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Framework for Aquaculture Risk Management


Global demand for fish and seafood as a high-protein food source has increased significantly in the last decades. This demand is projected to increase as the world’s population continues to grow. With pressures on global fish stocks, aquaculture is recognized as having a valuable contribution to food security while reducing pressure on wild fish stocks. Ensuring the environmental sustainability of Canada’s aquatic resources requires a robust regulatory structure and a suite of policies to guide decision-making.

In Canada, the management of aquaculture is a shared jurisdiction between the federal, provincial, and territorial governments. Each jurisdiction has specific regulatory requirements, mitigation measures and risk tolerances, as outlined in specific legislation and regulations. Federally, in addition to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), departments and agencies such as Environment and Climate Change Canada, Health Canada, Transport Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also have regulatory responsibilities and make decisions on aquaculture.

Four key pieces of federal legislation apply to fisheries, including aquaculture: the Fisheries Act, the Coastal Fisheries Protection Act, the Oceans Act and the Species at Risk Act. Consequently, DFO’s mandate requires the consideration of the biodiversity within the ecosystem, and the habitat and productivity of fish species.

Ensuring the sustainable management of fisheries resources is supported through a well-defined risk management framework, one with a clear understanding of unacceptable harm, embraces the precautionary approach where uncertainty and risk of serious impacts exists, and clearly communicates underlying policies, management objectives and decisions. The purpose of this document is to describe DFO’s aquaculture-specific risk management framework, the Framework for Aquaculture Risk Management (FARM).

Objectives for sustainable aquaculture

The Department’s goal is to protect wild fish and their habitats using tools like avoidance, mitigation, monitoring, compliance and remediation approaches to reduce possible impacts to the environment. In this context, we seek to create the conditions for a sustainable aquaculture industry across Canada that also protects aquatic ecosystems and wild fish populations.

The threshold for unacceptable harm to fish or fish habitat is any aquaculture activity that is anticipated to cause population-level detrimental effects to fish populations. However, in making specific aquaculture decisions, the management objective is to avoid and/or mitigate effects on fish and fish habitat well below this threshold (i.e. at an “intervention threshold” similar to the upper stock reference pointof the Sustainable Fisheries Framework). Considerations include local environmental conditions, status of local populations, the scale and intensity of the activity, and predicted effects on habitats, particularly those that have specific functions for fish populations (i.e., nursery grounds, spawning grounds, forage grounds, etc). This level of harm avoidance is similar to fishery harvest control rules and avoiding the lower stock reference point in managing fish stocks, which if exceeded may result in population impacts (A Harvest Strategy Consistent with the Precautionary Approach). It is also aligned with the avoidance of population level effects for managing species at risk (Guidance on Assessing Threats, Ecological Risk and Ecological Impacts for Species at Risk [PDF - 512 KB]).

The FARM clearly describes how DFO will consistently carry out its responsibilities under the Fisheries Act, Coastal Fisheries Protection Act, Species at Risk Act, and Oceans Act as they relate to aquaculture.

Background to the development of the Framework for Aquaculture Risk Management

On December 10, 2018, the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard presented a new vision for aquaculture in Canada and announced the implementation of an area-based approach that would complement a risk-based decision-making framework for aquaculture. These tools support how the precautionary approach guides DFO’s decision-making.

The FARM was designed to be consistent with the Sustainable Fisheries Framework (SFF). It is intended to be the overarching framework for future policies and tools related to the science-based management of aquaculture. The SFF provides the foundation for an ecosystem-based and precautionary approach to fisheries management in Canada, and provides the basis for ensuring Canadian fisheries are managed in a manner which supports conservation and sustainable use of fisheries resourcesFootnote 1. The FARM and associated polices consider and include similar language, approaches and principles as the SFF, to the extent possible, and also support conservation and sustainable use of the ecosystems where aquaculture facilities are located.

DFO’s Framework for Aquaculture Risk Management

The framework provides a consistent, predictable process to assess the risks and options for avoidance, mitigation or other management measures available to reduce the risks relative to specific objectives for the environment in which the aquaculture activity will be located.

There are six major elements in the Department’s approach to managing the environmental risks that may arise in association with aquaculture activities (Figure 1).

  1. Objectives are driven by legislation, intergovernmental and international agreements, and considers ecological knowledge, cultural and societal values, economic goals, and are informed by Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and other local knowledge.

    While the desired level of protection may be aimed at fish populations in general, each defined objective will have to consider unique local spatial and temporal elements. These specific objectives as it relates to different decisions and policies will be clearly communicated and posted on DFO’s website.

