Ottawa’s decision to ban open-net pen salmon farming reflects a lack of empathy toward Indigenous communities

By Sylvain Charlebois
and Isaiah Robinson

The Canadian government recently announced its decision to ban open-net pen salmon farming in the coastal waters of British Columbia after the next five years. This decision follows the Liberal government’s 2019 commitment to transition away from open net pens to protect the declining wild Pacific salmon populations.

While environmental groups have welcomed this move, the aquaculture industry and many Indigenous communities hosting pens have voiced strong opposition for significant and legitimate reasons.

Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois

Isaiah Robinson

Isaiah Robinson

indigenous open-net salmon
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The June 21 announcement, made in Vancouver, coincided with National Indigenous Peoples Day, a timing that many view as insensitive to the communities most affected. Ottawa’s decision reflects a lack of empathy towards these communities, exacerbating tensions. Adding to the controversy, iconic Canadian actor William Shatner appeared in a video produced by Ryan Reynolds’ company, condemning open net pens without providing substantial facts, leading to demands for an apology from Indigenous groups.

The broader implications of this ban extend beyond community relations. Recent peer-reviewed studies from Dalhousie University highlight the long-term food security and environmental consequences of this decision.

The first study, published in Foods in April, examined consumer perceptions of aquaculture and salmon farming. It provided practical insights for the industry, emphasizing the need for regulatory frameworks that promote sustainability, safeguard Indigenous rights, and address socio-economic disparities.

The second study, published in Sustainability, analyzed the impact of salmon farm closures on food security in Canada. The closure of 19 salmon farms in British Columbia has already significantly reduced the sustainable supply of salmon to consumers in Canada and the United States, leading to decreased production volumes since 2019. This decline has resulted in higher retail prices, reduced demand for salmon, and increased imports, which elevate the carbon footprint associated with North American consumption.

As Canadian salmon availability dwindles, the U.S. has turned to suppliers like Norway and Chile, further exacerbating carbon emissions. Projections indicate continued declines in Canadian salmon production, affecting both domestic and global markets, Gross Domestic Product, and consumption patterns. The study underscored the complex interplay between economic, environmental, and market forces, necessitating a re-evaluation of strategies and policies in the aquaculture industry.

However, the study did note that predicting future salmon prices remains challenging due to limitations in current forecasting methodologies, highlighting the need for more comprehensive models that account for market dynamics.

Environmentalists are optimistic about land-based salmon farming rising to meet demand, but this optimism may be misplaced. The business model for land-based salmon farming faces significant challenges. Companies like Atlantic Sapphire and Sustainable Blue, considered benchmarks in the industry, have faced substantial financial difficulties, with the latter currently under receivership. Moreover, Sustainable Blue salmon retails at a 40 percent to 60 percent premium over other farmed salmon, with negligible differences in taste, making it a less viable alternative.

With this ban, Canadians will likely see a significant erosion in domestic salmon farming and increased reliance on expensive imports. If fully implemented, this shift will lead to job losses, particularly in Indigenous communities. Around 5,000 jobs in B.C. depend on the sector, with 500 held by Indigenous people. There are few, if any, other job opportunities in these communities. Wild salmon populations will not be able to meet domestic demand unless there is a substantial collapse in salmon consumption in Canada.

It is important to acknowledge that open-net pen salmon farming has always been controversial. While past equipment reliability issues contributed to this controversy, advancements have been made. Updating the public discourse with these advancements would help Canadians make more informed decisions about the future of salmon farming in our country.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. Isaiah Robinson is Deputy Chief Councillor of Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation and General Manager of Kitasoo Development Corporation.

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