Speakers at a community meeting last week about fish farms warned of the threat posed by open net fish farms to wild salmon and other marine life, to the marine environment, and – as a result – to the culture, health and well-being of most of B.C.’s Indigenous people.
“For the industry it’s business as usual. For us, it’s the cost of our culture and our environment,” said Darren Blaney, the elected chief of the Homalco. He called for fish farms to be banned throughout the whole coast.
“We need to put pressure on the federal and provincial governments before it’s too late,” said Ernest Alfred, Hereditary Chief from the Nagmis, Lawit’sis and Mamalilikala Nations. He was involved in the occupation of a Marine Harvest salmon farm on Swanson Island, near Alert Bay. “My nation has proved that [fish farming] can be done on land.”
Filmmaker Angela Koch and biologist and long-time fish farm activist Alexandra Morton described the concerns about sea lice, viruses and bacteria from farmed salmon infecting wild salmon. Both cited the example of the piscine reovirus that attacks red blood cells in salmon. While not a major threat to farm fish in pens, it saps the strength of wild fish that have to migrate and avoid predators.
“It’s like a salmon ‘smart bomb’, only it doesn’t just attack salmon, it attaches herring, oolichan, rock fish, sea urchins,” Morton said.
Representatives of the fish farm sector dispute the claims that their stocks pose a danger to wild fish or the environment but Bob Chamberlain said while the impacts may still be unquantified, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Chamberlin is the elected Chief Councilor of the Kwicksutaineuk Ah-kwa-mish First Nation, which has many fish farms in its territory around Gilford Island. He is also the vice-president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance.
In a recorded presentation to the meeting, he said it is up to the federal government, working through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to apply the precautionary principle in making decisions when there’s a lack of science. “That means they should err on the side of caution to protect the wild fish and the environment. And I don’t see it in relationship to fish farms.”
Chamberlain said the federal government is also ignoring its duty to consult with First Nations as outlined by the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People that Canada adopted in August, 2016. “Even the potential to infringe on aboriginal rights triggers the duty to consult,” said Chamberlain. “The declaration doesn’t say: ‘if the science is there.’”
Bill Wilson, Hereditary Chief of the Musgamagw, was pessimistic about the effectiveness of working with governments, industry, or taking legal action to fight fish farms. While he recommended that people call or write his daughter, federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, he said stopping the market for farmed fish is the best way to deal with an issue that he described as “life and death for aboriginal people up and down the coast and up the rivers.”
“Ending the market is the only thing that will change the situation when this kind of money is involved.”
The Wei Wai Kum First Nation Council will consult with the other Laichwiltach First Nations to see if a joint position can be reached on the subject of fish farms. Further action will be confirmed in the New Year.