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First Nations at loggerheads over salmon farming

Atlantic Canadian salmon farmers warned ‘they are next’

Two B.C. First Nations groups were in Ottawa Tuesday giving anyone who would listen diametrically opposed views on salmon farming in B.C.

Chiefs with the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance were there to meet with federal cabinet ministers, opposition parties and senators to voice support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to “transition” away from open-net salmon farming in B.C. by 2025.

The meetings followed Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray’s decision in mid-February not to renew federal licences for salmon farms in the Discovery Islands.

“The majority of B.C. First Nations applaud DFO Minister Joyce Murray’s recent decision for Discovery Islands fish farms — basing this important decision on scientific uncertainty, cumulative effects and the Precautionary Principle — as a necessary and critical development,” said alliance chairman Bob Chamberlin.

The Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, on the other hand, objects to the closure of open-net salmon farms. Some coastal First Nations have embraced the industry as the commercial fishing sector has declined.

“Her decision has threatened right-holder First Nations’ ability to pursue their self-determination and their right to economic reconciliation by allowing outside influences to make decisions in our territories,” Chris Roberts, chief of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation of Campbell River, said at a news conference.

Roberts suggested Murray should be relieved of the salmon-farming portfolio.

“We call on Prime Minister Trudeau to pass the critical file onto a more responsible and unbiased minister to complete,” Roberts said. “We strongly recommend the Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation, the Honourable Marc Miller, for this job.”

It’s doubtful that would change the federal government’s course on salmon farming, however, as the position comes right from the top. Trudeau himself ordered his fisheries ministers to develop a plan to “transition” away from open-net salmon farms in B.C. by 2025.

So far, that directive applies only to B.C.

Atlantic Canada has not seen the same level of anti-fish farm activism as B.C. has over the last two decades. But Albert Charlie of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nation in Port Hardy warned salmon farmers in Atlantic Canada that they may be next.

“We are warning the Atlantic communities and ministries that eco-activists are coming for salmon farming there next,” Charlie said. “They will not stop and Minister Murray’s recent Discovery Island decision has empowered them to pursue closures on the East Coast.”

The salmon-farming transition that Trudeau has ordered for B.C. started with the non-renewal of 19 federal licences for salmon farms in the Discovery Islands. Salmon farmers operating in the area were told in 2020 by Murray’s predecessor that they would need to be gone by June 2022.

That order was appealed, and a federal court set it aside, saying it failed on a procedural fairness basis.

Murray was forced to hold consultations with various stakeholders. But at the end of that exercise, her predecessor’s original order was upheld.

Last month, Murray announced that 15 federal licences for salmon farms in the Discovery Islands would not be renewed, although at least one federal licence in the Discovery Islands will be renewed. Saltstream, which operates a small chinook salmon farm in the Discovery Islands, confirmed its licence would be renewed.

Those coastal First Nations that support salmon farming are suggesting it’s part of their right to self-determination. But they are outnumbered by First Nations who want the salmon farming industry shut down.

Chamberlin said that 101 First Nations in B.C. are opposed to open-net salmon farms, whereas those supporting open-net salmon farming number between nine and 11. Of the seven First Nations claiming traditional territory in the Discovery Islands, three support salmon farming, and four oppose it.

The removal of salmon farms from the Discovery Islands represents about 25 per cent of the Atlantic salmon production in B.C. The fate of the remaining farms in B.C. is highly uncertain.

As Fisheries minister, Murray is supposed to have a strategy in place by 2025 — an election year — for salmon farming overall in B.C.

Salmon-farm opponents have lobbied for removing all open-net salmon farms in B.C. and putting them on land.

But land-based Recirculating Aquaculture Systems have yet to achieve profitability. Replacing the current production of Atlantic salmon in B.C. with that form of salmon farming would require at least $1.8 billion in investment, government subsidies and regulatory changes, according to a recent economic analysis commissioned by the B.C. government.

“Land-based is not possible in our territories,” said Charlie. “The B.C. government conducted its own feasibility study on whether it’s viable, and it is not — period.”