VICTORIA, British Columbia - Aquaculture research funds should be redirected to protect wild Pacific salmon by reducing risks from fish farming, a Canadian government council has concluded.
The Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council is also trying to find a way to end the "festering public debate" over salmon farming in British Columbia, chairman John Fraser said.
"It is worth reiterating that wild salmon must come first. They cannot be replaced," Fraser wrote in a letter to Canadian Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault and British Columbia Fisheries Minister John van Dongen.
The council's advisory report, with five recommendations, was issued following release of a massive consultant's report last week on the potential effects of Atlantic salmon farms on wild stocks.
Fraser proposed a new salmon aquaculture forum, including a multi-stakeholder scientific panel, to coordinate research, seek ways to reduce risks to wild stocks, and build dialogue.
The consultant found that the aquaculture industry has produced neither the faultless benefits suggested by some backers nor created the horrendous disasters claimed by its most vigorous foes, the council's advisory report said.
Mary Ellen Walling, British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association executive director, praised the council's recommendations and said forming a new forum was an excellent suggestion.
Suzanne Connell, salmon aquaculture program coordinator for the environmental group Georgia Strait Alliance, said the report is a good first step.
"Our worry, however, is that government and industry may use them (report recommendations) as an excuse to postpone action," Connell said.
Salmon rearing is a relatively new industry and its risks must be better understood, but there's not enough scientific information available for sweeping conclusions, the council reported.
Research, however, is weighted toward improving the efficiency at farms and reducing costs, rather than minimizing the impact on wild salmon, the panel found.
Scientific research seems to lack coordination, and existing funds should be redirected to issues such as the potential spread of parasitic sea lice from farmed to wild fish, viruses, and the implications of fish escapes from Atlantic salmon-rearing pens.
Industry and government should embark on a wide-ranging research and monitoring program on the interaction between the industry and wild salmon, the council said.
It also urged the federal government to promulgate a "long-overdue" wild salmon policy with priorities for dealing with the effects of aquaculture.
Van Dongen defended British Columbia's aquaculture policies, saying action plans or programs have been adopted in all the areas of risk cited by the council's consultant.
"Regulators have been working for years to minimize risks in this industry," he said.