I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 13 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Monday, October 19, 2020, the committee is commencing its study of the state of the Pacific salmon for the first hour. The second hour will take place in camera for drafting instructions for a report.
Today's meeting, of course, is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of September 23, 2020. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. Just so you are aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee. To ensure an orderly meeting, I will outline a few rules to follow.
Members and witnesses may speak in the official language of their choice. Interpretation services are available for this meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of “floor”, “English”, or “French”. Members participating in person will proceed as they normally would when the whole committee is meeting in person in a committee room. Keep in mind the directives from the Board of Internal Economy regarding masking and health protocols.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. If you are on the video conference, please click on the microphone icon to unmute your mike. Those of you in the room, your microphone will be controlled as normal by the proceedings and verification officer.
I will remind you that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair. When you are not speaking, your mike must be on mute.
With regard to a speaking list, the committee clerk and I will do the best we can to maintain a consolidated order of speaking for all members whether they are participating virtually or in person.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses.
From the BC Salmon Farmers Association, we have Mr. John Paul Fraser, executive director. From the Canadian Fishing Company, we have Phil Young, vice-president, fisheries and corporate affairs. From the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia, we have Mr. Owen Bird, executive director.
We will now proceed with opening remarks.
Mr. Fraser, we'll go to you for five minutes or less, please.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the opportunity to address your committee today.
I want to make three points. The first is that B.C. salmon farmers are a significant economic driver to the agrifood sector in Canada. We are B.C.'s number one seafood and agrifood exporter with a total economic output of $1.6 billion. We produce 87,000 metric tons of farmed salmon annually, and that creates about 353 million healthy, carbon-friendly meals.
Salmon farming currently supports over 6,500 full-time jobs in B.C., which typically pay about 30% higher than the median wage. Many of these jobs are in rural, coastal indigenous and non-indigenous communities on northern Vancouver Island.
Over 80% of the salmon in B.C. is harvested in agreement with B.C. first nations. Twenty first nations now hold an official partnership agreement with B.C. salmon farming companies. Over the next 30 years, our members project that more than 50 additional agreements will be established.
The second point I want to make is that salmon farming represents a significant component of Canada's food security. Being designated as an essential service in the early days of the pandemic has allowed B.C. salmon farmers to help many local businesses ride out the adverse economic impacts. Companies have been able to keep much, not all, of their existing staff and in some cases have even hired additional staff to help manage through the crisis. By continuing their operations, B.C. salmon farmers have helped to cushion the negative impacts of the pandemic for about 1,700 local vendors in services like fish processing, transportation, technology, boat operations, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses.
Since the pandemic, donations of canned farmed salmon to local, regional and national food banks have exceeded 112,000 pounds of fish. We've been able to provide over 500,000 meals to Canadians in this time of need.
We're ready to do more. Our plan is to support B.C.'s economic recovery, which we have detailed in great detail on our website, so I encourage everyone, if they have the time, to check that out.
The third point is that the salmon farming industry is doing our part for wild salmon through improved management and innovation. We operate in one of the most stringently regulated and transparent food processing industries right now in the world. We adhere to a complex set of regulatory standards administered through the federal and provincial governments.
We've been recognized for environmental responsibility. Our industry operates in a manner that's fully compatible with federal and provincial commitments to environmental sustainability. In fact, B.C. salmon farming has a smaller carbon footprint than any other animal protein producing industry. The largest potential carbon reduction gains for food production lie in the sustainable expansion of marine aquaculture.
Since our beginnings on this coast, we have followed an ongoing orderly transition toward greater environmental stewardship by implementing cutting-edge technologies and innovations in the marine environment and on land that support the health of wild Pacific salmon.
Our sector is science-driven in every facet of our operations. Collaborative research is paramount in assessing the health of wild Pacific salmon populations in B.C. and their interaction with salmon farms.
At least 10 formal review processes and multiple scientific investigations have concluded that B.C. salmon farms pose minimal risk to wild Pacific salmon populations. This fact was confirmed once again in a Fisheries and Oceans news release in September. The release reported the results of nine recent scientific studies completed by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat on the impact of our operations on the health of Pacific salmon in the Discovery Islands.
Scientific integrity and transparency are important in advancing the dialogue and dispelling the uncertainties around wild and farmed salmon interactions. Strong science focused on seeking answers is essential to moving forward. Communicating that science is just as critical. We encourage you to check out several of our resources that we've developed over the last year: a performance dashboard, which is a sustainability measure; a deeper dive, which is a library dealing with often misinformation; and our own technology and innovation report, which we are currently updating.
