John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association. (Screen shot)

John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association. (Screen shot)

Salmon farmers warn Surrey jobs on line as feds end Discovery Islands operations

344 full-time jobs at risk in Surrey and 1,189 B.C.-wide

The BC Salmon Farmers Association made an impassioned pitch for public support in Surrey on Thursday, saying the federal government’s decision in December to end salmon farming in the Discovery Islands off the west coast of Vancouver Island will put hundreds of jobs at risk, many of them in Surrey.

The Surrey Board of Trade hosted a digital town hall meeting with John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, as its keynote speaker. Anita Huberman, CEO of the board, called for “a pause” on the government’s decision.

“It has a cyclical affect on jobs and businesses right here in Surrey,” she said. Fraser’s topic was “Salmon Farming Industry Perspective: The future and economic impact to Surrey and BC.”

According to a report entitled Consequences of the decision to shut down salmon farming in the Discovery Islands – Surrey Supplement, April 2021 this city is the “hub” of the salmon farming industry in Metro Vancouver, with six companies in Surrey engaged in fish processing, feed milling, truck transportation, packaging, warehousing and distribution.

The economic footprint of companies in Surrey that are part of B.C.’s farmed salmon supply chain, according to the report, is $219.6 million in output, $46.1 million in GDP, $24.1 million in salaries and 344 full-time employees. Comparatively, the industry’s total economic benefits generated across the entire province is $363.2 million in output, $122.5 million in GDP, $64.8 million in salaries and 1,189 full-time employees.

Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Bernadette Jordan on Dec. 17 announced the government will phase out existing salmon farming in the Discovery Islands with all farms to be free of fish by June 30, 2022. Fraser noted that in 2019, prior to the pandemic, B.C. salmon farmers purchased roughly $250 million in goods and services from more than 40 Surrey businesses and during the pandemic the government declared the workers and food produced by the industry essential, “yet we got the decision we got.”

“We’ve never said that we’re asking the government to reverse this decision,” Fraser said. “It went through a process – by all accounts, an incredibly flawed process – but it made its decision. What we’re asking for the government is to give this decision an appropriate consideration, and that can start actually with stopping the clock.”

He said three to five years is needed to “work itself through so that you minimize damage to people and to animals.”

The government’s decision, Fraser said, means well over 10 million farmed salmon will be euthanized. “So no meals, fertilizer. Garbage. Not food,” he said. “It is well over 200 million meals.”

“Let’s get everyone together around a table so we can do this in an orderly manner that’s informed,” he said. “Otherwise what you’re looking at is well over 200 million meals going to waste, not to mention the jobs that are being lost. So we can choose order over disorder, we can choose bringing people together versus driving people apart. Okay, we can choose policy over politics. Let’s try that for a change.”

Most of the farmed fish would go to markets in the United States and elsewhere, Fraser noted. “This decision will actually take 34 million meal equivalents away from Canadian tables. Where will that salmon come from? Will it come from other countries? Will there be more wild salmon from other jurisdictions, maybe even ours? Does that seem like a solution? It’s not a solution – it’s a problem.”

Opponents of Atlantic salmon farming argue that illnesses and sea lice from penned salmon threaten wild salmon. The industry, on the other hand, maintains its practises are strictly regulated by government.

“We work hand in hand with Indigenous communities,” Fraser said. But Hereditary Chief Ernest Alfred, who lives in Alert Bay, representing the Namgis, Tlowit’sis and Mamalilikala was muted during a similar digital meeting in Campbell River in April.

“They actually shut my feed down and muted my question before I even got to ask it,” he said of that meeting, which was later posted to YouTube. Fraser was the guest speaker in that meeting too. Alfred was front and centre in a 284 day protest, at Swanson Island in Blackfish Sound, off the north coast of Vancouver Island, against commercial salmon farming on traditional First Nations territory.

“I’m pretty straightforward with my opposition and I don’t hide or sugar-coat anything when it comes to the destruction of our environment,” he told the Now-Leader prior to Surrey’s meeting. “So I’m not going to hold back, and won’t hold back at all for this meeting. I’m curious to see how it goes – we’ll see how things develop.”

“They speak about First Nations as if we were either somewhere out in the field, or somewhere out in the ocean, and they speak about us or they speak for us,” he said of the salmon farming industry. “And that is totally, in this day and age, totally unacceptable. We are very capable of speaking on our own.”

Meantime, Ken Hardie, Liberal MP for Fleetwood-Port Kells, disagrees with Fraser’s “bleak picture” of the industry’s future.

“The ‘pause’ Mr. Fraser called for in the Discovery Island decision would only buy up to four more years of harm to our wild pacific salmon,” Hardie said. “As a member of parliament’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans since 2015, I’ve had many opportunities to discuss open net fish farms with scientists, advocates for saving our wild salmon, Indigenous leaders and the aquaculture industry. My colleagues and I on the committee have heard ample evidence that open net farms are a source of serious damage to our wild Pacific salmon stocks.”

Hardie said closing the Discovery Islands fish farms and all other open net farms by 2025, while dedicating $647 million in the 2021 federal budget to preserve and restore West Coast salmon “will all be a huge boost to reversing a trend that has gone on for too long.”

Dean Dobrinsky of Mowi Canada West, which has a fish processing plant on 152nd Street in Surrey that employs 74 workers, said the federal government’s “massively destructive” decision has placed a tremendous strain on the employees and their families. “It was only 12 months ago that Prime Minister Trudeau named our industry as an essential food producer,” he noted. “Only one week before Christmas we were blindsided, our employees were devastated.”

“We’ve seen a massive rise in folks seeking counselling due to the uncertainty.”

Ravi Jouhal, general manager of Surrey’s SureCold Refrigeration, said his company handles about 10 million pounds of farmed salmon every month and employs 35 full-time workers. “Most of them call Surrey their home.”

“I feel like my own government is working against me,” he said.

Josh Plamondon, CEO of Aquapak Industries in Surrey, said his two sites in this city alone employ 130 full-time workers. The government’s decision, he said, “has left a lot of uncertainty with our staff – they’re really concerned about what the future of our business holds.”

“For us it feels like we’re driving a car but we’re stuck in neutral,” Plamondon said. “That’s a scary thing when we’re responsible for people’s jobs and livelihoods.”

Hardie says his “first thoughts” are for workers at risk of losing their jobs.

“If that happened to anyone, there would be federal supports for them,” he said. “But with 80 per cent of the open net fish farms still operating, there is still a great deal of work and business to be done in this sector.”

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