Cermaq chief executive Steven Rafferty.

Cermaq boss: Ottawa knows transition can't be done in five years

Members of the federal government are aware of the impossible task they have set the BC salmon sector and some will be happy to see it fail, says Steven Rafferty 


The transition of British Columbia’s salmon farming sector to land-based or floating closed containment systems in five years is not possible – and the Canadian government is well aware of the fact, says Cermaq chief executive Steven Rafferty.

Federal fisheries minister Diane Lebouthillier yesterday announced that licences for open net-pen farms in BC will be renewed for the last time, for five years from July 1, 2024 until June 30, 2029, by which time the sector will be expected to have transitioned to marine or land-based closed-containment systems.

“That is just basically impossible for the industry to do, so they’ve put an end [to the BC sector] in five years. They’ve given an impossible task, and they know that,” Rafferty told Fish Farming Expert.

They’ve put an end [to the BC sector] in five years. The ministers have given an impossible task, and they know that

Cermaq CEO Steven Rafferty

Asked if he felt believed that the government expects salmon farming companies to have to pull out of BC in 2029, he said: “There’s a big part of the government, including the ex-fisheries minister Joyce Murray, who would be very happy that the industry is closed, yes.”

No infrastructure

Replacing the annual 60,000 tonnes of salmon produced in BC net-pens by building land-based facilities and/or using marine closed containment is not achievable in the government’s timescale, said Rafferty, who has experience of semi-closed technology used by Cermaq in Norway and in Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island, BC.

“It’s impossible to get done, because there is no infrastructure in Canada to be able to do either. For land-based there is very limited access to land that you could build on, and we know the rest of the world is producing less than 20,000 tonnes of land-based salmon (annually) today.

“To start land-based now, it would take at least 10 to 12 years to have a facility in place, and [marine] closed containment is still in very early stages, it’s still very immature. There are no suppliers in Canada of this type of thing, there is no electricity grid power to be able to put to these cages. There are one or two examples of closed containment in Canada, including ours, but it’s a trial and it’s more for post-smolts, to raise small fish, not for fully grown harvest-sized fish.

Cermaq's SCCS in Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island. "It’s a trial and it’s more for post-smolts, to raise small fish, not for fully grown harvest-sized fish," says Cermaq CEO Steven Rafferty.

“I’m sure the technology will be developed over the next 10-20 years to allow fish to be fully grown, but even if we set that task in Norway, with its enormous access to suppliers and infrastructure and regulations to do this type of thing, there’s no possibility they could replace the level of volume in BC within a five-year period, not even close.”

Cermaq Canada lost half of its 24,000-tonne production volume when last-but-one fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan closed around 19 salmon farms in the Discovery Islands between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland.

We're resilient

Cermaq now has capacity for a modest 12,000 tonnes in the Tofino area on Vancouver Island’s southwest coast. The company produced nearly 90,000 gutted weight tonnes in Norway last year, and 80,000 gwt in Chile, so is Rafferty tempted to say that BC isn’t worth the effort and say goodbye to Canada?

“I think there’s many in government, and more importantly outside the government, the activists, etc, who would very much like us to exit, but we are more resilient than that,” he said.

“We are of course committed to our people there, and also to our First Nation partners, because in the areas we are operating in there is tremendous human cost [to withdrawing], more than any other area of the world; they are very remote areas, and our Indigenous partners have got nothing apart from the salmon farming. If we pull out, they are basically on the poverty line, and it is a tremendous human cost to the people working there, so it is not a decision we can take lightly, just to be forced and bullied by these activists within the government.”

Waiting for details

Rafferty is now waiting for more details of the proposed transition process, due to be delivered by the end of July.

“The announcement yesterday was very light, apart from the headlines there was no content. It’s the detail we want to see and consider. The government said they will consult until the end of 2024, including with us, about a road map, so we have to see if there’s any changes. There’s disagreement within the government about this, it’s not 100% one way or the other – they are politicians, and we’ll see if they make changes.”

Lebouthillier is regarded as a more reasonable minister to deal with than her predecessor Murray, or Jordan before her.

“Joyce Murray was making statements yesterday applauding the decision, and she is a straightforward activist within the Liberal government. We believe the current fisheries minister is sympathetic to our situation,” said Rafferty.

Talking to workforce

So, how does Cermaq proceed now?

“Dialogue. The No.1 thing for me is taking care of our people and have a dialogue with them and our First Nation partners. We will also be in dialogue with government and see what lobbying we can do over the coming month or so, but we must wait until this plan at the end of the July before we have more certainty about what we can do.

“We employ 200 people in Cermaq Canada, but there’s hundreds more, maybe three times as many, associated with the supply chain – processing, logistics, and all types of services. In the total industry it’s thousands of people who will be affected.

I’m concerned about the families, thousands of people. Our people are in very remote areas and are the breadwinners, and if they go, the consequences are huge

Steven Rafferty

“As the CEO of Cermaq I’m concerned about the families as well, thousands of people. Our people are in very remote areas and are the breadwinners, and if they go, the consequences are huge.”

Taking away livelihoods

Rafferty is surprised and critical that the government hasn’t already planned what it will do for the people affected by the transition if it goes ahead, in particular First Nations in remote locations.

“There’s a reconciliation plan that mentions that [the government] are meant to be looking after them and at the same time they’re taking away their livelihood and employment. It’s a huge contradiction, and we’ll support our First Nations partners. They have the right to their territory, and we are farming it, and if they allow us to do salmon farming that’s up to them, so the government’s acting in direct contradiction of what they promised the First Nations.”

The Canadian government says its transition plan will help safeguard wild salmon, but there’s evidence that farmed salmon are a threat to wild stocks, said Rafferty.

“There is zero scientific evidence. Joyce Murray in her announcement yesterday was referring to scientific evidence. There is no scientific evidence, quite the contrary. It is absolutely appalling, they have not used science at all.”