Open-pen salmon farming to continue in N.B., despite closure on West Coast

A Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm in Blacks Harbour on the Bay of Fundy.  (Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty - image credit)
A Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm in Blacks Harbour on the Bay of Fundy. (Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty - image credit)

Although salmon farms with open net pens have their critics in New Brunswick, the provincial aquaculture minister says she wouldn't support a ban, something just announced for Canada's West Coast.

Last week, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the practice would be banned in British Columbia waters by 2029, a delay from earlier promises to ban this by 2025.

Despite the federal decision, New Brunswick continues to support marine-based net-pen salmon farming," Aquaculture Minister Margaret Johnson said in a statement.

"We are open for business and encourage new investment in this ever-evolving sector that supports many coastal communities."

Agriculture, Aquaculture, and Fisheries Minister Margaret Johnson — in her first legislature scrum with reporters after more than two years in the job — had to explain that she was not clashing with a cabinet colleague, Natural Resources Minister Mike Holland, over blueberries.
Agriculture, Aquaculture, and Fisheries Minister Margaret Johnson — in her first legislature scrum with reporters after more than two years in the job — had to explain that she was not clashing with a cabinet colleague, Natural Resources Minister Mike Holland, over blueberries.

Aquaculture Minister Margaret Johnson says salmon aquaculture is a sustainable industry that supports the provincial economy. (Radio-Canada)

CBC News requested an interview with Johnson but was instead sent an email statement.

The federal government oversees aquaculture in B.C., but it's under provincial jurisdiction in New Brunswick.

"Elsewhere in Canada, where provinces and territories are the lead regulator, Fisheries and Oceans Canada respects their jurisdiction," the DFO release said.

The announcement has received both praise and scorn from industry stakeholders in British Columbia and mixed reactions from First Nations on the West Coast, some of whom rely on the industry for jobs.

A spokesperson for the Wolastoqey Nation, which claims most of the Fundy coast as part of its unceded territory, said the nation is still gathering information about the industry.

"We have raised a number of technical questions to the province and industry regarding the impacts that aquaculture has on wild salmon and the environment over the years, but we do not feel that the responses have been adequate thus far to allay concerns," the spokesperson said.

Chief Hugh Akagi of the Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik, whose ancestral lands include the region where salmon aquaculture is concentrated in New Brunswick, did not respond to requests for comment.

DFO's announcement of the closure in B.C. said wild salmon face "unprecedented threats to their survival," and the federal government wants to promote "more sustainable aquaculture practices."

But Johnson said salmon farming has been a sustainable industry in New Brunswick for 40 years and is a significant contributor to the province's economy.

The Aquaculture Department says New Brunswick's latest numbers, from 2022, show $312.8 million worth of salmon exports from the province that year.

Johnson did not say whether she viewed salmon farming as a threat to the wild Atlantic salmon population.

"Wild Atlantic salmon populations are at risk from a variety of impacts," she said. "We have the ability to manage aquaculture through our various regulatory elements.

Conservation groups see issues in N.B.

Two New Brunswick conservation groups, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, have been outspoken about the risks that open-net-pen salmon farming poses in the province.

Problems with the industry that exist on the West Coast are worse on the East Coast, said Neville Crabbe, a spokesperson for the salmon federation.

Crabbe said it's been demonstrated that issues of sea lice and disease concerns, escaped farm salmon, and interbreeding between farm and wild salmon have been shown to exist in New Brunswick.

Instead of an outright ban, the federation's position is that the industry should not expand further in New Brunswick, he said.

Neville Crabbe is with the Atlantic Salmon Federation. He says smallmouth bass threaten salmon and trout by taking over their food and habitat.
Neville Crabbe is with the Atlantic Salmon Federation. He says smallmouth bass threaten salmon and trout by taking over their food and habitat.

Atlantic Salmon Federation spokesperson Neville Crabbe says the organization does not want to see the industry expand beyond its current capacity. (Pierre Richard/Radio-Canada)

"It's not the level of performance that warrants expansion, and ASF believes that the industry should make use of their current licences and find a way to rectify and improve their operations, reduce their harms on the environment, and stay put where they are," he said.

Matthew Abbott, the conservation council's marine co-ordinator, said he's not surprised by the province's stance following the decision about B.C.

"They've long supported salmon aquaculture, regardless of the significant impacts we've seen," Abbott said.

