But it appears confusion surrounding DFO licensing policy may have hindered efforts to recapture the 40,000 Atlantics that escaped Marine Harvest’s Port Elizabeth farm last month. Reports say thousands of the escaped fish schooled just outside the fish farm pens for hours on Oct. 21 but the fish had largely dispersed by the time Marine Harvest brought a seiner up from Campbell River the following afternoon. Marine Harvest said another seiner already on scene was not asked to attempt recapture because it was not approved on the company’s ZZA license. Less than 1,200 of the escaped fish were recaptured.
Andrew Thomson, DFO’s Pacific Region director of aquaculture management, says the ZZA licence was created to allow companies to begin recapture immediately, without the need to contact DFO for permission to fish.
"(For) example, if there was an escape in the middle of the night, it’s very difficult of course, to get a hold of somebody from Fisheries and Oceans to allow for a recapture fishery to occur," he said. "They have this licence in hand and can action a fishery without that permission because we’ve already pre-authorized it."
Thomson said the ZZA licence allows for one pre-authorized seine boat to fish within one nautical mile of the escape site, within 24 hours of the escape. The seiner must have a live brailling ability – the capacity to separate and release any wild fish that may be caught, known as ‘by-catch’.
But he said regulations around recapture efforts are more flexible than some people, or fish farm companies might understand.
"We have the ability to issue a fishing permit as a special collection permit to allow recapture of fish, when requested to do so," he said. "The other thing we can do is upon request we can change the conditions of the ZZA, if Fisheries and Oceans feels there’s not much chance of an impact to wild stocks and if the company that’s applying thinks there’s a reasonable chance for recapture of farm fish."
So Marine Harvest could have asked for a change in the conditions of its ZZA licence.
"Certainly, there is that mechanism to do so," Thomson said. "I’m not sure if the company understood that or not, but there is more flexibility in the system than maybe some people understand. In a case beyond the conditions of the ZZA licence, we do have to assess whether there’s going to be an impact to wild stocks. That’s our primary concern. Recapture is a good thing but we don’t want to do it and impact a lot of wild stock."
On Monday, Marine Harvest’s Clare Backman said he hadn’t yet had a chance to talk to Thomson about that "so (I) really can’t comment on that until we’ve had an opportunity to go through it with DFO.
"We’ve asked for some meetings in that regard so we’re looking forward to going through all that with them," he told the Courier-Islander.
Thomson said DFO is open to improvements. "If there’s better ways of getting at the problem without incurring an impact to wild resources, that’s exactly what we want to be doing," he said.
The irony of the situation is not lost on biologist Alexandra Morton. She see’s Marine Harvest’s interpretation of the ZZA licence as a hindrance to the recapture of the Port Elizabeth escapees, while DFO describes the ZZA licence as a means to assist recapture efforts.
"Like every other experience I’ve had around salmon farms and Fisheries Act infractions, it’s very confusing," she said. "Nobody really seems to know what’s going on.
"My question again to Marine Harvest is did you really do your best to get these fish back or was it that you did not want them back? What I’m hearing right now is that Marine Harvest could have recovered these fish and did not. I really encourage DFO to investigate this and think about laying some charges because that is how you get people to comply with the law."