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Salmon advocates take stock of court victory

Ruling and Salmon Forum report an encouraging combination

Local environmentalists rejoiced last week when the B.C. Supreme Court announced its landmark decision to transfer the jurisdiction of fish farms to the federal government.

The decision came little more than two weeks after biologist Alexandra Morton, who is leading the case, urged more than 100 audience members at the Brackendale Art Gallery to petition the provincial government to act against sea lice harbouring fish farms threatening wild salmon populations.

Groups like the Squamish Streamkeepers, the Squamish River Watershed Society and the Squamish Environmental Conservation Society contributed about $1,500 to the case. Squamish local Todd Monge also made the grassroots initiative possible as a project manager for West Coast Environmental Law, which connected Morton to lawyer Greg McDade while funding a significant portion of the legal fees.

"Alexandra Morton's victory illustrates how successful an engaged group of average citizens can be in advancing environmental protection by utilizing the law as a tool," he said. "By engaging the law, average citizens are able to require that governments, industry, and developers directly address their concerns and abide by the laws governing our province."

Just days before the court released its decision the BC Pacific Salmon Forum released a provincially-commissioned Final Report and Recommendations on how to handle fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago. The report reinforces the importance of keeping a watchful eye on fish farms.

Although the report states wild salmon and fish farms can coexist, it also advises stringent stipulations that would ensure sea lice have a minimal effect on juvenile pink and chum salmon, "based on the estimated natural background of lice in the Broughton."

The report, chaired by the Honourable John Fraser, suggests that no more than three per cent of juvenile wild pink and chum salmon of less than 0.5 grams should have more than one pre-adult or later stage louse during the out-migration period between March and May, which is pretty close to the natural state without fish farms, said Squamish Streamkeepers coordinator Jack Cooley.

"This sounds to me what the wild salmon would meet with in the wild without fish farms. So this report is really saying that wild salmon is more important than farmed salmon, which is all that we wanted. I think the bigger thing is not Alexandra's court case but the John Fraser Report, which is already there and the only thing to be seen is whether it's going to be enforced properly."

Cooley said the stipulations would likely require farms to increase the use of costly lice-fighting drugs, detracting from profits and perhaps even compelling farms to leave the area altogether.

The court decision is still very important but should be "taken with a grain of salt," as there's a good chance the province will appeal the court decision. He is confident the federal government would do a better job regulating the fish farms if the transfer proceeds because it has a specific duty to protect wild stocks.

In an interview this week, MLA for West Vancouver-Garibaldi Joan McIntyre said she is not involved with appeal decisions on the court ruling but is encouraged that the B.C. Pacific Salmon Report recommends finding a balance between fish farms and wild salmon.

"That report said we need collaboration and balance and I really agree with that," she said. "Some of our practices may need to change to ensure we have that balance."

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