VANCOUVER – A unique relationship meant to reduce conflict between environmental groups and British Columbia’s largest salmon farming company has fallen apart.

The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform and Marine Harvest Canada confirmed Saturday that the project, known as the Framework for Dialogue, is officially over.

It appears the two sides could not agree on research related to sea lice and closed- containment farming. What remains unclear now is whether or not more conflict is coming to the often testy and confrontational debate over salmon farming.

“The industry growing salmon in British Columbia is continuing to improve,” said Clare Backman, a spokesman for Marine Harvest Canada.

“Along the road to improvement and reducing impacts, folks can find things to take issue with, and they’re gong to continue to do that. In terms of more conflict, I can’t say. It would depend on issues that people choose to take issue with.”

When it was signed Jan. 12, 2006, the Framework for Dialogue included nine environmental organizations and First Nations, as well as Marine Harvest.

Participants agreed to focus on the industry’s environmental, social and economic factors, reduce conflict, and change practices when information showed there was an impact on the environment and wild salmon.

But in recent years the membership dropped to just four environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Living Oceans Society, T. Buck Suzuki Foundation, as well as the company.

Backman said the company was informed of the coalition’s decision by letter last week.

But one environmental group said Marine Harvest had ceased to be an active member before the letter was sent.

“What we’ve found over time is they have pulled out of any significant joint work that could actually have any positive results,” said Ruby Berry, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Strait Alliance.

Berry pointed to research on sea lice, saying the coalition was still awaiting results on tests.

And a report contrasting the economics of raising salmon in closed-containment systems versus open-net farms in the ocean was only three-quarters complete, she added.

The company also cancelled a pilot project to build a closed-containment system, she said.

The decision to end the agreement has been in the works for some time, she said.

“We get tarred a lot for not caring about the economics of communities and the value of industry in our neighbourhoods and in the region,” said Berry.

“The attempt to collaborate with Marine Harvest was an attempt to reform the industry rather than to just throw it out because we recognize the value to the economy.”

Berry said that it’s unfortunate that the agreement wasn’t as effective as the coalition had hoped.

Meanwhile, the company said it has, like most farming operations, made incremental changes in its operations over time, reducing escapes, the use of antibiotics and the impact on the ocean floor.

But the coalition is not interested in incremental improvements because their key campaign issue is raising salmon in closed-containment systems, Backman said.

“What we were always aware of, of course, is that CARR was fundamentally opposed to growing salmon in nets in the ocean,” he said. “And so it was difficult to maintain the relationship with somebody whose basically opposed to your fundamental core business.”

Backman said closed-containment farming is expensive.

The company spent about $500,000 on preliminary engineering research for one pilot project and even selected a site but was forced to put work on hold when farmed-salmon prices dropped because of an oversupply in the market, said Backman.

He said the company plans to increase the use of closed-containment systems when it comes to growing salmon smolts and even larger fish before they are transferred to the ocean.

Each time the company makes changes, officials must re-evaluate the economics, the financial benefits and costs, he said.

Backman added that the company will continue to talk to the coalition’s groups individually.

According to its website, Marine Harvest produces about 40,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon in B.C. annually and employs about 500 people.

The province’s salmon farming industry is the fourth largest producer of farmed salmon in the world, and in 2009, 18 companies operated on 131 sites, according to B.C.’s Ministry of Environment.

Ninety-four per cent of the salmon farmed in the province are Atlantic salmon, with the remaining six per cent made up of Pacific salmon.

The provincial government reported that in 2010, the value of Atlantic farmed salmon was estimated at $470.3 million.

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