  2. Issue identification considers the aquaculture-related activity, the associated stressors and predicted possible effects, using the scientifically peer-reviewed Aquaculture Pathways of Effects (Pathways of Effects for Finfish and Shellfish Aquaculture). Additionally, new issues for assessment are identified through the results of scientific research or monitoring, through new information on environmental changes, including climate change, or through public engagement. Feedback from the implementation of risk management strategies, monitoring and evaluation activities through a formal performance evaluation of the efficacy of the risk management strategies can also identify issues to be managed.

    The communication of identified issues occurs through the publication of policies, scientific results, and Departmental research priorities.

    In British Columbia, Integrated Management of Aquaculture Plans are used for stakeholder engagement and identification of aquaculture-related issues. Going forward, we will look to build and improve on this process for involving stakeholders.

  3. Scientific advice and scientific risk assessments provide peer-reviewed science advice on the scale and potential effects of predicted impacts on fish and fish habitat, mitigation measures, regulatory tools, etc (Examples of Aquaculture Related Advice). Scientific risk assessments are comprised of the scientific characterization of the likelihood and consequences of an activity; and assessment of the overall risk to a specific ecosystem component, based on the current state of knowledge that has been peer-reviewed by scientific and technical experts, and includes the identification of areas, magnitude and type of uncertainty (Aquaculture Environmental Risk Assessment Initiative).

  4. Risk analysis evaluates the broad range of social, cultural, legal, economic and scientific information, in the context of legal requirements and management objectives, to inform risk management approaches.

  5. Risk management includes the evaluation and selection of avoidance, mitigation, or other management measures, the use of the precautionary approach where there is scientific uncertainty, the selection of a risk management strategy, an assessment of the residual risks, and the implementation of the risk management strategy.

  6. Monitoring and evaluation of the activity is achieved through compliance monitoring, environmental monitoring, research, regulatory reporting and Compliance and Enforcement activities. This information is used in the issue identification step in support of adaptive management activities and the re-evaluation of risks and mitigation practices.
Figure 1: Framework for Aquaculture Risk Management

Objectives, including ecosystem, key species, cultural, social, economic legislation and treaty and international obligations.

Next is issue identification, including re-evaluation of prior decisions, new science, evaluation of monitoring results, scale of issue, and site assessment or reassessment and component(s) to be assessed.

Next is science advice, including scientific risk, impact assessment, uncertainties, mitigation options and monitoring tools.

Next is risk analysis, including legal obligations, science advice (from prior step), social/cultural advice/input and economic advice.

Next is risk management, including mitigation options (includes cost benefit analysis), uncertainty (predicted impacts and precaution), selection of risk management strategy (local considerations, scale of activity, uncertainty), final risk determination, and implementation of risk management strategy.

Next is monitoring and evaluation, including compliance and enforcement, surveys and audits and reporting requirements.

Feedback from this process includes data and information from research, monitoring, etc. to inform objectives, issues, advice, etc.

Internal and external communication of issues, linkages, risks, mitigation measures, etc.

Public posting of objectives including policies, research projects and policies, CSAS peer reviewed advice, risk analysis published as part of decision, operation policies, regulatory tools and decisions, and public reporting.

The effectiveness of the FARM requires continuous communication and feedback. It also includes adapting our management approaches to consider such things as, the results from environmental monitoring, scientific advice, routine re-evaluation, and new technologies. The development of new polices and management approaches, such as area-based management, will be informed by the evaluation of the efficacy of current and previous mitigation measures to manage environmental risks.

Consistent with the Government of Canada’s policy on Open Government and a commitment to increased transparency in how aquaculture decisions are made within the Department, additional information that supports the implementation of the FARM will be made public on DFO’s website. This includes the publication of policies, scientific results, research priorities, scientific advice, operational polices, regulatory tools, management decisions and public reporting of regulatory compliance and regulatory reporting data.

Aquaculture risk management

Risk considers how likely an event is to occur (likelihood) and the severity of the potential environmental impact (consequence) should that event occur. For fisheries, the management of this risk is primarily through using decision rules focused on complying with pre-specified reference points for a fishery. In the aquaculture context, there are opportunities to manage risks at every decision-making stage. Adaptive management is informed by the results from compliance and audit monitoring, research, and science advice. This creates the ability to apply additional mitigation measures prior to the activity to address any risk of environmental or ecosystem impacts.

