As the federal government drafts the first Aquaculture Act, stakeholders in Ontario prioritize provincial variation in the industry, contributions of Indigenous communities, and opportunities for growth
By Jackie Clark
The Canadian government is consulting with relevant stakeholders to develop the first ever federal Aquaculture Act. Currently, aquaculture is regulated federally through the Fisheries Act by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), as well as through provincial and territorial licensing. In Ontario, members of the aquaculture industry hope this federal act will acknowledge the diverse landscape of the sector across the country.
In Ontario, fish and seafood production is “regulated through both the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and the Ministry of the Environment (MOE),” RJ Taylor told Farms.com. He’s the managing director of the Ontario Aquaculture Association and the owner of Cedar Crest Trout Farms in Hanover.
“Our actual aquaculture licences are issued through MNRF. But we have, embedded in our licences, water quality criteria that we have to meet, and that's all through the MOE. If you're a land-based farm, you have to have a separate permit to take water and an environmental compliance approval to discharge, and those are both issued through the MOE,” he explained.
The Ontario Aquaculture Association has asked that the federal act allow for most of the management of the sector to continue at the provincial level.
“Right now, the only federal regulations that we have in our sector is just through medication and chemical use on the farms that we just have to report,” Taylor explained. “We continue to ask for the Aquaculture Act to recognize some of the big differences in how people farm fish around the country.”
In Ontario, aquaculture is largely land-based or involves net pens, which is much different than ocean-based industries in British Columbia or Atlantic provinces, he added. Provincial regulations would be able to better account for those differences.
Ontario’s aquaculture experts also hope the industry can fall under more jurisdiction of the agriculture ministry and minister.
Currently “we don't really fall under the agriculture ministry,” Taylor said. However, “we work very, very closely with them. They're great champions for us. Because in many ways, fish farmers are just like any other type of farmer. We worry about the weather, we worry about our animals. We worry about sales, we worry about market changes. Many (fish farmers) live on-site, and it's very much a lifestyle. So we (see) a lot of parallels between our sector and the wider agri-food sector.”
Although aquaculture is currently regulated more like an extractive natural resource, “we find a lot more like-minded and a lot more understanding within the agriculture ministry,” he added.
Another important aspect of developing the Aquaculture Act, particularly unique to Ontario “is the role of the Indigenous community in our sector,” Taylor said.
Rainbow trout is the province’s largest aquaculture commodity, with fish farming producing about 100 million meals of rainbow trout every year. Most of those fish are born in land-based hatcheries and then go to pen farms near Manitoulin Island, many of which operate in partnership with a First Nations community, Taylor explained.
In Ontario “we have some of those pen farms that operate with licences from the Ontario government through MNRF, and then some of them actually operate through licences issued from First Nations - through band council resolution,” he explained.
Most of these farms are certified through the best aquaculture practices certification that sets out high standards and criteria for aspects of the production like water quality, fish welfare, environmental stewardship, he added.
“One of the big things that we're hoping for in Ontario is that the federal government says, ‘Hey, there are all of these fish farms that operate on First Nations territory and are operating under licence from a First Nation, but not a licence from the province of Ontario.’ And we were asking that the federal government through Fisheries and Oceans Canada formally recognizes this as legitimate,” Taylor said.
Acknowledging the contributions of Indigenous communities in Ontario to aquaculture is an important step along the road to reconciliation, and would also allow those farms to qualify for federal funding and grant programs.
“The current government actually deemed aquaculture as a growth sector, specifically aquaculture in Northern Ontario, just because of all the opportunities that it brings to the north to Indigenous communities in rural areas,” Taylor added.
If federal regulation through the Aquaculture Act is developed thoughtfully, it can contribute to the continued growth of the sector. So far, the Canadian government has been consulting thoroughly with important stakeholders in the aquaculture industry, including engaging in lobby days with the federal aquaculture organization in February.
Ontario’s aquaculture production has the potential to double in the next five years, Taylor said. This includes both large-scale commercial seafood production as well as more “boutique” production for local consumption. The industry has taken a long-term, research-based approach to addressing concerns about issues such as the environmental impact of net pens.
“We have, just earlier this year, finally published a decade-long research study that DFO led that actually showed that net pen farms in a freshwater ecosystem similar to Georgian Bay, actually kickstart a very nutrient-deficient food web and cause an increase in population of fish all the way up the food chain,” he explained.
A federal Aquaculture Act could contribute to Ontario’s aquaculture sector continuing to thrive, Taylor added.
Windofchange64\iStock\Getty Images Plus photo