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DFO announces new rules for aquaculture in B.C.

A B.C. fish farm.

BC Salmon Farmers Association for The Globe and Mail/bc salmon farmers association The Globe and Mail

The federal Fisheries Department unveiled new rules Monday to take over the licensing of fish farms in British Columbia.

But the proposed regulations will only apply in B.C., where a court ruling last year forced the provincial government to relinquish that jurisdiction to Ottawa.

Under the new rules, the province will continue to grant the leases for fish farms, but the Fisheries Department will be the licensing authority in the province.

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"The court decision that gave rise to the regulation applies uniquely and solely in British Columbia and so this regulation is built for British Columbia aquaculture and applies only in British Columbia," said Trevor Swerdfager, director general of fisheries and aquaculture management for the department.

"It is very much a B.C.-oriented exercise and the federal government has no plan - no plan whatsoever - to expand the implementation or the application, rather, of this regulation outside British Columbia."

Mr. Swerdfager said the industry will continue to be regulated by provincial and territorial governments in the other nine provinces and in the Yukon. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories do not have aquaculture activity, he said.

The new rules will take effect in mid-December, following public consultations.

Opponents of salmon farms launched the B.C. court case, arguing the farms are a fishery that impacts the ocean, which is under federal jurisdiction. Ottawa delegated responsibility for licensing fish farms to the provinces in the late 1980s.

In B.C., fish farms are currently licensed by the provincial Agriculture Ministry. In New Brunswick, which also has a large fish-farming industry, they're regulated by the department of Agriculture and Aquaculture.

The court heard about a number of studies and inquiries over the years that raised concerns about fish farms and their impact on the surrounding ocean environment, in particular excess waste and the spread of sea lice.

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In its February 2009 ruling, the court gave the governments one year to comply, and then granted an extension to the end of this year at the request of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The federal government did not get involved in the case, and officials did not comment while the legal challenge was before the courts.

Mr. Swerdfager said there will be new hiring within the department to enforce the department's new jurisdiction in the West Coast province, where the new regulations will "substantially enhance the transparency of the industry."

In fact, the federal department will hire 10-15 new officers whose sole purpose will be aquaculture enforcement in B.C., he said. Ottawa expects the changes will cost between $8-million and $8.5-million a year, part of which may eventually be recuperated through licensing fees.

The department noted salmon farming is now the single-largest food production sector in the B.C. economy, with more than $425-million in sales in 2006, compared to $150-million for the beef sector. A news release said B.C. is the world's fourth-largest farmed salmon producer, after Norway, Chile and Scotland.

The industry will come under scrutiny at a public inquiry currently getting under way in B.C. into the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye salmon run last year.

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