Alaska fishermen are lauding a report out of Canada that criticizes the farmed salmon industry in British Columbia and recommends reforms to protect the environment.
An independent commission has issued six recommendations, including one urging B.C. salmon farmers to replace all floating net-cages with closed systems so fish and pollution cannot escape and hurt other marine life.
The report by the so-called Leggatt Inquiry found that environmental damage caused by B.C. fish farms may violate Canada's laws on habitat protection and pollution.
"The findings of this commission indicate the industry is in a serious state of imbalance, that the environmental degradation has largely gone unchecked, that government agencies do not adequately monitor nor regulate the industry," wrote Stuart Leggatt, a retired justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia and sole member of the commission.
The report was praised by Alaska fishermen long opposed to fish farms, which are illegal in the state. Farmed Atlantic salmon have escaped from net pens and turned up in Alaska waters, and fishermen worry that the exotic species will hurt native salmon populations by spreading disease, diluting the gene pool and competing for food, said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.
"I see it as a significant victory in upholding a lot of the claims we've made on fish farming to date," said Kelley, who testified before the Leggatt Inquiry in October. "Obviously somebody else sees there's a problem, too."
However, the president of a group representing B.C. salmon farmers dismissed the findings and accused the Leggatt commission of bias. The commission was appointed and funded by the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canada charity critical of B.C.'s salmon farms.
"We look upon this as a media initiative that was designed to further their position on salmon farming, which has historically been negative," said Odd Grydeland, president of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, which declined an invitation by Leggatt to testify at a series of public hearings.
Grydeland said salmon farmers would rather work through government regulators to improve the industry, which runs nearly 100 active farms off the B.C. coast.
However, Leggatt said the David Suzuki Foundation got involved because government regulators were not addressing the environmental problems caused by the salmon farms. The foundation paid Leggatt $20,000 to conduct the public inquiry, but he insisted the process was impartial.
The David Suzuki Foundation "probably would have (supported) something like ending salmon farming in B.C.," Leggatt said. But "that wasn't my conclusion. My conclusion was you can do it, but you must do it without polluting the ocean."
Here are the recommendations:
Replace all net cages in B.C. marine waters with closed systems by 2005.
Increase government monitoring and regulation of salmon farms.
Increase public involvement.
Maintain the moratorium on new farm sites with no further expansion at existing sites.
Err on the side of caution when regulating salmon farms to protect human health and the environment.
Require labeling of farmed salmon so consumers can distinguish it from wild salmon.
Leggatt said most environmental problems associated with fish farms would go away if the industry got rid of the net cages. An official with the Alaska Department of Game testified that salmon that escape through the nets pose a "tremendous threat" to wild salmon here. But Grydeland, the salmon farm spokesman, denied that renegade fish are a serious environmental concern.
Grydeland also said the salmon farm industry cannot afford to replace the cages with closed pens.
"There is no closed loop containment system available in the world that would enable us to produce salmon on a competitive basis," said Grydeland, who also works for Heritage Aquaculture, a major salmon farmer in B.C.
That argument got no sympathy from Kelley, of the Alaska trollers group.
"What's more important? Allowing their growth industry or securing the integrity of our wild salmon?" Kelley said.
The report carries no force of law, but Leggatt submitted it to Canada's politicians and regulators with the hope they will act on the recommendations.
The Leggatt recommendations also were supported by the Southeast Conference, the city of Cordova, the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.