First Nations fight BC fish farm closures

Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai Nations take the federal government to court while Ottawa delays a decision on their salmon farming operations.

Councillor Isaiah Robinson, Chief Chris Roberts and Dallas Smith at the Indigenous Partnerships Success Showcase (IPSS) in June 2023. Photo from IPSS.

Ottawa’s latest delay of its plan to ban open-net ocean salmon farming in BC has been hailed by both proponents and opponents of open-net aquaculture.

The industry and some First Nations say it gives federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray a chance to finally get it right — by accepting her own scientists who say farms pose “minimal risk” to wild salmon and by accepting that a number of First Nations support salmon aquaculture.

Seventeen First Nations in BC have formal agreements with salmon farming companies, yet Ottawa has already torpedoed 19 salmon farms in BC ocean waters. Now at stake are 57 remaining salmon farms and 79 federal salmon farming licenses.

Opponents of salmon farming (also including some First Nations) hope Ottawa’s new delay will end with the federal government banning all other open-net farms and ordering a transition to land-based aquaculture.

Ottawa has long spoken of developing a plan for a “transition” to some other form of salmon farming in BC, perhaps on land, perhaps in the ocean, by 2025.

But a BC government report says regulatory uncertainty, high capital cost, and low returns on investment are primary restraints on alternative forms of salmon farming in BC.

One BC government expert says it would probably take seven to ten years to “build something that works” on land. Meanwhile, a BC pioneer of land-based aquaculture says: “There is simply not enough power available to do large-scale land-based salmon farming in BC and that is the biggest hurdle.”

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) announced the latest federal delay in early June: "To respond to requests from First Nations and others, we have extended consultation on the open-net pen aquaculture transition to all interested parties through the summer. The transition plan will be shared in due course."

Isaiah Robinson, elected councillor and economic development head for the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation in BC, said he’s not confident the extra time will make any difference in Fisheries Minister Murray’s approach.

“I’ve interacted with her many times in the last two years since we’ve had this situation, and knowing her and those discussions, her decision has already been made. . . She’s on a warpath and she just wants to get this over with.”

The Kitasoo Xai'xais Nation at Klemtu on the central coast holds six of the 79 salmon farming licenses that could be in danger. Its smoked salmon is even sold in Walmart stores across Canada.

Councillor Robinson says salmon farms in Kitasoo Xai’xais territory account for $1.7 million in annual revenue, comprising more than half of an economy of $3 million.

“If 51 per cent of our economy is gone, how are these people going to pay for new mortgages, for food, for all these other things we’re hoping to do as a community? It’s concerning for us all in trying to run a business in remote communities.”

At some point, Ottawa will also hear from the courts on the issue. Two First Nations, and the salmon farming industry, have taken the federal government to court — for the second time.

The saga began in December 2020 when the then minister of fisheries and oceans, Bernadette Jordan, decreed that open-net salmon farms in the Discovery Islands region near Campbell River BC must be phased out, and she would not renew their licences. She said she had consulted with seven First Nations, including the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum.

Salmon farm operators Mowi Canada West, Cermaq Canada and Grieg Seafood applied for a judicial review of then Minister Jordan’s order that prevented them from restocking their farms. They argued the order lacked reasons and failed to show “an appreciation of the facts." They also said they’d be forced into losses and layoffs and would have to kill young fish that were currently being raised to go to the farms.

In April last year, a federal court judge set aside Jordan’s order. Justice Elizabeth Heneghan ruled that the minister had committed “a breach of procedural fairness” by announcing the closures via a news release.

But then, Jordan’s replacement as minister, Joyce Murray, challenging her department’s scientists, ruled in June 2022 that the farms would indeed be banned — as a “precautionary measure” — although she would renew licences for two years.

Now the elected councils of the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai Nations have launched a second court challenge to Ottawa, following the decision of Minister Murray. So has salmon farm operator Mowi Canada West.

Meanwhile, the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai had been working with Cermaq Canada on new environmental rules and procedures for seven open-net farms in the Discovery Islands region in the two Nations’ territory.

An aquatic science biologist releases an Atlantic salmon back into its tank during a DFO fish health audit near Campbell River, BC. Photo from The Canadian Press.

Chris Roberts, elected chief councillor of Wei Wai Kum Nation, said: “Of the seven sites we identified, we were going to start out with one. . . There was an agreement for a more stringent threshold for sea-lice levels. . . It was never a proposal that said, ‘Please allow these seven sites to continue because we’re comfortable with how that goes.’”

The fisheries minister said no. The farms would stay closed.

Chief Roberts said he’s now worried that Ottawa will limit other types of development for his people. “We’re interested in kelp; we’re interested in other types of shellfish. There’s tons of marine related activity. So is there going to be this high standard that our territory is going to be managed for some reason? It’s never really been scientifically proven, why our territory is such a critical one for Fraser sockeye, but that’s the excuse we’re getting. That’s really concerning for us.”

Chief Councillor Ronnie Chickite of the Wei Wai Kai says: “This court challenge is not about whether we support fish farming or not – it is about our inherent right as title holders to decide how our territory is used, and determine for ourselves if, when, and how fish farms could operate in the future.

“We strongly believe the minister’s decision to not reissue licences in our territories was a political decision heavily influenced by nations who do not have title in our territory.”

Later, a petition signed by more than 100 of the We Wai Kai band’s 1,200 members emerged, saying they “declare our opposition to the actions of the elected leadership” and  “do not want the fish farms within our territory.”

First Nations are indeed divided on salmon farming. The BC First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, for example, calls for a switch to land-based aquaculture and accused the farms of contributing to the collapse of wild Fraser River salmon stocks. They said sea lice and other pathogens transfer from the farms to migrating juvenile wild salmon as they swim past the farms en route to the open ocean.

Nonetheless, despite the alliance and the opinion of its minister, the DFO’s own scientists determined the farms were of “minimal risk” to Fraser River salmon — based on nine separate peer-reviewed risk assessments.

The debate on the science continues, with 16 Canadian fish scientists claiming that the DFO’s internal science report was manipulated and that its data was “cherry-picked.”

More recently, a new study of Scottish salmon farms found they have nothing to do with declining wild salmon stocks. And author Dr. Martin Jaffa told BC’s SeaWest News: “If the salmon farms and sea lice in European waters have no impact on wild stocks here, one can expect them to be the same in the Pacific Northwest.”

Meanwhile, the economic impacts are being felt by coastal communities.

The BC Salmon Farmers Association called Murray’s decision to terminate 19 ocean farms “devastating” and protested: “The federal government continues to demonstrate a lack of care for rural coastal communities and continues to put the interests of activists above the people who grow Canada’s food.”

The First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS) coalition likewise protested that federal decisions are resulting in the loss of investment, incomes and jobs – many of which are held by members of Indigenous communities.

“We hope people ask, consider and respect whose territories those 57 remaining salmon farms are operating in,” said the FNFFS. “Those Nations have the right as title holders to decide how their territory is used, and determine if, when and how fish farms operate in their waters.”

The coalition asked: “Ottawa, do you see us? The social cost of closing salmon farms in our territories is a price no one should pay. Not our children, not our children's children. Our rights, title, and self-determination matter, even 5,500 kilometres away from your city.”

In its court application, Mowi Canada West pointed out that before the decision to eliminate aquaculture in the Discovery Islands region, the company had 645 employees in BC, a significant number of whom were Indigenous. Now, that number has dwindled to 312.

Brian Kingzett, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, fears that Ottawa will drive investment to places with lower regulatory standards and environmental monitoring.

“Those salmon will be grown elsewhere. The demand is not going to go away.”

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