Ontario’s fish farmers celebrate new rules — and a government that will take their calls

ANALYSIS: The Progressive Conservatives have finalized regulations for the aquaculture industry. Here’s why farmers are happy — and why the province could soon be home to millions more fish
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 30, 2019
rainbow trout
The province’s fish farms produced 5,400 tonnes of rainbow trout in 2018. (iStock.com/KaraGrubis)

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The Progressive Conservative government has finalized water-quality rules for Ontario’s farmed-fish industry and adopted new, longer-term leases for farms operating in provincial waters, such as the Great Lakes. Aquaculture experts says that the changes will create more certainty for the industry and make it easier to woo investors.

The government says that the moves, announced today, are an example of how it can make Ontario “open for business” without compromising environmental rules.

“The mantra is to provide some certainty and sustainability for the aquaculture market,” Jeff Yurek, the minister of environment, conservation and parks, told TVO.org on Thursday. “The policies we’ve put forth today ensure our environment stays clean but gives the industry the opportunity to grow.”

The policies won’t “cut red tape,” exactly: those governing water and sediment quality (aimed at controlling how much phosphorus is flushed into the water, for example, or preventing farmed fish from consuming all the oxygen dissolved in the water) are largely the same as draft rules first introduced in 2016 under the Liberal government. Yurek says that, after reviewing the work done under the Liberals, the government opted not to make any wholesale changes.

But farm operators like Susan Cole, the co-owner of Cole-Munro Foods and the president of the Ontario Aquaculture Association, say that simply moving from “draft” to “final” rules is an important step.

“It offers clarity for the industry,” Cole says. “One of the challenges we’ve had is we want to grow as an industry, but we literally didn’t know how we could. What kind of sites are acceptable? What kind of monitoring should we be doing? There’s clarity on that now.”

The government is also moving from a five-year to a 20-year licensing cycle. Farm operators have maintained that the licensing process is so onerous that, by the time they’ve finished approvals for one five-year term, they have to start working on the next one. (“That literally happened to me last year,” Cole says.) The 20-year term is not guaranteed: operators could still be shut down by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks for persistent environmental harms, and they will need to provide regular water- and sediment-quality reports to the government.

Ontario is currently the only jurisdiction that allows net-pen fish farms — cages that float in the open water and release uneaten food or fish feces into the currents — to operate in the Great Lakes. Two farms were proposed for United States waters under Michigan’s jurisdiction, but the state refused permission for them in 2017, citing possible harms to the natural environment and recreational fishing. Farms operating in provincial water are licensed and inspected by Yurek’s environment ministry, and they have to pay the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to lease public land (even if, in such cases, the public “land” is open water).

David Sweetnam, the executive director of Georgian Bay Forever, a charity devoted to public education and research on Georgian Bay’s ecology, sounded a note of concern about the prospect of a larger aquaculture industry.

“While there is nothing more natural than fish in the water, expanding aquaculture should not be done without careful consideration,” Sweetnam told TVO.org via email. “Georgian Bay native fish populations have been decimated by previous introductions of industry like: centuries of overfishing; logging and sawmills dumping their waste sawdust and bark into the water; invasive aquatic species introductions through the seaway and shipping; and loss of habitat due to coastal development and wetlands destruction.”

He added, “Avoiding damage is far cheaper than fixing problems in the future as we see in the billions of dollars spent cleaning up previously identified Areas of Concern throughout the Great Lakes.”

The government also announced Thursday that it will release water- and sediment-quality data as open data so that independent researchers will be able to analyze it — in theory, it could be used against the industry if serious environmental problems arise.

R. J. Taylor, a second-generation fish farmer whose Hanover business was the site of the announcement, says that he isn’t concerned by the prospect of industry data being out in the open.

“Actually, we’ve been asking for that,” Taylor says. “We literally have nothing to hide.”

The industry response to the new policies — and the speed with which they’ve been implemented — has been positive. For years, farm operators have complained that PC and Liberal governments at Queen’s Park have treated them with apathy or downright hostility.

“I told my father — it’s his 50th year in the industry — I told him that the minister of environment was coming to do an announcement at our farm, and he thought I was playing a joke on him,” Taylor says.

Cole was also enthusiastic about the change in tone from Queen’s Park.

“We’ve often felt like the ugly stepchild of agriculture,” says Cole. “We’re not quite fishers, and we’re not quite agriculture; we’ve been this kind of outlier. This feels like acknowledgement that we’re a legitimate industry, that we have something to offer the province — not only food, but jobs.”

The province’s fish farms overwhelmingly produce rainbow trout (5,400 tonnes of it in 2018), though on-land farms, including a few that harvest shrimp, are a growing segment of the industry. (On-land farms, like other industrial water users, are already regulated by more conventional rules about water discharges and won’t be affected by this week’s announcement.)

Cole says her company is hoping to expand production as part of its next licence application and anticipates that others in the industry will be looking to do so as well. The rules finalized this week effectively cap the size of farms — to limit phosphorus pollution, the government requires that operators use no more than 2,500 tonnes of feed annually — but most farms in Ontario fall well below that limit and so will have room to expand their current operations.

And Ontario could soon be home to a new generation of farms — and to millions more fish. According to an industry overview published by Guelph University in June, “there has been renewed interest by the investment community in building 1 or 2 new large net pen facilities in the Great Lakes, which potentially could bring an additional 3,000-5,000 MT of fish into the marketplace in the next 2-3 years.”

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