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Trust holds hatchery decision

Gulf Islands Driftwood, Thursday, January 30, 2003

By Gail Sjuberg

Salt Spring's Local Trust Committee (LTC) kept the rubber stamp at bay Saturday when it came to deciding whether or not to give its blessing to a 20-year lease for a Walker Hook sablefish hatchery. Before a standing-room-only crowd eager to learn more about the proposed hatchery and research facility, all three trustees - Kimberly Lineger, Eric Booth and David Essig - said they felt more than an afternoon was needed to make a decision on the issue. The application will now be referred to the LTC's Advisory Planning Commission and a public meeting held on the topic. While the technical application before the LTC had nothing to do with the political, ethical or scientific debates about aquaculture, the public turnout and questions pushed discussion in that direction.

Chris Acheson, a Salt Spring sablefish fisherman and president of the Canadian Sablefish Association, touched on some of those threads in addressing the LTC as a delegation speaker. He said the project's intended size was such that it could affect the whole coast. That would occur if the hatchery's products were sold to open-net fish farms which the CSA sees as inevitably damaging to the wild stocks. Acheson described the company as a "high-risk venture capital organization" and posed questions such as how the water used in the hatchery would be disposed of, along with the fish waste. "This project is not consistent with what Salt Spring stands for," he said. "This project is high risk . . . and it doesn't fit in with our community." He also proposed a moratorium on aquaculture in the entire Islands Trust area.

Gidon Minkoff, of Sablefin Hatcheries Ltd., was asked to outline the company's plans. He said the project is not "a fish farm" since it will produce fingerlings. Sablefish, or black cod, would not be raised in the sea off Walker Hook, he added, and no effluent would end up in the ocean. The plan sees salt water pumped to the facilities and wastewater discharged into septic fields, he said. While acknowledging that salmon farming is a controversial issue in B.C., Minkoff said a marine fish hatchery was very different. However, when Booth asked where the fingerlings would end up, Minkoff said they would be "farmed" - without specifying if that would be in open-net or land-based sablefish farms. He noted there is currently "a big drive to go into land-based systems." "We are talking to a number of interested parties in this and I think it will be small mom and pop operations," he said. "I have a feeling the big fish farming groups won't be very keen on this right now because they are concerned it is risky." Methods used in hatcheries of this kind were developed in the late 1960s in Japan, he said.

John Gauld, the Trust's regional planning manager who has dealt with Sablefin Hatcheries Ltd. on the matter, pointed out that the Agricultural Land Commission would probably approve the subdivision, which is on Henry Caldwell's property, with or without Trust sanction. Since the proposal conforms to the letter of the Salt Spring Official Community Plan and the land's agricultural zoning - which both allow land-based aquaculture - and the Trust is only a referral agency, the LTC has no power to halt the plan. Some conditions concerning an unstable slope development permit area, potable water and protection of the Walker Hook tombolo do apply.

Islander Julia Hengstler said she was disturbed at the notion that the LTC should support an application just because it would likely be approved by higher-up government agencies and urged more time so the Trust could make "a wise decision." Trustees agreed with her and others who pressed for more breathing room. Beyond the subdivision application itself, Lineger said the whole issue of what the community and Trust-wide area wants in terms of aquaculture and industrial agriculture should be examined. "I think the issue is larger in the community, as Kimberly suggested, than just a simple referral," said committee chair Essig. "It's obvious we need to have a good clearing of the air."

Minkoff said he was interested in doing a public presentation on the project. Booth also raised the possibility that the community could be interested in purchasing Caldwell's Walker Hook property, considered one of the most beautiful on the island. The Trust report notes the OCP cites the Walker Hook tombolo as an environmentally sensitive ecosystem and "a primary recreational or scenic area for parkland acquisition through the subdivision process." A copy of the staff report on the subdivision-hatchery issue can be viewed at the Ganges Trust office.

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