting more than 100 industrial salmon feedlots in British Columbia to operate along wild salmon migration routes, exposing ecologically and economically valuable salmon runs to epidemics of disease, parasites, toxic chemicals and concentrated waste. The petition documents the proliferation of industrial aquaculture and its impacts on British Columbia ecosystems that support wild salmon. Salmon feedlots are linked to dramatic declines in British Columbia’s wild salmon populations and lethal salmon viruses.
Since the petition was filed, Atlantic salmon farms around Vancouver Island suffered a virus outbreak in May 2012 that led to a quarantine and the cull of more than half a million fish. In fall of 2012 the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River issued a final report concluding that salmon farms along the sockeye migration route in the Discovery Islands have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to aggravate endemic diseases, with a negative impact on Fraser River sockeye. The Cohen Commission recommended a freeze on net-pen salmon farm production in the Discovery Islands until 2020 and suggested that Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans should no longer promote salmon farming as an industry or farmed salmon as a product.
More recently scientists documented a devastating Norwegian salmon virus spreading through British Columbia, with nearly all farmed salmon raised and for sale in British Columbia infected.
When a country that is signatory to NAFTA fails to enforce its environmental laws, any party may petition the Council for Environmental Cooperation for investigation. Canada’s Fisheries Act prohibits harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat or addition of “deleterious substances.” The petitioners seek a finding that Canada is violating its Fisheries Act with regard to industrial aquaculture. Such a finding could push Canada to protect wild salmon, ideally by relocating fish aquaculture into contained tanks on land.
The Canadian government has until December 6 to respond to the allegations. The commission then has 120 working days to decide whether further a full and detailed investigation is warranted.
Scientific evidence of harm to wild salmon swimming through B.C. waters from fish feedlots has been mounting, as has public concern that feedlots could spread epidemic diseases. This is a threat that jeopardizes the health of every wild salmon run along the Pacific Coast, since U.S. and Canadian stocks mingle in the ocean and estuaries.
The Canadian petitioners are the Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society in B.C. and Kwikwasu’tinuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation, a native tribe whose territory off northern Vancouver Island is being used by 27 Norwegian-owned salmon feedlots. The U.S. petitioners are the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the largest trade association of commercial fishers on the west coast, representing family fishing men and women. The University of Denver Environmental Law Clinic helped prepare and submit the petition.
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