"The provinces on the East Coast have shown they're not terribly likely to challenge some of the impacts of the industry."

Abbott also pointed to the dangers of escaped farm salmon, interbreeding, and illegal pesticide use, all of which he said have been scientifically proven to exist in New Brunswick.

He said open-net-pen salmon farms are made up of a large plastic ring that floats on the surface of the ocean, with nets extending down into the water. There's another net covering the top to keep birds away, and another net underwater to keep predators away from the salmon swimming in the pen.

They're called open-net pens because while the nets keep the salmon inside, aquaculture byproducts like uneaten food for the salmon, feces, urine, and any chemicals used can simply float out into the ocean.

The council takes the position that salmon farming should move to closed-containment, land-based salmon pens instead.

Matthew Abbott, Fundy Baykeeper and marine program coordinator at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, says surveys are a useful priority for the government to better understand public priorities and concerns.
Matthew Abbott, Fundy Baykeeper and marine program coordinator at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, says surveys are a useful priority for the government to better understand public priorities and concerns.

Matthew Abbott, Fundy Baykeeper and marine program co-ordinator at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, says the province has more salmon aquaculture sites than is responsible. (Conservation Council of New Brunswick)

"This industry has shown us that it needs to be closely watched, it's shown us that its primary concern, as you'd expect from a business, is to make money."

Abbott said he especially took issue with Johnson's declaration the province is 'open for business' in the industry, adding that waters here are too densely packed already with salmon aquaculture.

An interactive map on the province's government website shows all leased finish aquaculture sites. Johnson's statement said there are currently 86 open net-pen sites that fall under a "stringent regulatory regime" along with other provincial and federal regulations.

Abbott said each site can have anywhere from six or seven up to about 15 open net-pens.

A screenshot of an interactive map from the Government of Bew Brunswick website shows the locations of finfish aquaculture sites in the province's southwest.
A screenshot of an interactive map from the Government of Bew Brunswick website shows the locations of finfish aquaculture sites in the province's southwest.

A screenshot of an interactive map from the New Brunswick government website shows finfish aquaculture sites in the province's southwest. (Government of New Brunswick)

"We have more sites than is responsible, in my mind," Abbott said.

"And the notion we would try and entice more activity here is irresponsible, at best."

Crabbe said the province is second to British Columbia in terms of tons of salmon produced.

The industry here "has reached the point of saturation," Crabbe said.

Cooke says practice is safe, supports economy

New Brunswick-based Cooke Seafood, an aquaculture company that touts itself as the world's largest private family-owned seafood company, is a major player in the province's salmon farming industry.

"The provincial government's position is clear — New Brunswickers support the thousands of fellow coastal New Brunswickers who work in the seafood sector including responsible and sustainable salmon aquaculture to produce local food for grocery stores," Cooke spokesperson Joel Richardson said in an email statement.

He also said that ocean finfish aquaculture, which includes salmon farming, is the "most efficient" form of animal protein farming on earth with the lowest carbon footprint.

Aerial footage of a fish farm in Bayswater, N.S.
Aerial footage of a fish farm in Bayswater, N.S.

A spokesperson for Cooke Seafood says salmon farming has a low carbon footprint and is the most efficient form of animal protein farming. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Unprompted, Richardson's statement had strong words for Atlantic Salmon Federation, which had no involvement in DFO's ban in British Columbia.

"Atlantic Canadians don't believe the lies about aquaculture being promoted by environmental activists like the Atlantic Salmon Federation who only care to fearmonger through desperate fundraising tactics off the backs of hard-working people in coastal communities," Richardson said.

In response to the Cooke statement, Crabbe called the federation "principled and reasoned" and has been researching the aquaculture industry in New Brunswick for over 50 years.

"I think it betrays a deep insecurity on their part," Crabbe said.

"That rather than talk about the known and scientifically documented impacts of their operations, they're quick to point their finger at a critic."

New Brunswick's position on the open-net salmon farming has support from a political opponent.

Saint-John Rothesay Liberal MP Wayne Long called out his own government in a social media post over the B.C. ban, and expressed thanks to Premier Blaine Higgs and Johnson for supporting the industry in New Brunswick.

"Great to see us get it right on one coast," Long said in the post. "I'm still shocked by the shameful decision by my gov. on the West Coast putting B.C. coastal and First Nation communities at risk.

Long could not be reached for comment.