The factors affecting wild salmon are broad and complex. This is a pan-Pacific issue. We're seeing reports of declines in commercial catches of wild salmon from all over the Pacific. Russia has forecast a catch that's down 36% from last year and half of that of 2018. Japan has also reported some of the lowest returns in decades in recent years. Closer to home, we're seeing declines of some wild salmon species in rivers nowhere near fish farms, including in the Nass region up near Alaska.
The Government of Canada needs to take a serious, pragmatic approach to addressing wild salmon declines.
In summary, B.C. salmon farmers are amongst the most sustainable producers of salmon right now in the world. We're supporting communities and families when there are few other opportunities, especially during this crisis. We're growing a sustainable, local food product under a robust regulatory framework that is based in science. We're actively engaged in meaningful reconciliation with indigenous peoples. We're operating with less than minimal risk to wild salmon.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
My name is Phil Young. I'm vice-president of fisheries and corporate affairs for Canadian Fishing Company, which is the largest processor of wild salmon in B.C.
I'd like to thank the committee for the opportunity to address you once again and to meet some of the new members, unfortunately not in person, because of the restrictions, but I look forward to the opportunity to see everyone again.
I've been in the B.C. seafood business for 35 years, the last five years with Canadian Fishing. Nearly every other company I worked for is gone. Two of these disappearances were due strictly to consolidation as the salmon and herring resources constricted because of nature and government policies.
Over the years, I've watched the implementation of policies that didn’t seem to value an industry that put food on Canadians’ tables in a sustainable and renewable manner. It really wasn't until COVID hit us in February that the government seemed to finally wake up and designate us as an essential industry.
I'm sure you're going to hear from many more qualified witnesses on the biological effects of salmon, so I want to focus my comments more on the impacts upon the people who depend on the resource.
This current decline in salmon abundance is not the first one that has happened, but this time there's a real fear it isn’t just a cyclical downturn that will rebound in a few years. Climatic changes and impacts of human activities may be more profound this time. Also, changes in government policies regarding weak stock management, indigenous reconciliation and SARA listings are going to result in a completely different salmon fishery in the future.
Salmon has been the backbone of the B.C. fishing industry, and even as the harvest levels decline it's still an important pillar for our commercial sector. Fishermen, plant workers and companies all depend upon the salmon season to round out their incomes, but it's getting harder for all involved to rely on the contribution from salmon. There has only been one year in the past six that the commercial sector would consider even remotely good.
For several years during this stretch, some of the vessels that performed the best were ones that never incurred any of the upfront cost of getting ready to fish and instead stayed tied to the dock. They still had to do minor maintenance and pay their licence fees, but at least they didn’t have the cost of getting the boat ready to fish, wasting fuel and then not catching any salmon, or sometimes not even getting an opportunity to put their nets into the water.
Indigenous reconciliation is here to stay. What it will look like and how we get to a better place is still uncertain, but from the commercial sector’s view, what we need is clarity. Our industry has partnered with indigenous individuals and bands, but even they are asking for clarity. How can they plan for the future without understanding where an indigenous commercial harvester is going to fit within the greater plan of treaties, rights and local management?
Greater use of traditional knowledge is now in the Fisheries Act, but many in the industry and in the scientific community don’t know exactly what it is nor how it will be integrated into our current salmon science programs. Local indigenous management is great conceptually, but how will it deal with conflicts among the more than 100 individual bands from Haida Gwaii to Yale and the myriad migratory stocks that are affected?
Science is the underpinning of this whole discussion, and it's not being done to a level that it should be. Without good stock assessments, how can good harvest decisions be made? We lost our marine stewardship certification for B.C. salmon because of gaps in science. This lowered our prices this year in the market, when really we needed every penny we could get.
Science itself needs to be more adaptable. While scientists focus their limited efforts on salmon outmigrations and returns, they're really not doing much out on the high seas, where the salmon spend most of their lives.
There was a program during the last few years whereby independent scientists from the U.S., Russia and Canada put together programs to conduct this science, with funding from NGOs and the salmon industry in Canada and the U.S., because we see a value and we didn’t see governments from all countries stepping forward.
Management is going to have to change as well. When there are opportunities to harvest due to unexpected higher returns, reaction has to be quicker. The salmon will be heading into the streams in short order and DFO has to be in a position to see what's happening on the water and make informed decisions in a timely way to allow the economic benefits to be realized.
