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B.C. to lift moratorium on allowing new fish farms

British Columbia sailed into a storm of controversy yesterday, as provincial Fisheries Minister John van Dongen gave a final green light to more salmon farms along the province's West Coast.

Mr. van Dongen said he made the decision only after establishing what he called the strictest and most comprehensive aquaculture regulations in the world.

"It's time to get on with creating jobs and revitalizing the economy for B.C.'s coastal communities and first nations," the minister said, claiming the expansion of fish farming could lead to as many as 12,000 new jobs over the next 10 years and more than $1-billion in economic activity.

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But Mr. van Dongen's move to lift a seven-year moratorium on new fish farms was immediately attacked by environmentalists and wild-salmon advocates, who charge that raising fish artificially in open sea pens imperils native salmon stocks and contaminates the ocean floor.

"We are extremely disappointed by this decision," said Otto Langer of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Salmon farming should be restricted to inland pens, even though that is more expensive than the widespread B.C. practice of using net-enclosed areas on the open ocean, said Mr. Langer, former chief of habitat planning and land use issues for federal Fisheries' Pacific region.

Fish-farm waste fouls the ocean and escaped Atlantic farm salmon (fish farmers' species of choice) pose a danger to native stocks because of their higher incidence of disease and potential intermingling with wild Pacific salmon, he said.

"We seem to be living in denial in British Columbia, that it won't happen here," Mr. Langer said, referring to disastrous outbreaks of sea lice that devastated artificially raised salmon in Scotland and Norway.

Environmental groups Forest Action Network and Friends of Clayoquot Sound took their protest to yesterday's annual general meeting of the B.C. Salmon Farmers' Association on Vancouver Island.

"Today, [Premier]Gordon Campbell has declared war on the environment," said FAN spokesman Clement Lam, who carried a banner reading "FARM OFF" into the meeting.

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"If we can't even clean up the mess from existing fish farms, how can we expect to control new farms?"

Added FOCS representative Valerie Langer: "We believe that the environmental risks -- including pollution, escapes of Atlantic salmon and disease transfer to wild stocks and the marine environment -- are unacceptable and irresponsible."

As if to underscore the environmental concern, three fish-farm sites on the west coast of Vancouver Island reported that a huge, toxic algae bloom had resulted in a "significant loss" of salmon just about ready for market.

"We had just started harvesting the week before the algae bloom hit," said Peter Gibson, managing director of Grieg Seafood B.C. Ltd., which operates the three fish farms. "Our staff did everything they could to try and save the crop, so they are understandably upset."

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