Few topics polarize the communities of the coast quite like aquaculture.
Emotions run high on both sides of the argument. In general, there are those who are for and those who are against fish farms.
But according to the panelists at a Campbell River Chamber of Commerce luncheon held at the Anchor Inn this week, those emotions need to start taking a back seat to science and the polarized sides need to realize there’s a middle ground somewhere that is well worth trying to find.
“I’ve jumped back and forth on how I feel about this industry a number of times in my 20-plus year career working with First Nations here in the North Island,” says Dallas Smith of the Nanwakolas Council, an organization representing the interests of six coastal First Nations. “And finally, about 10 years ago, I said to myself, ‘you know what, Dallas? It doesn’t really matter how you feel. As narcissistic as you are, it doesn’t matter what you think about this industry, because it exists. There are livelihoods. There’s the global food chain. There are families, at the end of the day, who have jobs in this.’”
“We needed to start being more pragmatic about our approach,” Smith continues. “On how we viewed resource development within our territories.”
And that meant not simply deciding to be for or against. It meant serious, uncomfortable conversations.
Smith draws parallels between the conflict surrounding the aquaculture industry right now to his experience as a negotiator during the discussions over how to protect the Great Bear Rainforest.
“We saw the forestry industry saying one thing and the left side of the table – the environmental organizations – saying the exact opposite. We went on like that for 12-15 years while nobody talked about the real world: the middle ground. How do we have a collaborative discussion that actually moves forward, isolate the myths that are out there and make that we continue to provide that environmental leadership that is dependent on the growth of this industry.”
That discussion needs to be rooted in science, Smith says.
And that’s where people like Dr. Jim Powell come in.
Powell is the chief executive officer of the Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences, a scientific research facility here in Campbell River. He, too, wishes there would be more focus put on science while discussing how various industries impact their surroundings.
“We’re geeks,” Powell says. “We’re a third-party independent diagnostic and research facility and we’ll work with anybody who wants to work on a hypothesis basis. That’s a ‘whether or not.’ It’s a ‘does this have an effect or does this not?’ Don’t come to us with ‘I want you to find out this.’ Not gonna happen. You have to be able to accept the ugly side of what we find in those samples, too.”
When asked directly whether the aquaculture industry negatively impacts the natural environment, Powell admits that “every industry has an impact. Our focus is to quantify it, define it, put borders around it and look for mitigation – for a way to solve it.”
He does add, however, that fish farms aren’t, from a scientific perspective, doing as much damage to wild salmon stocks as some of the rhetoric surrounding the issue would imply.
“If I had to quantify what is really the threat to wild salmon abundance, I’m not going to put aquaculture at the top of that list,” Powell says. Destruction of spawning grounds, environmental contamination of estuaries – where salmon transition from freshwater to saltwater – and competition for food sources in the wild are much larger factors that will contribute to the health of wild salmon stocks, Powell says.
The panel also featured Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, who spoke on the current state of the industry and Randall Heidt, vice president of strategic initiatives at North Island College, who spoke on what that institution is doing to help the industry develop more qualified talent.