Cage Aquaculture Licenses: Fishy Public Consultation

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Along the picturesque shores of Georgian Bay, float a number of cages used to raise rainbow trout. Cage aquaculture is a method of fish farming that involves growing fish in cages or “net pens” suspended in a lake, river or ocean. Rainbow trout aquaculture started in this area in 1982 and accounts for approximately 75 per cent of Ontario’s trout production. There are ten sites in Georgian Bay that use large marine-type cages, typically between 6 and 20 cages per operation. While Ontario allows cage aquaculture operations in the Great Lakes, most natural resource agencies in the United States do not allow or promote cage culture in public waters. Cage aquaculture in waters over public land, such as the Great Lakes, is controversial because of the potential impacts on local water quality, native fish species and the aquatic ecosystem.

Untreated waste, such as fish feces, uneaten food and medications, can flow from the cages into the lake or river and negatively affect water quality. Researchers estimated that the annual loadings in the North Channel of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay from cage aquaculture included 15 tonnes of phosphorus, 90 tonnes of nitrogen and 500 tonnes of solid waste in 1999. The native aquatic community can also be disturbed by cage aquaculture operations, mostly from fish that escape from the aquaculture facility. For example, there can be ecological harm through introduction of farmed fish that are not indigenous to the area; loss of genetic fitness of indigenous fish through interbreeding with farmed fish; spread of fish pathogens to natural populations; and loss or degradation of fish habitat including eutrophication or increased sediment in the bottom of the lake. Many shoreline residents and non-government organizations strongly oppose cage aquaculture in the Great Lakes.

The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) issues licences to cage aquaculture operators under O. Reg. 664/98 (Fish Licensing) of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997 (FWCA). Cage aquaculture licences are prescribed instruments under the EBR. MNR is required to post aquaculture licence proposals on the Environmental Registry for full public consultation if the operator is required to submit a detailed ecological risk analysis to MNR or if the operation is in water covering Crown Land (e.g., the Great Lakes). A risk analysis is used to determine what effect escaped fish might have on the ecology and genetics of the fish that live in the receiving waters. Under the EBR, there is no requirement to post fish licences for cage aquaculture operations on private land.

Despite these licences being prescribed instruments, it is MNR’s position that EBR provisions for consultation or appeal do not apply to licences for cage aquaculture in the Great Lakes or over Crown Land. For these types of operations, MNR applies its Class Environmental Assessment for Resource Stewardship and Facility Development (Class EA), under the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) to issue licences. Ministries are exempt from EBR consultation and appeal provisions if an instrument is part of a project approved under the EAA. Additionally, MNR’s policies direct that a detailed ecological risk analysis is only required in exceptional circumstances.

Since 2004, MNR has only posted one aquaculture licence on the Environmental Registry as an instrument proposal; instead, it used information notices with comment periods for 11 new and amendments to existing licences. In March 2010, MNR posted four of these information notices on the Environmental Registry for the reissuance of aquaculture licences in Georgian Bay and around Manitoulin Island (Environmental Registry #010-9601, #010- 9361, #010-9362 and #010-9363). In all four cases, MNR classified the aquaculture licences as Category A projects – indicating their potential for low negative environmental effects and public or agency concern – under its Class EA. Category A projects are intended to include minor administrative procedures, low intensity facility development and routine resource stewardship projects. Furthermore, as identified within the Class EA, public consultation, project evaluation or environmental study reports are not required for this project classification.

In our 2004/2005 Annual Report, the ECO criticized MNR for “ignoring the spirit of the EBR and failing to provide full public consultation on most … aquaculture licences, despite growing public interest and despite the clear intent of the EBR’s O. Reg. 681/94, Classification of Proposals for Instruments.” If MNR continued to exempt Great Lakes cage aquaculture from EBR instrument requirements, the ECO also encouraged MNR to revise O. Reg. 681/94, after full public consultation and recommended that MNR develop transparent and accountable processes related to approvals. Significant differences exist between regular proposal notices posted on the Environmental Registry and information notices. With regular proposal notices, a ministry is required to consider public comments and post a decision notice explaining the effect of comments on the ministry’s decision (for more information on information notices, see Part 9.3 of this Annual Report).

The ECO is seriously concerned that MNR continues to classify cage aquaculture licences in the category of lowest concern, given longstanding public anxiety with cage aquaculture in the Great Lakes and the potentially damaging impacts to the aquatic environment. By MNR classifying cage aquaculture projects as Category A, MNR absolves itself of all public consultation requirements when issuing licences, through its Class EA process and through the EBR. The ECO is disappointed that – five years later – MNR continues to circumvent the essence of the EBR without a revision to O. Reg. 681/94 or addressing cage aquaculture approval consultation weaknesses. The public deserves better public consultation on cage aquaculture licences in the Great Lakes.

In 2004, MNR identified a forthcoming policy to guide aquaculture on Crown Land in its aquaculture policy statement (FisPo.9.1.1.). Unfortunately, as of March 2010, MNR has not released its policy for aquaculture on Crown Land for public consultation. MNR has, however reposted a proposal on the Environmental Registry for its Coordinated Application, Review and Decision Guidelines for Cage Aquaculture Sites in Ontario under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997 and regulations. The ECO will report on this proposal in a future annual report.

This is an article from the 2009/10 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2010. "Cage Aquaculture Licenses: Fishy Public Consultation." Redefining Conservation, ECO Annual Report, 2009/10. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 191-3.