Sea Lice Issue Invades Legal Briefing

March 25, 2010 Updated: March 25, 2010

PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—Sea lice made their presence felt during what was supposed to be a briefing about a Supreme Court decision on aquaculture to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on Monday.

That decision, handed down by the B.C. Supreme Court in February 2009, turned aquaculture regulations in British Columbia into paper mache by ruling that the provincial government did not have legal authority to regulate ocean finfish aquaculture.

Finfish aquaculture has been a hot issue in B.C. ever since reports started coming out that the practice of raising fish such as salmon in netted farms along the coast was possibly killing off wild stocks in the region.

Farmed animals are more apt to spread disease and parasites due to the close living quarters and research continues into the impact farmed fish have on wild stocks. Some researchers and critics—including Alexandra Morton whose constitutional challenge brought about the ruling—allege that sea lice proliferate in fish farms and then spread to wild fish as they swim past, killing off stocks.

With the federal government set to take over regulating aquaculture in B.C., the issue of sea lice has come under closer scrutiny by parliamentarians.

Trevor Swerdfager, a Director General at Fisheries and Aquaculture Management came to Parliament Hill to tell the committee how the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was preparing to take on its new responsibilities.

But when it came time for questions, there were as many about sea lice as there were about budgets and staffing.

Conservative MP John Weston and Liberal MP Keith Martin, both representing ridings in B.C., asked questions about the issue, as well as several others. Those questions represent the interests of constituents concerned that fish farming is damaging the ecosystem for coastal fish.

The department is currently restricted from issuing any new fish farm licenses or expansions until it takes full responsibility for regulating them in conjunction with the province of British Columbia, which retains some responsibilities. DFO is carrying out consultations and collecting data in preparation for drafting regulations so it can complete the take over by its court-mandated deadline of December 18 this year. Swerdfager said they already have some staff hired to work on the regulations.

Ecojustice, working on behalf of Living Oceans Society, threatened DFO with a lawsuit when it approved an expansion of a salmon farm near Port Hardy because it had not conducted a new environmental assessment. Earlier this month, the department conceded and announced that an environmental assessment will be done.

Swerdfager said DFO hopes to address concerns about fish farming by making information about the sector much more transparent. He also said the department would be ramping up research on sea lice.

While it is possible that other environmental groups could challenge provincial fish farming regulations in other parts of the country, he said the department is currently focusing on getting ready to assume responsibility for B.C. and not looking elsewhere. It is likely if such a challenge were to take place in other provinces that the B.C. ruling would be used as a precedent to strike down existing aquaculture regulations there.