Canada has a new fisheries minister. And should there be any doubt in her mind what the most politically explosive file on her desk might be, a coalition of First Nation leaders, commercial fishermen, wilderness tourism operators and salmon advocacy groups attended a press conference in Vancouver Wednesday to remind her it’s open-net fish farms in B.C.
Specifically, it’s the Trudeau government’s pledge to “transition” open net fish farms in B.C. to something else.
Diane Lebouthillier is the third minister of Fisheries and Oceans to be handed the salmon farm transition file. That transition plan is now at a critical stage, with the deadline now past for written submissions on just what the transition should look like.
On Wednesday, in advance of National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance was joined by several First Nations leaders, two independent commercial fishermen and Andrew Bateman, a scientist with the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF), to press the new minister to shut down open-net salmon farms in B.C.
Despite what DFO scientists may say about salmon farms – i.e. that they pose no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon – those who spoke Wednesday fervently believe open-net salmon farms do pose a risk to wild salmon, mainly through the amplification and transmission of disease.
While salmon farms may not be the only thing contributing to the decline of wild salmon, they say it’s one thing over which the government has some control.
While some First Nations in B.C. support salmon farming, a majority are opposed to open-net salmon farms.
“We want to ensure the new minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans understands that there are 123 First Nations in B.C. that support the removal (of salmon farms),” said Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance. He added that the removal of fish farms from B.C. waters was, in fact, supported by "the vast majority of British Columbians."
Robert Joseph, ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, framed the protection of wild salmon as a reconciliation issue.
“I think that in the case of wild salmon versus fish farms, we have to comply to the higher spiritual imperative that, if fish farms continue in our coast here, that the natural wild stocks will be impacted, and that’s harmful," he said. "In reconciliation, we should try as hard as we can to do no further harm.”
Wild salmon stocks in B.C. – notably Fraser River sockeye – have generally been in decline for a couple of decades now.
A number of First Nation leaders speaking at Wednesday’s press conference said salmon have declined so much that many First Nations can no longer catch enough salmon to satisfy their food, social and ceremonial allotments.
“I never thought in my lifetime we’d be talking about not even getting Section 35 fish for our community,” said Wayne Sparrow, chief of the Musqueam First Nation, who later said “the fish farming’s got to go.”
“Our people are now relying on Alaskan salmon that we buy,” said Arnold Lampreau, chief of the Shakan First Nation.
Although wild salmon in more northern ranges of the Pacific Ocean – Alaska and Russia – have been at or near historical abundance levels in recent years, salmon in the more southern ranges have been declining. Some scientists believe climate change may be to blame for the northern shift in abundance. Much of the sockeye and pink salmon that British Columbians buy in grocery stores most years likely come from Alaska.
While First Nations who support salmon farming have invoked aboriginal rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), saying they have a right to say yes to salmon farming, Tyrone McNeil, president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council, said salmon farms infringe his people’s rights to wild salmon.
He conceded there are likely many factors affecting wild salmon, not just salmon farms.
“We have to pay attention to what is under our control,” he said. “In our case, the Sto:lo people, just up the river from here, we demand that DFO -- the minister -- consult and accommodate Sto:lo rights and title in salmon around open net pen fish farms.
"I’m quite confident that my chiefs back home would readily give their consent to the minister to continue to pull the permits from open net fish farms to get them out of the way. We certainly want the minister to continue engaging us, continue consulting us, to achieve our free, prior and informed consent on this decision, recognizing that our titles are infringed by the placement of open-net fin-fish farms on salmon migratory routes that we rely on so heavily.”
Open net salmon farms have already been removed from the Discovery Islands, by order of the federal fisheries minister. Some have also been removed from the Broughton Archipelago. But many First Nations and anti-fish farming advocacy groups want all open-net salmon farms in B.C. shut down.
In 2019, Prime Minister Justine Trudeau issued a mandate to the federal fisheries minister to develop a plan to "transition" open-net salmon farms in B.C. by 2025. There is no such transition plan for Atlantic Canada.
During consultations with various stakeholders in B.C., DFO has adopted wording for the transition plan that those opposed to fish farming fear may water down the transition.
The strategy now defines the transition as something that "progressively minimizes or eliminates interactions between open-net pens and wild salmon," which may open the door to hybrid systems that minimizes interactions but which do not entirely isolate farmed salmon.
The BC Salmon Farmers Association interprets this wording to mean that "no current mandate exists to remove salmon farms from the ocean."
Andrew Bateman, an ecologist and researcher for the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) through the Pacific Salmon Health Initiative, disputes DFO's official opinion that salmon farms pose no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon.
“The risks from open-net salmon farming are one small part of what we look at, but in the science we do, those risks come up time and time again,” he said. “The risks that we and others have uncovered led PSF to take an unprecedented step of taking a policy position on open net salmon farming – stating support for the removal of open net salmon farms from the marine environment.”
Bateman said he has participated in some of the processes whereby DFO came to the conclusion that salmon farms are not a threat to wild salmon.
“I will say that conflicts of interest undermine the integrity of those processes,” Bateman said.
And while the main concern seems to be protecting Fraser River sockeye salmon, Bateman said it’s not just Fraser River sockeye that are put at risk by salmon farms.
“Unfortunately, the more we look at possible risks from open net salmon farms, the more risks we find. The salmon farms present undue risk. And as a scientist, in the interest of wild salmon, those risks behoove us to follow the precautionary principle and remove the potential impacts… that may be undermining wild salmon’s ability to recover.”
Asked why today's press conference was held, Chamberlin said his organization wanted to make sure the issue is on the new fisheries minister radar, as a critical deadline looms. He said September 30 is the day Phase 3 of the transition plan consultations close.
"What we were thinking about was that, before Phase 3 comes to a close, that the department has it on their radar the vast support for the transition, and not just from First Nations," he said.
One non-aboriginal organization that supports the phase out of open-net salmon farms is the Wilderness Tourism Association of BC.
“We want our government to know that the WTA strongly supports this transition,” said WTA executive director Jeneen Sutherland.
In a written statement in response to today's press conference, the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship said it should be up to First Nations themselves to decide whether or not open-net salmon farming should be allowed in their traditional territory.
"We believe that to preserve wild salmon, we must also grow salmon, in a way that reflects our standards that surpass DFO regulations, and in a way that incorporates our traditional ecological knowledge, our marine management plans, and decades of documented Indigenous science," the coalition said in a press release.
"The rightsholder First Nations with fish farms in their waters must always be at the transition planning table for salmon farms with the industry and both federal and provincial governments.
"We will not be the forced recipients of a colonial plan designed in urban centers, or hundreds and thousands of kilometers away, far from our coastal territories, far from our realities, and imposed by people who don’t walk in our shoes and who won’t feel the social impacts if that plan is a poor one."