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Policies needed to spur growth of fish farming industry, association head says (7/03)

Like a school of fish, northern aquaculture operators and processors are finding protection in numbers by banding together to form a united front to promote the region's fish farming industry.

Like a school of fish, northern aquaculture operators and processors are finding protection in numbers by banding together to form a united front to promote the region's fish farming industry.

The Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association, which represents over 13 fish farmers and processors in the North, was formed this past spring to assist with the growth of this underdeveloped sector.

Manitoulin Island's Mike Meeker, a fish farmer and the new association's president, says with so much misinformation about aquaculture being spread about by environmental groups, it is high time to take the offensive.

"We haven't in the past and that's been one of our biggest problems," says Meeker, who operates MTM Aquaculture, a 10-cage fish farm at Lake Wosley on Manitoulin Island where he has been raising rainbow trout since 1986. As the first fish farmer on the island, he produces about 350 to 400 tons of trout a year.

Meeker says environmental groups are well funded and organized and are extremely adept at lobbying and knowing where to exert political pressure.

"We're just a bunch of fish farmers and our executive directors are volunteers with businesses to run," Meeker says.

The group was formed in March with $157,500 worth of startup money from FedNor and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. The balance of the $265,000 project came from fish farmers, processors, supply companies, the Northeastern Manitoulin and Islands Community Development Corp. and the LaCloche Manitoulin Business Assistance Corp. On Manitoulin Island, fish farming represents one of the area's largest employers after tourism and conventional farming, and provides about 100 direct full-time jobs.

Tracey, a former Manitoulin fish broker and vice-president of sales for Coldwater Fisheries, has been hired as the association's full-time co-ordinator and has opened an office in Little Current.

Her responsibilities are to act as a media and government liaison organizing tours and promoting various initiatives, research projects and issues related to cage culture fish farming. "Because cage culture has specific issues, we decided it would be more efficient to deal with our own problems with government by forming our own organization," says Meeker, who also serves as vice-president of the Ontario Aquaculture Association.

The association also intends to provide guidelines for those wanting to get into the business, says Meeker.

In the past, fish farms on Manitoulin Island and nearby MacGregor Bay have been hotspots for friction between operators and cottage owners. "We've learned a lot in this industry as to what constitutes a good site for a caged culture operation, and that's a learning process," says Meeker.

With commercial fisheries in distress all over the world, there are market opportunities abound for North American operators. Meeker says when he started his business in the mid-1980s, fish farming supplied three to five per cent of the world's fish consumption. Global over-fishing and fisheries mismanagement of saltwater fisheries pushed that beyond 50 per cent. Though he has no intentions of expanding his operation, Meeker calls the more than 4,000 tonnes of fish produced by Ontario fish farms "a joke" considering the fresh water sites available.

Yet despite serving on many provincial aquaculture committees, Meeker says few efforts have been made to grow the industry.

Though there is quite a bit of government ministerial overlap in areas of water quality, fish habitat and farming, Meeker says it is not as frustrating as trying to determine what the rules are.

"There have been companies up here attempting to get permits for new sites and for one reason or another that's very confusing; they haven't been able to proceed."

Meeker says little headway with the government has been made in dealing with long-standing issues of water quality guidelines, addressing public criticisms and complaints, and breaking down barriers to expand the industry.

"That's the biggest complaint our members have from all over the province, there's no coherent provincial policy."

Meeker is encouraged the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are drafting a detailed plan for the development of aquaculture across Canada over the next decade.

"My personal feeling is we should be under the jurisdiction of DFO. They're getting a much stronger presence in Ontario and they understand the aquaculture industry significantly better than the Ministry of Natural Resources."

Mark Muschett, a Ministry of Natural Resources fish culture policy planner in Peterborough, says it is not his ministry's job to be industry promoters, but to act as facilitators and ensure that mandatory environmental legislative requirements are being followed.

"Our role is to ensure sustainability objectives are being met," says Muschett. "We feel we do have a water monitoring program that would catch a problem before it became serious."

Muschett says it is not ministry practice to pre-identify suitable sites.

It is up to the industry to find promising sites and then approach the regulatory agencies to work with them through the environmental planning process. That is why he supports a cage culture association in Northern Ontario.

"The concept of the industry being proactive in supporting best management practices is something we're supportive of," Muschett says.

Muschett adds heightened public sensitivity about fish farming, combined with Aboriginal land claims underway in Lake Huron's North Channel has made for a "fairly complicated environment" for the ministry to deal with.

However that does not mean there is an anti-fish culture bias within the ministry, but rather a "precautionary approach."

"There are a lot of processes to go through," Muschett says. "In order to issue an aquaculture licence we have to satisfy requirements under the Environmental Bill of Rights and Environment Assessment Act. That means a lot of questions and data, which can be perceived as a roadblock.

"We're definitely working with the Ministry of Environment and Department of Fisheries and Oceans to try and better co-ordinate and harmonize our processes."

These regulatory agencies plan on producing a document outlining steps for prospective fish farmers to enable them to satisfy all environmental requirements.

"We are supportive of sustainable growth on the industry and we'll continue to work with all the regulatory agencies to streamline the process as much as possible and allow people to have that clear process to go through to get sites in the water."