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Gunner Point fish farm on track despite concerns over vanishing sockeye

Tyrone McNeil lands a sockeye salmon on the Fraser River, where fish populations have been in decline.

Lyle Stafford

A proposed new fish farm in Johnstone Strait has won a qualified approval from the Strathcona Regional District, which takes in the midsection of Vancouver Island and a stretch of the mainland north of Powell River.

But the Gunner Point farm still requires key permits from the province, and opponents want the government to kill the project.

"This is where the waters funnel through Johnstone Strait," Ruby Berry, a spokeswoman for Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, said Friday. "All of the juvenile salmon that migrate through the Georgia Strait have to pass by this farm."

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The proposed site would be at a marine bottleneck that would put young wild salmon in the path of sea lice from the penned fish and should not be approved, Ms. Berry said.

The Gunner Point facility would time its production cycle to minimize the potential spread of sea lice, said Mia Parker, the Campbell River-based manager of regulatory affairs with Grieg Seafood, which is proposing the farm.

The company has also volunteered to do more monitoring for sea lice than required and take other steps to mitigate its impact, including restricting use of underwater lights, in an attempt to address worries that such lights can affect wild fish.

"We get that people are concerned," Ms. Parker said. "So you do what you can to give people a higher level of comfort."

The farm would consist of 14 cages, producing 3,400 metric tonnes of fish over a two-year production cycle. Grieg Seafood, part of the Oslo-based Grieg Group, has operated in B.C. since 2001, and runs between 15 and 18 sites, more than half of which are on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The furor over Gunner Point, on the drawing board since 2003, is part of a long-running, heated debate in British Columbia over the impact of fish farming on wild salmon, and comes amid a fresh outcry over the decline of Fraser River sockeye.

This summer's numbers of Fraser River sockeye have been drastically lower than expected, resulting in sweeping restrictions on sport, commercial and aboriginal fisheries on the Fraser and speculation that sea lice and fish farms are to blame.

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B.C.'s fish-farming industry adamantly denies that link, pointing to other potential factors, such as warm ocean water, that could threaten young sockeye.

Sea lice are naturally occurring ocean parasites that can kill fish, especially smaller, younger ones.

Salmon farms, because they put a large number of fish in close proximity, are breeding grounds for sea lice, resulting in extra costs for operators to control outbreaks and potential damage to wild salmon that pass through nearby waters.

Grieg applied for two new sites on Johnstone Strait, but the Regional District approved only one and attached several conditions, including stepped-up monitoring for sea lice.

Opponents say such steps will not prevent the spread of sea lice and have launched websites and Facebook groups to fight the project, saying it flies in the face of emerging research on the relationship between fish farms and wild salmon.

The Gunner Point farm requires a tenure agreement and an aquaculture licence from the province.

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The Strathcona Regional District held two lengthy public hearings about the proposed Grieg sites. At the June meeting, the district voted in favour of Grieg submitting a letter of undertaking to convert the site to closed containment technology "as soon as it is commercially available."

Fish-farming companies say it will be a decade or more before such technology is suitable for commercial use, but opponents say the technology would mature more quickly if it had full support from industry and government.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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