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Donnelly confident fish farm bill will succeed

Open-net fish farming is harming B.C.’s wild salmon stocks, says Fin Donnelly, and with the NDP now the official opposition he believes he can stop it.

The NDP MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam introduced a private member’s bill last May (The Wild Salmon Protection Act, C-518), but the election wiped it from the parliamentary agenda.

Donnelly, NDP critic for Fisheries and Oceans, wants to amend the federal Fisheries Act to transition fish farms to closed containment.

Closed containment, as opposed to farms where fish swim in a net in the ocean, provides a solid barrier between fish and the ocean environment, which scientists believe would prevent sea lice infections in wild salmon.

But while the Harper government has not moved to bring about legislation forcing salmon companies into closed containment farming, the industry has taken to using pesticides to control sea lice. Donnelly says that’s an initial positive step, but cautions it’s a temporary solution as the parasites become immune to chemicals.

“Some would argue industry-wide you’d have no problem with sea lice once you contain it,” he said.

Donnelly presented a 9,000-signature petition in March calling on Ottawa to take action against open-net fish farms. Buttressing his private member’s bill, he’s calling for federal regulations to require companies to shift to closed containment farming within five years.

“We felt that five years was a reasonable transition period,” he said, adding that some companies employ closed farming.

But not everybody agrees with the need. Vivian Krause, a Vancouver writer and researcher on salmon farming, says she’s noted serious flaws in the scientific research driving the call for containment.

Krause says much of the panic is based on a series of papers published by the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Alberta in 2005 that displays a lack of adequate research, data-fudging and unsubstantiated claims.

“As I see it, closed containment is about mitigating market impacts, not environmental impacts,” she said, adding containment practices need more research.

Donnelly disagrees.

“Whether or not there is an impact from a parasite, the end result is, if people believe there is then you can’t sell your product.”

The sea lice research that predicted salmon extinctions took a hard hit last autumn when as many as 34 million salmon returned to spawn in the Fraser River. Donnelly said that doesn’t disprove the science. “It’s like climate change. It’s really hard to look at the individual year. You’ve got to look at the overall trend.”

Krause says there are serious environmental considerations to containment farming because it is energy intensive.

“A transition to closed containment would increase emissions equivalent to putting thousands of cars on the road.”

Donnelly says it’s premature to talk about reintroducing legislation, adding the Conservatives now control the parliamentary agenda. But he says he’s confident they’ll agree with the research.

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