Where does aquaculture fit into Canada’s blue economy strategy?

With the world’s longest coastline, Canada is positioned to be a leader in the blue economy. But the seafood industry's negative impact on the climate and First Nations cultures has left it in the lurch.

Last month, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) launched a public engagement platform to give Canadians the opportunity to provide input on the country’s first ‘Blue Economy Strategy.’

The term refers to the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and marine ecosystem health.

“All Canadians have a vested interest in determining how to sustainably grow our ocean sectors while keeping our oceans healthy,” the website reads.

Those involved in ocean industries were especially excited by the announcement.

Michelle Franze, manager of communications, partnerships and community for the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) and co-founder and director of the BCSFA Youth Council, remembered feeling particularly thrilled to hear the ministry of Fisheries and Oceans specifically reference aquaculture as an economic growth tool in a recent youth round table event about the blue economy strategy.

Aquaculture refers to the breeding, raising, and harvesting of fish, shellfish, and aquatic plants.

Today, aquaculture products currently account for approximately half of the seafood consumed globally. It’s the fastest-growing form of food production in the world and is considered to be a solution to meeting global seafood demand while taking pressure off of wild fish stocks.

In Canada, the sector generates $5.4 billion annually in economic activity and employs 26,000 full-time workers.

While aquaculture production occurs in all provinces and territories, British Columbia is the largest producer. B.C. produces 87,000 tonnes of farmed salmon annually, making farmed Atlantic salmon the province’s number one agri-food export.

“A lot of sectors can support Canada’s blue economy, but I think that aquaculture can be a leader when it comes to supporting [the strategy],” Franze told The Pigeon in an interview.

Canada’s blue economy

At the end of 2020, Canada, along with 13 other nations, made a commitment to sustainable ocean management and developing the ‘blue economy.’

Through the development of industries like coastal tourism, marine biotech, ocean energy, seabed mining, and fisheries and aquaculture, countries can use the oceans to revitalize their economies and bring new jobs to coastal and rural communities.

In 2016, Canada’s blue economy generated 298,180 jobs and $31.7 billion in GDP. The seafood sector, encompassing fisheries, aquaculture, and seafood processing, has the highest employment and contribution to GDP of all blue economy industries in Canada.

Those who work in the seafood industry say it has the potential to strengthen Canada’s blue economy.

In October 2020, months before the Canadian government announced its intention to establish a blue economy strategy, the country’s aquaculture and fishing industries collaborated to produce a 20-year blueprint to make Canada one of the world’s best sustainable fish and seafood producers.

While Canada was once a global leader in seafood exports, it has since fallen to seventh in the world. This decline is often attributed to a lack of integrated vision and strategy to embrace Canada’s seafood potential.

Recently developments in DFO’s approach to balancing economic growth with environmental and cultural concerns could also slow this growth, stakeholders fear.

In Dec. 2020, DFO announced it will be phasing out 19 aquaculture operations in the B.C. Discovery Islands, an archipelago between the mainland and southern Vancouver Island.

The farms were under review following a recommendation by the 2012 Cohen Commission report, which stated the farms should be removed unless DFO could prove they posed minimal risk to wild salmon by Sept. 2020.

The farms had been flagged by nearby First Nations in complaints about the massive decline of BC salmon in recent years, which many communities rely on for economic and cultural support, and the ultimate DFO decision was made after consultations with them.

“Salmon stocks have steadily been declining at alarming rates, leaving some runs functionally extinct,” the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council wrote in a Jan. 2021 press release. “This is extremely concerning to many First Nations as salmon are central to First Nations cultures and economies in much of British Columbia.”

In B.C. at least 1,600 people are employed in aquaculture alone, and this decision left provincial stakeholders concerned for job security.

“Companies will likely have to start destroying fish and laying off workers within weeks,” the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association wrote in a statement about the decision.

Those within the industry expressed concern over how the closures will impact future investments or may halt or prevent further development of sustainable aquaculture in Canada.

After The Pigeon spoke to stakeholders for this story, a federal court judge ordered a suspension of the ban that would prevent three of the Discovery Islands farms from restocking.

In his decision, the judge took into account the harm closures would have on businesses and their employees. He also noted that because Atlantic salmon is produced on a 5-year cycle, sudden disruptions could have serious consequences to operations. The initial ruling of the closure required the 19 farms to cull remaining fish, a move that would’ve resulted in losses of approximately $26 million.

The new court order requires Minister Bernadette Jordan to reevaluate transfer applications that would give farms the opportunity to move fish to another location. While the fish transfers have been granted, a larger court challenge asking for a judicial review of the 2020 DFO announcement remains to be decided.

“The whole goal of the [aquaculture] industry is to reduce our impact on the environment, but decisions like this make it harder to invest in the technology to do that,” Franze told The Pigeon. “It halts investments and it halts the sustainability of the industry.”

Different Canadian perspectives on aquaculture

A 2017 report by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth identified aquaculture as a key growth sector to help Canada increase its share in agri-food products by 2027.

