By Keith Norbury
B.C.’s biggest export of chilled cargo — farmed salmon — and a proposal to build’s Canada’s largest container terminal, with storage for 1,628 reefers, are running into opposition from environmentalists.
A recent Environment Canada report outlining a threat to sandpipers from the proposed $2 billion Roberts Bank Terminal 2 “struck a potential death blow” to the project, the Vancouver Sun reported in February. Meanwhile in March, Washington State passed legislation to phase out ocean net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon by 2025 — a move cheered by salmon farming opponents such as activist and researcher Alexandra Morton. Proponents of Terminal 2 and B.C. salmon farming don’t appear too worried about those threats, however.
In response to emailed questions, Gilles Assier, Director of Infrastructure and Sustainability for Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, said the authority has undertaken additional studies that “confirm that there will be a surplus of biofilm to support the western sandpiper population.” That biofilm is a mucous-like substance secreted by diatoms that feeds many marine species including sandpipers. The fear was that building Terminal 2 would disrupt biofilm production, reducing food for the sandpipers during migration. However, “We are confident in the conclusions of the many years of scientific study done for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project,” Mr. Assier said. “We also have full confidence in the independent federal panel process to assess that science and make its recommendation.”
Farmed fish consumption rising
Ian Roberts, Director of Public Affairs for salmon farming giant Marine Harvest Canada, is equally confident that B.C. salmon farming will continue to thrive despite what is happening in Washington state. “We see a five to seven per cent increase in consumption every year in seafood,” said Mr. Roberts, who was speaking on behalf of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, of which Marine Harvest is a member. “British Columbia has a coastline that is very aquaculture friendly. We not only have the opportunity to grow seafood but I think we have the obligation to grow food, not just for domestic markets but for export as well.”
It’s a sensitive matter, though, with entrenched feelings between the foes, who each insist they have science on their side. Fish farm opponents argue that fish farms are vectors for disease and sea lice that harm wild salmon, especially juvenile ones. Proponents argue that multiple scientific reviews “have never indicated that there’s any risk to wild salmon,” Mr. Roberts said.
As a sign of how delicate the arguments are, he took issue with farm fish opponents using the expression “open net-pen” to describe the farms. “It’s not open-net salmon farms. It’s just a net,” Mr. Roberts said.
Poll show ban support
Nevertheless, B.C. has many fish farm opponents, even if Mr. Roberts considers them a vocal minority. In April, a Mainstreet Research poll commissioned by the environmental group Ocean First indicated 74.6 per cent of British Columbians “strongly” support a ban on open net-pen salmon farms, the Georgia Straight reported. Lana Popham, Agriculture Minister in B.C.’s NDP government, hasn’t concealed her opposition to fish farms either — which caused Premier John Horgan to take over the fish farm file, according to media reports.
The province is currently reviewing the tenure process for fish farms, which Mr. Roberts called “a fair process” that involves the industry. B.C.’s Natural Resources Minister Doug Donaldson also issued a statement recently saying that Washington state’s action on salmon farm’s won’t affect B.C.’s tenure review process. “We know that the government understands the value of the business here in British Columbia,” Mr. Roberts said, noting that salmon farming employs 6,000 people in B.C.
New terminal “essential”
Economic arguments also bolster the case for the Terminal 2 project — despite the environmental concerns. “Without the ability to move goods efficiently and reliably through West Coast ports, shippers will search for the next best alternative, with consequences to Canada’s economic progress,” said the port authority’s Mr. Assier.
The proposed Terminal 2, which will be the country’s largest by land mass, would take five and a half years to build. That would happen after the port authority receives all the necessary permits and approvals and makes a final investment decision. The port authority and the private sector would fund the project. “Independent forecasts show that existing container terminals on the West Coast of Canada will be at capacity by the mid-2020s, which is why we are planning to build Terminal 2 to be ready just as it is required,” Mr. Assier said, adding that the terminal is “essential” to Canada meeting its trade aspirations with Asia. He said the new terminal “would play a critical role in supporting Canadian businesses shipping goods to and from market, and in ensuring we can keep Canada open for trade with growing economies around the world well into the future.”
The preliminary design for Terminal 2, to be built 35 kilometres south of Vancouver near the existing Deltaport container terminal, calls for 11 rows of container storage with each of those containing three rows for reefers “and access platforms required for reefer connection to electrical supply and monitoring of power status and the temperature within the units,” Mr. Assier said.
However, it is too early to say what proportion of the containers will be reefer containers, he noted.