Licensing is going to be the biggest issue in the short term. We pay very high fees for our salmon licences, with very little opportunity to actually fish. This year the seine sector paid over $1 million in licence fees to the government and landed 6.3 million pounds of salmon worth roughly $3.3 million. That means 30% of the total gross value of the catch, not what they took home, went straight to fees.
At the current harvest rates the entire salmon fleet is really in a precarious financial position.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee once again. My name is Owen Bird and I represent the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C.
I'll take a moment to provide details about our organization, about the values of the sport fishery in British Columbia and the sector's continued interest to see Pacific salmon regain a state that allows for recovery of stocks of concern and for public fisheries to thrive.
The SFI is a non-profit association that represents the interests of 300,000 licensed tidal water anglers in B.C. and the hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses that support them. The public fishery and related business produce $1.1 billion in annual sales, directly creating more than 9,000 jobs according to the most recent provincial studies available. The public fishery is the single largest economic driver of all B.C. fisheries, even though anglers take only 15% of the annual halibut catch and less than 10% of annual salmon harvest.
A broad course of action is required to aid in the recovery of salmon stocks of concern. While the department has provided project funding and studied and explored issues, there has yet to be a comprehensive strategic plan to manage and guide those projects or recovery of stocks. While there are clearly numerous priorities to be addressed to work towards recovery, such as habitat restoration, enhancement and mitigation of impacts from pinniped predation, there has been a focus primarily on fisheries management.
While reductions to access and harvest have now reached the lowest levels possible and in some cases eliminated opportunity entirely, evidence shows that continual ratcheting down of this source of mortality alone is insufficient to positively effect change in the productivity and abundance of salmon stocks of concern. DFO science shows that a less restrictive fisheries management regime paired with aggressive action on habitat, predation and environmental change would bring about two significant effects: measurable change and improvement to salmon stock abundance; and protection of access to the values and benefits of fisheries to the citizens of British Columbia.
Given the department's reliance on fisheries management and with a goal to improve the current state of Pacific salmon, particularly chinook, it is critical that steps to implement 100% marking of all hatchery chinook produced in Canada begin as soon as possible. In combination with the 100% mark rates of much more abundant marked Washington state chinook, B.C. mass marking of chinook will provide opportunity to enhance stocks of concern, by leaving any of that production unmarked and appearing wild, and allow certainty and harvest of hatchery stocks.
The public fishery, capable of selective fishing, can have opportunity and access that is now being denied because of the uncertainty of encounters with wild versus hatchery salmon. Among other benefits, wild versus hatchery salmon interactions in streams can be minimized, leading to better hatchery performance. Access restrictions and closures now are exacerbated by a current 10% mark rate of hatchery chinook.
It has been explained that to move to 100% mass marking of chinook in Canada there will be administrative, capital, analytical and enforcement costs. Knowing the potential for mass marking to benefit enhancement projects and mark selective fishing to provide vitally important opportunities for the public fishery, where currently they are extremely limited or non-existent, the investment is more than warranted and should be made now to impact plans for the 2021 season. The public fishing community is standing by and has provided viable plans to lend a hand and contribute to efforts to restore stock abundance and access.
To properly account for and understand impacts on stocks from fisheries, adequate catch monitoring must be a component. It should be noted that the public fishery, recognizing the challenges and unprecedented effects of the pandemic on regular management activities of the department, have proposed ways to assist with and address catch monitoring gaps created as a result. Utilizing guides, avid anglers, volunteer anglers participating in sampling projects, and making the SRIF-funded Fishing B.C. app available as an interim data collection tool have all been offered, yet, to date, incorporating these additional data sources to address pandemic-caused gaps and to allow for increased understanding of catch and collection of data has not occurred.
The public fishery is dependent on a reliable and predictable opportunity that comes from access to sustainable fisheries. To allow this, the state of specific salmon stocks must be on a road to recovery and hatchery fish produced should be utilized as intended, for harvest.
Action and development of a comprehensive plan are urgently required for both the restoration of Pacific salmon stocks that need it and for the social and economic benefits of coastal communities, businesses and citizens of British Columbia and Canada.
We did expect a decision in September and we were heartened with the recommendations coming through a scientific process, that after nine reviews over nine years, there was in total a less than minimal risk to the wild salmon migrating through there. That was good, and I think the government acknowledged that.
We knew that those particular licences in the Discovery Islands were up for renewal by the end of the year. We know that process is under way. It's a government-to-government process between the federal government and the Discovery Islands area nations, and we fully respect that process.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and I thank everybody for being here.