However, aquaculture development has faced opposition from environmental organizations and First Nations communities concerned about the impacts of aquaculture on the marine ecosystem.

One of those organizations is Clayoquot Action, a Tofino-based conservation society committed to protecting the biocultural diversity of Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia. The Pigeon spoke with Dan Lewis, executive director of the organization.

Lewis told The Pigeon his organization is primarily concerned with open net-pen aquaculture in British Columbia because it depletes the oceans and had negative effects on the marine environment.

“Because [aquaculture operations are] using open net-pen technology, they have so many issues with disease and parasites that are just being flushed into the marine environment. The decline of salmon on the west coast is largely caused by aquaculture,” Lewis told The Pigeon.  

“We’re watching the salmon [population] go down the same way as the cod collapse.”

Lewis told The Pigeon that DFO’s review of the Discovery Islands failed to consider the impacts of sea lice on wild salmon populations, something he said would have changed the outcome of the report had it been included.

When asked about the future of aquaculture, Lewis said there’s no future for open-net-pens in Canada.

“If we want to do any kind of aquaculture it would have to be land-based and they’d have to pick a non-carnivorous species.”

However, Marcia Chiasson, the manager at the Ontario Aquaculture Research Centre, noted that the concerns presented by Clayoquot Sound and others are valid, but the industry has been working hard to address them and improve technology to avoid them.

“Most fish farms don’t have high rates of disease,” she explained in an interview. “Specifically, in B.C., they have to report on levels of disease and antibiotic use. Antibiotic use in B.C. is actually fairly low.”

According to DFO’s website, the use of antibiotics to treat disease on BC salmon farms has decreased by 70 per cent since 1995.

Chiasson said she’s also a supporter of land-based aquaculture because it’s easy to control inputs and outputs. However, she did note that land-based systems have much higher carbon footprints than open-net pens.

Nonetheless, she remains optimistic about the future of aquaculture in Canada.

“Canada has so many coastal resources and we use so little of it,” Chiasson said.

Canada’s global position as a seafood leader

Rich Moccia, a professor of Aquatic and Fisheries Science at the University of Guelph and director of the Ontario Aquaculture Centre, shared concerns about future investments in Canadian aquaculture as a result of the sudden decision to close operations in the Discovery Islands.

“People are having second thoughts about investing in Canadian aquaculture,” Moccia told The Pigeon. 

He said he fears investors will no longer be confident in the stability of the industry and choose not to invest in Canada, which would have major implications for the blue economy strategy.

“If we’re competing globally with countries that are moving at a faster rate of development than we are then we’re going to fall behind. And we have fallen behind,” he said.

An increase in seafood production is important for people like Adam Bent. He’s the co-founder and CEO of SCOUT Canning, a craft cannery that sources sustainable seafood from across North America.

Bent told The Pigeon it’s important for his responsible seafood company to be able to source sustainable products from both wild and farmed sources.

“We wanted to have aquaculture and wild species represented in our product offering to show consumers that in order to have a robust food system that’s going to feed a growing population, we need diversity,” he said.

SCOUT currently sources two of its species—PEI mussels and Ontario trout—from aquaculture operations in Canada. SCOUT’s website emphasizes the importance of sourcing from sustainably managed wild-capture fisheries and responsibly farmed aquaculture to achieve a more sustainable future.

Bent remains cautious of certain types of aquaculture, such as open-net pens, but said the way they’ve been handled in Canada has been unproductive.

“We need to create a sense of urgency, but rather than demonizing [aquaculture], we need to bring forward a less anxious communication strategy so that people […] don’t feel like doors are being closed in the industry.”

“We need to invest in aquaculture innovation, technology, [and] education. We’re falling behind other countries in the world in terms of aquaculture technology,” he added.

Opportunities for aquaculture in Canada’s blue economy strategy

What could Canada’s blue economy look like if it embraced aquaculture? Those in the industry say there would be more room for innovation.

When asked about the opportunities for aquaculture to support Canada’s blue economy, Franze noted its ability to create stable economic growth.

“You’re producing a food source instead of extracting it, it supports the economy, [and] it’s not seasonal like fishing so you have year-round jobs,” she said. “You can [also] bring aquaculture to rural communities and outside of urban cities, which is good for younger people who are being forced out of expensive city housing markets.”

Franze was particularly impassioned about the opportunity for young people in aquaculture.

“A lot of young people are attracted to the aquaculture industry,” she explained. “Two-thirds of the people we employ in B.C. are under 35. Young people are attracted to the idea of having a hand in building the industry better.”

Given that this demographic was hit the hardest by job losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Franze believes aquaculture may be a critical source of employment post-COVID.

Reflecting on the potential of Canada’s ocean focus, Franze said, “I truly believe aquaculture can lead Canada’s blue economy strategy, but the government has to promote it and support it.”

“I truly believe Canada can be a global leader in aquaculture.”

Emily De Sousa
 is a digital content creator, policy nerd, and Toronto native. She earned her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Governance from the University of Guelph and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Geography.

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