First Nations group hopes feds stick with plan to shut down Discovery Islands fish farms

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan might have lost her seat in Monday’s federal election, but the head of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance predicts her order to close Discovery Islands fish farms by next year will stand.

“I’m hoping that the path that was charted by Minister Jordan continues,” Bob Chamberlin said Tuesday.

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Jordan was defeated in her South Shore-St. Margarets riding in Nova Scotia.

Conservationists cheered and fish farm companies were stunned when Jordan announced in December that all salmon farms in Discovery Island facilities, east of Campbell River, had to be empty of fish by June 30, 2022. Fish farms were also told that no more annual licences would be issued to operate in that area.

Fish farms harvest salmon raised in net pens and then transfer in young salmon to start another cycle.

There are 19 fish farms in the Discovery Islands. At the time of the announcement, nine were fallowed, meaning they did not have fish in their pens.

Jordan said at the time that the government was committed to sustainable, environmentally conscious aquaculture, “but it must be developed collaboratively and include the voices of Indigenous peoples and all ­Canadians.”

Chamberlin said the re-election of Liberal Terry Beech, parliamentary secretary to the fisheries minister, is significant, because Beech has been heavily involved in the plan to phase out the farms.

The federal 2021 budget allocates $23 million over five years to develop a plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in B.C. by 2025. This includes collaborating with First Nations to introduce pilot initiatives for area-based management approaches to aquaculture in the province.

The waters around the ­Discovery Islands are on a critical migration route for Fraser River salmon stocks, many in serious trouble. There was no Fraser River sockeye fishery this year or last because of the low numbers of returning fish.

When First Nations say that they want a greater say around issues like this, Chamberlin said, their aim is typically to see stronger environmental responses.

As for his choices to fill Jordan’s post, Chamberlin, who is not a Liberal, pointed to Beech, who represents Burnaby North-Seymour, and North Vancouver MP and former fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson, now minister of Environment and Climate Change.

Biologist Alexandra Morton, who began raising concerns about fish farms decades ago, said she is sad that Jordan’s “bravery in standing up to the salmon farming industry” was not rewarded at the polls, noting people in B.C. were not able to vote for her.

She called Jordan’s move to prohibit fish farms in the ­Discovery Islands the single most significant decision ever by a federal fisheries minister to restore wild salmon populations. “She did not form another committee — she directly benefited the fish and that is extremely rare.”

As for the implications of Jordan’s defeat, Morton said she expects First Nations to continue Jordan’s work. “It is my observation that First Nation governments have come into their power and they have assumed the role to protect wild salmon from salmon farms. They will continue where Minister Jordan left off.”

Morton said an unprecedented number of juvenile salmon are “visibly leaping” in the waters off the north coast to the mid-coast of Vancouver Island.

“Those of us who have been monitoring these fish since 2010 have never seen this many young salmon in these areas so late in the year. We have also never studied them in the absence of salmon farms.”

Morton wonders if the salmon numbers are the result of the closure of pen sites.

Fish farms started culling young salmon in the Discovery Islands early this year in the wake of Jordan’s announcement. They were allowed to raise only the fish already in pens. Once those fish were harvested, the pens closed and workers lost their jobs.

B.C. Salmon Farmers Association executive director John Paul Fraser said the group looks forward to working with a new fisheries minister on issues such as food security, reconciliation, post-pandemic recovery and wild salmon restoration.

A February report prepared by consultant Rias Inc. for the association said closing Discovery Islands fish farms will lead to the loss of more than $390 million in annual economic output in B.C. (representing the value of goods and services ­produced).

The move could put up to 1,500 jobs at risk, Rias said, including 690 direct salmon-farming jobs, where employees work at broodstock farms, hatcheries, smelt farms, ocean farms and at primary processing facilities.

Area mayors have spoken out against phasing out the fish farms because of the impact on residents and companies.

Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom said the issue has always been about the lack of transition planning prior to the announcement. “There was nothing put in place to catch them when the Liberal government pushed them to the pavement.”

Since the order came out late last year, layoffs are happening and the region still has no transition plan, she said.

The closure was poorly thought out and did not take into account local people who are reliant on aquaculture, she said.

“Unless impacts to ­workers are addressed right at the start, it doesn’t matter who the ­minister is.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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