Farming the Sea, a False Solution to a Real Problem: Critical Reflections on Canada's Aquaculture Regulations.

Author:Lee, Angela

CONTENTS Introduction 33 I. Major Issues Posed by Industrialized Aquaculture 36 II. Aquaculture Regulation in Canada 38 III. Case Study: BC Salmon and Piscine Reovirus 44 IV. Case Study: The AquAdvantage Salmon 48 V. Critical Analysis of Science and Law 52 Conclusion 59 INTRODUCTION

The detrimental environmental, social, and ethical impacts of industrial agriculture are becoming clearer and more widely recognized by the day. (1) In particular, there is increasing acknowledgement that conventional models of producing meat, dairy, and other animal products are deeply flawed, and that wide-ranging reforms are necessary, including in the ways that the relevant industries are regulated. (2) Yet, the importance and impacts of fish and fisheries often seem to be overlooked in broader conversations about animals, food systems, and sustainability. This is a curious omission, as fish are not only significant from a nutritional standpoint (representing a more affordable and available source of protein and other nutrients than other flesh foods), but also have profound social and cultural significance for many communities. Fishing can be a source of income, a form of subsistence, and an emblem of heritage. Fishing can also be a serious cause of environmental decline, depending on how it is undertaken.

Methods and modes of fishing have evolved significantly over the years. At present, large-scale aquaculture--involving the farming of aquatic organisms (which can include fish, molluscs, crustaceans, and aquatic plants)--is steadily growing in popularity as a means of enhancing production. (3) Given the dismal state of world fisheries and their continuing decline--exacerbated by climate change--aquaculture is touted by some to be a potential solution to global food and nutrition security issues, and an avenue for fulfilling the growing demand for seafood. Indeed, aquaculture is among the fastest growing segments of the global food system, and presents both significant opportunities and challenges. (4) However, large-scale aquaculture implicates a complex set of issues, from environmental to social and economic. (5) National approaches to regulating aquaculture differ, and the strength or weakness of a country's approach has the potential to affect fisheries and the environment not only within that country's bounds, but globally as well.

Using Canada as a case study reveals many of the challenges inherent in regulating aquaculture. Canada is a unique subject of analysis in this context. The Canadian aquaculture industry is worth nearly a billion dollars in terms of production alone. (6) Salmon is the main species cultivated in Canadian aquaculture, especially in British Columbia (BC) and the Atlantic provinces. (7) Canada is the fourth largest producer of cultured salmon. (8) However, the case of the declining Pacific salmon--threatened by diseases, pollution, climate change, and deficient fisheries management--provides a sobering example as to why stringent regulation is important in this sector. (9)

Further, genetically engineered (GE) fish and seafood--which have been receiving increased attention recently, as the AquAdvantage salmon recently became the first GE animal to be approved for human consumption by Canadian regulators--add a further layer of complexity to the already contentious nature of conventional aquaculture practices. (10) The paucities of the regulatory system when it comes to conventional aquaculture become all the more significant in the case of a new technology, of which the long-term effects and consequences are not yet known. The potential large-scale commercialization of GE fish and seafood, which could dramatically change the aquaculture sector, is thus highly relevant to any considerations of the future of food production and consumption, on both domestic and international scales. While aquaculture may appear to be a more sustainable way of producing seafood than relying on marine fisheries, much turns on how the questions and issues are framed. Arguably, shifting the "production" of seafood to aquaculture merely shifts the cause of environmental damages. Moreover, in the context of food security, large-scale aquaculture is an inadequate and oversimplified solution to the problems raised by coastal and Indigenous populations' reliance on declining fisheries resources.

Against this backdrop, this article offers some critical reflections on Canada's aquaculture regulation. It begins with an overview of the main issues associated with industrialized aquaculture, then goes on to summarize the Canadian aquaculture regulatory framework. The article subsequently offers two examples of contemporary failures of the current system: the risk of disease transfers associated with BC salmon aquaculture, and the approval of the GE AquAdvantage salmon. The conclusion argues that an overreliance on science and a narrow understanding of "risk" serves to threaten the long-term resilience of fisheries and marine ecosystems, to the detriment of both people and ecosystems.


