OTTAWA -- A Federal Court judge has suspended a ban on restocking three fish farms in British Columbia's Discovery Islands.

Justice Peter George Pamel says in an April 5 decision that Mowi Canada West and Saltstream will suffer real and irreparable harm if they aren't allowed to restock farms located at Doctor Bay, Phillips Arm and off Hardwicke Island.

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan announced in December that 19 fish farms in the area would be phased out by July 2022 and that no new fish could be transferred to the farms in the interim.

The decision says the companies claim the transfer of fish is a vital part of operating under their aquaculture licences, and they would agree to remove the fish when their licences expire, unless a proposed judicial review of the decision changes anything.

The judge says Atlantic salmon farming involves a five-year cycle, making it extremely difficult if not impossible to deal with unexpected upheavals without serious results.

No one from the Fisheries Department was immediately available for comment on the court's decision.

Pamel says the consequences for local communities and businesses outweigh any evidence he heard on environmental impact, which was limited to a Fisheries Department finding that the farms pose “no more than a minimal risk” to wild stocks.

“The harm to Mowi and Saltstream, as well as their employees, their families and other businesses in the community, in particular First Nations businesses, will be real and substantial if the injunction is not granted,” Pamel says in the decision.

“In these most trying of times, given how Canadians are looking to navigate the realities of the global pandemic, these factors outweigh the public interest factors.”

The court heard that Mowi would suffer losses of about $26 million, lay off at least 78 people and cancel local contracts if it was forced to cull 1.18 million salmon smolts instead of transferring them to the Discovery Island farms.

The companies had essentially argued to “turn back the clock” so that their restocking applications could be considered under the same criteria that existed before the minister made her phase-out decision, the ruling says.

In January, several fish farms applied for a judicial review challenging the minister's decision to phase out farms in the Discovery Islands and restrict the transfer of live fish to the farms during that phase-out period.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2021.