Earlier this year, Donald Hutchens attended meetings to discuss what can be done for salmon fishing Area 4 on the south coast of Newfoundland, now classified as a threatened area. He said its signature river, Conne River, has witnessed a serious decline in its salmon population since 2001.
“What’s the only river that has a large (finfish aquaculture) in its history? It’s the Conne River,” said Hutchens, president of the Salmonid Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. “We put that argument to the (aquaculture) industry, and they said, ‘Well, prove it to us.’”
Hutchens was among several people who spoke Tuesday evening at an event held in St. John’s to discuss the aquaculture industry’s long-term sustainability in the province. He and several others raised concerns about how interactions between farmed salmon and wild salmon will affect natural habitats.
Hutchens said it is known farmed fish can escape marine cages, adding the threat of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) remains active in light of a recent outbreak on the south coast that led to the destruction of 450,000 farmed salmon.
“We’re told that their processes are the latest, most up-to-date, international best, state of the art, and yet we have ISA this year in a significant way.”
Miranda Pryor, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Aquaculture Industry Association, admitted that while there have been significant investments made in technology, problems can arise.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in our industry (and) believe in how we farm. Are we perfect? No, we’re not. Do escapes occur? Yes, they do.”
However, she said recent years have proven that marine cages can survive storm events, including hurricanes. While fish sometimes escape, those moments are the result of human error.
“We take full accountability for that. It’s not equipment failure. Our cages hold up.”
Pryor added the aquaculture industry is not an environmentally harmful one.
“We do not want to negatively impact wild salmon (or) wild trout in any way. We’re passionate about the ocean.”
Both Hutchens and Fred Winsor, chairman of the Sierra Club of Canada’s Atlantic chapter, suggest Newfoundland and Labrador would be best served by a land-based version of finfish aquaculture.
“You’re dealing with a natural system — you’re dealing with the ocean,” said Winsor. “The ocean is too complex. ... We know, in the long-term, (land-based aquaculture) is the way we need to go.”
Winsor said his group fields complaints throughout Atlantic Canada. While living in Cape Breton, he said the introduction of aquaculture in that area was shortly thereafter followed by the disappearance of lobster.
He did however voice support for mussel farming, stating it has proven to be a successful endeavour for Newfoundland and Labrador.
Rick Bouzan, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Wildlife Federation, said his group was appointed by the federal fisheries minister to serve on an advisory committee, and every recommendation it has made concerning aquaculture over the course of 15 years has been ignored.
“I wish I were a multibillionaire, because I’d sue the federal government and DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) for negligence of duty,” he said.
Bouzan would like the aquaculture industry to be subject to an environmental assessment to ensure wild fish stocks are not compromised, adding he considers it to be “a polluting industry.”
Tuesday’s event was hosted by Liberal fisheries critic and MHA for St. Barbe district Jim Bennett, who likened aquaculture to the automotive industry prior to the introduction of seat belts and fuel economy.
“I believe if that analogy would work, we need to go there in aquaculture,” he said.