The level of acceptable risk is related to the status of the fish and habitat found in the local area where aquaculture is proposed or operating.


There will always be a level of uncertainty when predicting impacts and how likely they are to occur for a specific activity. The uncertainty may be associated with the quantity, quality, and relevance of the data being used in this analysis. Additionally, there are uncertainties because of natural variability, that different environments respond differently to stressors, as well as in the level of scientific understanding of complex processes and interactions. When analyzing data, including environmental monitoring and fisheries data, we need to consider how errors in sampling, estimation, and measurement contribute to uncertainty, and whether this will increase or decrease the overall risk estimate.

Where there is greater uncertainty, we may have less confidence in our ability to accurately predict impacts and risk. Management measures may be effective at reducing the uncertainties and reducing the overall risk estimate.

Inclusion of the precautionary approach in aquaculture decision making

DFO applies precaution during the risk management step of the FARM, when delivering its regulatory and legislative responsibilities for aquaculture.

When the uncertainty impacts our understanding of either the likelihood or the impacts so that the predicted risk is too high, DFO can look at mitigation measures and assess if these measures reduce the risk or reduce the uncertainty. For mitigation measures to be effective, they must be reasonably expected to lower the likelihood or reduce the impact. The final risk is determined after these mitigation measures are applied, evaluating the risk to the aquatic ecosystem.

The document Fisheries and Oceans’ Management of Aquaculture and the Application of the Precautionary Approach provides more details on how we apply the precautionary approach.

Further details on aquaculture activities, stressors and the effects on different ecosystem components can be found in the document Overview of the Aquaculture Pathways of Effects Tool for Assessing Aquaculture Impacts.The document Framework for Aquaculture Risk Management: Application of the Aquaculture Pathways of Effects in Aquaculture Activities Decisions describes management tools for avoiding, mitigating, monitoring or managing these effects.

Future policies and implementation plans

The FARM sets out a consistent process for evaluating aquaculture activities. The FARM process integrates concepts, such as the precautionary approach. In order to implement this process, new policies and procedures for future management approaches will need to be developed.

To effectively manage aquaculture, we’ll need additional science advice, continued consideration of socio-economic factors, effective co-management with provincial governments, integration of Indigenous Knowledge and other forms of local knowledge.

Indigenous peoples have unique knowledge about their local environments and how they function. This knowledge is an important part of project planning and resource management. The application of Indigenous Knowledge contributes to the FARM elements of setting objectives for an area, identifying issues and potential environmental effects. This is consistent with the work to develop of specific area-based management plans.

We continue to develop policy and assessment tools, such as:

  • regional implementation pans by sector
  • science-based national standards, including siting criteria
  • area-based management models, such as the one piloted in BC
  • science-based post-deposit monitoring program for drugs and pesticides
  • pathogen-specific risk assessments to support new regulatory requirements
  • integrated federal drug and pesticide assessment model for pest and pathogen treatments at aquaculture farms
  • integration of Indigenous Knowledge and other local knowledge into FARM process, in a manner that is consistent with other departmental approaches

To ensure the sustainable management of fisheries resources, we must share information on the risks to fish and fish habitat, the decisions that are made, and what information was used in making decisions related to aquaculture.

The sustainable management of aquaculture relies on including decisions taken under the FARM and the SFF. We will continue to develop this process and communicate it through policy documents.

Overview of Federal-Provincial-Territorial Management Aquaculture

Overview of Federal-Provincial-Territorial management of aquaculture
Overview of Federal-Provincial-Territorial management of aquaculture
Long description

How fisheries farming is managed in Canada.

Fish farming is managed by federal, provincial and territorial governments.

How it’s managed varies across provinces and territories.

Management of site approval (determining where a farm can be located) is shared in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island. It is managed provincially in the rest of Canada.

Land management (overseeing the land/seabed where a farm is located) is shared in Prince Edward Island, and managed provincially in the rest of Canada.

Day to day operations and oversight (monitoring of farm activities) is managed federally in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island. It is managed provincially in the rest of Canada.

Introductions and transfers (managing the planned movement of live eggs and fish) is shared in all of Canada.

Drugs and pesticide approvals (determining which drugs and pesticides are approved for use) is a shared management activity in all of Canada.

Food safety (monitoring and ensuring the safety and quality of fish harvested and sold in Canada and international markets) is managed federally in all of Canada.

Evaluation of the Framework for Aquaculture Risk Management

Once we implement the FARM, we’ll conduct an evaluation every five years to see how it meets its objectives.

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