Protein shipments increase
Port Vancouver doesn’t keep statistics on refrigerated cargo. However, it does post statistics on various cargo types, including those that would require refrigeration. For example, in 2017, Vancouver exported 686,082 tonnes of meat, fish and poultry in containers. That was an 11 per cent increase from the 618,506 tonnes in 2016, which was up from 556,641 tonnes in 2015. The meat, fish and poultry category, however, represents a small fraction of the container tonnage handled at Port Vancouver. In 2017, the category accounted for 3.45 per cent of the 26.03 million tonnes of container cargo going through Vancouver.
Salmon moves by truck
None of B.C.’s farmed salmon, however, is exported by ocean carrier. It is transported fresh, mostly by truck, with 70 per cent of production going to the U.S. About five per cent is shipped to Asia by air to such markets as Japan, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, and South Korea, said Mr. Roberts of Marine Harvest Canada.
In recent decades, farmed salmon has become B.C.’s most valuable food export. In 2016, the last year for which figures were available from the B.C. government, farmed Atlantic salmon exports from B.C. tallied $524.2 million. That was 27.4 per cent greater than the $411.3 million exported in 2016. In 2014, those exports amounted to $255 million.
The 2016 figure for farmed Atlantic salmon dwarfed the $120 million in combined exports of the five wild species of Pacific salmon — sockeye, chinook, coho, chum, and pink. (B.C. also exports farmed chinook salmon — $20 million in 2016.)
Exports of wild salmon are expected to be higher in 2018 because it is a peak year in the four-year cycle for sockeye salmon, noted Guy Dean, a Director with the B.C. Salmon Marketing Council, which promotes wild salmon. “I think that’s the hard thing for people to get their head around is the availability of wild salmon is going to vary on a yearly basis and you’re not going to have that consistent supply like you are with farmed salmon,” Mr. Dean said.
Much of B.C.’s wild salmon is shipped — frozen — by ocean carrier to Asia. That includes lower grade pink and chum for value-added processing in China, Vietnam, and Thailand. However, the market for higher grade wild salmon has shifted in recent years in Japan, which in the past would pay a premium for it, he said. “But because of the way the economy is in Japan, they’re not necessarily willing to pay the higher levels,” said Mr. Dean, who is Vice-President and Chief Sustainability officer with Albion Farms and Fisheries Ltd. in Vancouver. “So that market is slowly drying up.”
Wild salmon popularity growing
While he didn’t have any statistics, Mr. Dean said the market for fresh wild salmon is growing in North America, with much of that demand from the U.S.
Fresh salmon, farmed or wild, moves mostly by truck to the U.S. In the case of farmed salmon, about half of Canadian exports to the U.S. are destined for markets in California.
Mr. Dean declined to comment on whether or not farmed salmon affects wild salmon stocks. “Our goal is to promote wild salmon versus going out and saying something against farmed salmon,” he said. And even if the B.C. government were to follow Washington state’s lead and ban ocean-pen salmon farming, Mr. Dean doubts it would have an impact on the wild market. “The Department of Fisheries and Oceans errs on the side of caution with regard to openings and closures,” Mr. Dean said. “I don’t think anything is going to change along those lines.”
Rather than regarding farmed salmon as being in competition with wild salmon, Mr. Dean sees the two sectors as complementary. He compared the situation to how the advent of snowboarding led to innovations in snow skiing, such as parabolic skis. “I would say farmed salmon has opened the door for us to become much more innovative and find markets that appreciate that,” Mr. Dean said.
Harvested Monday, distributed by Wednesday
Marine Harvest, which has its main processing plant at Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, can harvest from a fish farm on Monday, process the fish on Tuesday, and deliver them to the lower mainland by Wednesday for distribution. From a fish farm, the salmon are loaded into a boat where they are cooled with refrigerated seawater to one degree Celsius. At the primary processing plants, workers gut the salmon while leaving the heads on. Then they’re packaged and put on trucks. About 75 per cent will go to market as dressed whole salmon, with the remainder sent to a value-added processing plant in Surrey for portioning into steaks or fillets.
The U.S. was by far the biggest export market for Atlantic salmon from Canada in 2017, accounting for $733.55 million, or 94.24 per cent of the $778.36 million export total. China and Japan each had about two per cent of the market.
Canada also imports a small amount of Atlantic salmon — $85.67 million in 2017. Most was from the U.S. ($51.74 million) and Norway ($17.03 million).
In 2016, farmed Atlantic salmon exports from B.C. tallied $524.2 million. According to Trade Data Online, New Brunswick is the second biggest exporting province of Atlantic salmon, with those exports totalling $217.55 million in 2017 and $305.41 million in 2016.