Mr. Fraser, the studies you mentioned, the reviews, didn't necessarily pass everybody's sniff test in terms of what was studied, how it was studied and the conclusions that came out.
First of all, who actually did the study, the recent ones that were cited, toward the end of September when the decisions on Discovery Islands were due to be made?
The smoke comes out of the chimney. Yes, I understand that process.
I understand, too, that the focus of these studies was on viruses and that a number of individual viruses were studied but not necessarily the cumulative impact of perhaps the presence of more than one virus in the farms themselves, the operations, and the impact on the wild salmon.
It was my understanding that what wasn't studied at all was sea lice, which is cited by people who you know well, such as Alexandra Morton, as being one of the fundamental issues that will be affecting wild salmon.
Were sea lice studied as part of this review?
I would like to thank all the witnesses for being with us.
I'd like to address my first question to you, Mr. Young. When you spoke earlier, I had the impression that we were at a crossroads. In terms of salmon, you talk about one good year in the last six years. You talked about the gaps in science and the management that needs to change, and the need for a comprehensive plan in the short, medium and long term.
What steps do you think Fisheries and Oceans Canada should take to ensure the viability of the Pacific salmon fishing industry?
We need good news, too. So I'm glad you were able to tell us, in all honesty, that things went well.
My next question is for Mr. Fraser, Mr. Bird and Mr. Young. You can answer in turns.
You spoke about climate change. We often talk about the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and a management plan. The Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans represents the government. However, there are other anthropogenic factors, such as human traces in the environment and human actions that are affecting salmon. In some of the news articles that concern some of you, I've read about the oil industry affecting certain species.
Could you talk about these other anthropogenic factors that are causing the decline of Pacific salmon stocks?
Okay. I think it would be, too. I think it would help the industry and those with concerns to at least have some separation.
You know that the department's been given a mandate. The has been given a mandate to remove open-net pen salmon farms from coastal B.C. by 2025.
Recently we heard from the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council. They are calling for the immediate revocation of the 18 salmon farm licences from the Discovery Islands. Obviously this transition to closed containment and land-based aquaculture is coming.
What recommendations do you have to ensure that the jobs in your sector, which are important jobs, are protected and we don't lose those annual economic benefits from your industry?
I know many of the workers. I know the impact. I know they care deeply about our coastal waters. We don't talk enough about that. Some of the social responsibility companies, like Creative Salmon in my riding, are huge contributors to our community. I can't say enough about them on the corporate social responsibility side.
Knowing this is coming, what can we do and advocate in support for your sector as you move to closed containment?
I think the commitment actually is not necessarily closed containment. In fact, I don't think you'll find those words in the mandate letter as it's currently drafted. I also think there is a process in place that the has talked about over this five years to actually figure out how to execute a transition, which can be very different. It can even include a local ecosystem-based management.
I appreciate the comments you made about Creative Salmon. That's one of the four major salmon-producing companies that does a lot and cares a lot about the local environment and the local communities.
I would even quote a very important chief, who you represent, Mr. Johns. Hasheukmiss, the son of Tyee Hawilth Maquinna, in Ahousaht has said, “Through my leadership responsibilities, I have taken the time to educate myself on Cermaq Canada's current practices and believe salmon farming done well, has a role to play in providing economic stability, secure jobs and food security.”
You mentioned one indigenous organization that has opposition. I think we should be really focused on the title and rights holders of those nations who are actually doing it.
I have my mike open, so maybe I'll just jump in and then Phil can go ahead.
It is a bit unique to the public fishery in that we can readily identify fish at the side of the boat and determine whether that fish has an adipose fin missing or not. As far as fishing goes, public fisheries are based on one hook, one line, so it is quite a selective and slow process. Therefore, you can make that determination, having little effect on a fish that should be released.
That, in combination with data-supported fisheries, by which I mean understanding where these stocks of concern are present or not and allowing for fisheries to take place there, will present those opportunities that are desperately needed and reasonable.
The situation that we're looking at here, folks, is not how to share the fish that are in the water. This is not an argument over who gets to catch the last fish. This is all about trying to expand the number of fish so that there are more fish to do everything that we want those fish to do, which is to procreate and to be caught for food, sport and recreation.
When we look at the health of the stocks and the factors that affect the health of those stocks, we have fishing effort, predation, climate change, water temperature, etc., and habitat. Is there anything else that we need to look at in terms of a 360-degree view of all of the factors that are possibly behind the fact that a lot of our salmon runs particularly are in dreadful shape right now?
Owen, we'll start with you.