    Like any other industrial activity, fin-fish aquaculture can have considerable environmental impacts. Some of these impacts come from waste--mostly fecal matter and waste feed--that is directly rejected in coastal waters. This waste feeds bacteria, algae, and other organisms in the water, and thus reduces the availability of oxygen (i.e. causes eutrophication), triggering harm to many other marine species. (11) Aquaculture operations also result in the release of minerals (e.g. zinc and copper), chemicals (e.g. antifouling agents), drugs, and pesticides, which can result in the discharge of debris, fuel, and other operational discharge into coastal waters. Of particular concern is the release of antibiotics, which can cause wild fish contamination and antibiotic resistant bacteria, and of pesticides used to treat sea lice infestations (mainly SLICE), which are acutely toxic and persistent. (12) Additionally, the potential interaction of cultured salmon with wild ones, whether they escaped from enclosures or interacted through net pen operations (the dominant form of fin-fish aquaculture in Canada), can have serious consequences, such as the genetic displacement of wild salmon populations through interbreeding, and the spread of sea lice and infectious diseases. (13)

    Both Pacific and Atlantic salmons are already under considerable stress. Recently, some populations of sockeye salmon--the emblematic species of BC fisheries--were recommended to be listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act (14) by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. (15) The added risks caused by aquaculture are thus not insignificant, especially considering the cumulative nature of negative environmental impacts and the unknown effect climate change will have on already threatened salmon populations. (16)

    Further, aquaculture invokes a number of social issues as well. Amidst a backdrop of ongoing global hunger, (17) an increasingly volatile climate system, and a continual quest for sustainable solutions to these interrelated issues, the role and importance of fish in addressing issues of global food and nutrition security is a progressively more important topic of attention. (18) Not only are fish and fish-related products a good source of protein and other essential nutrients, they also "provide income and livelihoods for numerous communities across the world," (19) and play an important role in the cultural fabric of fishing communities. (20) Coastal Indigenous communities are particularly reliant on fisheries as a source of food, and are thus highly vulnerable to the loss of marine biodiversity. (21) In light of declining fish stocks, aquaculture can be viewed as a way to ensure long-term access to fish and seafood. (22) Indeed, the Canadian government recognizes this potential through its Aquaculture Policy Framework. (23) Thus, in addition to posing complex environmental questions and concerns, the future of fishing and aquaculture also raises important issues relating to social justice and inequality, such as distribution of economic benefits, distribution of negative impacts, and access to the seafood produced. (24)


    The potential impacts of aquaculture operations summarized above highlight the need for a robust regulatory framework to ensure the social and environmental viability of aquaculture. Unfortunately, the regulatory landscape in Canada is, to say the least, complex, fragmented, and deficient in many respects, (25) as stated in government-commissioned reports (26) and as exemplified by the two case studies explored below. This Part concentrates on summarizing federal (as opposed to provincial and territorial) regulations, for two reasons. First, most of the provisions are applicable nationally and it is likely that constitutional jurisdiction over aquaculture lies with the federal government. Second, both case studies are situated within the provinces of BC and Prince Edward Island (PEI), where the federal government has a direct regulatory role. (27)

    Jurisdiction over fisheries is exercised by the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard (the Minister), (28) assisted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). (29) The main piece of applicable federal legislation is the Fisheries Act. (30) The main ministerial power is found in section 7 of the Act, which gives the Minister the absolute discretion to issue leases and licences for fisheries or fishing, including those related to aquaculture. This discretionary power is limited only by other provisions of the Act, and by the regulations adopted thereunder. The Minister can specify in an aquaculture licence, including a fish transfer licence, conditions for the proper management and control of fisheries and the conservation and protection of fish. (31)

    The Fishery (General)...

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