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B.C. fish farms: a tangled net

Moe Isaac walks along the dock at Midsummer Island, past colourful protest signs under a heavy November sky. Rain came down like a curtain yesterday and today the clouds have an ashen glow.

Moe Isaac walks along the dock at Midsummer Island, past colourful protest signs under a heavy November sky.

Rain came down like a curtain yesterday and today the clouds have an ashen glow.

Isaac, who manages the Marine Harvest salmon farm, steps up to the edge of a pen in his workboots and worn orange life-jacket. Beyond his toes, the surface of the water breaks every few seconds — sliced by a dorsal fin or rippled by a leaping fish.

About 53,000 Atlantic salmon swim in this 30-by-30-metre pen. When all the pens are full, the farm holds just over half a million of them. For those who fear open-net farms like this one will mean the end of wild stocks, the concentration of fish represents an incubator for parasites and disease.

It’s this fear that led some protesters — Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike — to occupy this and two more fish farms this summer and fall. Many of the occupiers obeyed a court order and have since left Midsummer while they await a hearing, but a handful were still there on the day Isaac led this tour. The longest occupation, at Swanson Island, marked Day 100 on Thursday.

Isaac tends to keep his distance from the occupiers — and the occupiers do the same. One takes the long way around the dock to avoid us, covering her face with a sweatshirt. Another peeks out from a semi-permanent structure powered by solar panels and asks: “Who are you with?”

“Media” is not an acceptable answer.

“No, I mean who are you with?” he says, emphasizing the lines that have been drawn in the sand.

Moe Isaac is the manager of the Marine Harvest fish farm near Midsummer Island off Alert Bay. "I believe it's part of our heritage, the salmon," he says. - DARREN STONE

Isaac hangs back. For the most part, he and the occupiers haven’t had a problem with one another, although he would prefer they didn’t post photos of him and his crew on social media.

“It’s a bit troubling,” he said.

Isaac, whose father is ‘Namgis and mother is Tlowitsis — two of the 17 Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations of northern Vancouver Island and the nearby mainland coast — says he was raised with respect for wild salmon.

“I believe it’s part of our heritage, the salmon,” he said.

But he has squared that belief with the improvements he says he’s seen over his 17 years in the industry. From a monitoring room off the dock, he shows how workers can move a camera through the water to check on the fish. Feeding is now completely automated, so the moment a food pellet makes its way to the bottom to become a lure for other marine life, workers can turn off the flow. Marine Harvest’s fish-health staff regularly visit the site and share reports with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Anti-fish farm activists, of course, see different things: non-native species with the potential to escape, salmon afflicted by sea lice.

Since being laid off from the ‘Namgis hatchery — something that happened because his status card showed his mother’s nation instead of his father’s — Isaac has done well by the fish-farming industry.

He has risen through the ranks to become one of Marine Harvest’s only Indigenous managers. The company also put him through two years of training at Vancouver Island University.

“They look after us well. The pay is good and there’s real opportunity to have a career in salmon farming,” Isaac said. That kind of career growth opportunity is rare in remote communities.

It can come at a personal cost, though: One of Isaac’s crew members has been shunned because of the fish-farming controversy. “Some of his family members have stopped talking to him,” Isaac said.

Isaac himself says he has never been treated badly at home in Alert Bay because of his work, even as the ‘Namgis First Nation has presented one of the strongest and most united fronts against fish farming. The only person who told him he was betraying his culture was white.

“People don’t bother me,” Isaac said.

That reflects a complicated truth: As much as fish farming inspires passionate debate over scientific integrity, Indigenous sovereignty and economic versus ecological values, this is not a place where people and perspectives can be placed in easily defined silos. As black and white as those debates can appear from far away in Victoria, Isaac’s story is one example of how the reality on the water is a mosaic of greys.

Fish-farm technician Patrick Johnny works near the occupiers' protest sheds at the Marine Harvest fish farm near Midsummer Island. - DARREN STONE

Industrial fish farming began in British Columbia with a few small experiments in the 1970s. By the 1990s, it was operating like a well-oiled machine: Smaller farms had been swallowed by large conglomerates, and imported Atlantic salmon had become the preferred breed — the Herefords of aquaculture.

The fish are raised in open-net pens in ocean waters. Net barriers protect them from predators.

In 1984, Alexandra Morton, the independent biologist who has led much of the resistance against salmon farms, moved to the tiny community of Echo Bay in the Broughton Archipelago. She had recently graduated from American University with a biology degree and wanted to study orcas in their natural habitat. She fell in love with a man, had a son and stayed.

“In the beginning, I was just publishing on killer whales. When the salmon-farming industry arrived, I thought: ‘Wow, this is great.’ ” Morton said. “Because we had this little community of 200 people living in float homes, off the grid with a one-room school in Echo Bay. I thought: ‘Wow, this could keep our school open, create jobs.’ ”

Over time, Morton would pivot hard against fish farms, saying the weight of evidence shows they pose a significant risk to wild stocks. While she recognizes other threats, such as global warming, she says fish-farming is one that could be more easily reversed.

About 1989, Morton says, some of her commercial and sport fishermen friends began complaining about the farms. She identified a bacterial disease called furunculosis in wild salmon; it was an antibiotic-resistant strain, a clue that it came from fish farms.

Then came sea lice, small parasitic crustaceans that feed on the skin and mucous of fish. Sea lice do not normally harm adult salmon, but might harm or kill young ones.

Then came piscine reovirus, a highly contagious virus believed to cause disease. Then came heart and skeletal muscle inflammation disease. Known as HSMI, it makes fish lethargic, which is a bigger deal for wild stocks that need the strength to escape predators — although in the most severe cases, it has killed up to one-fifth of fish on farms in Norway.

While direct evidence can be elusive, Morton believes parasites and pathogens spread from farmed fish to wild ones.

“Direct evidence is a scientific term. So to get direct evidence that sea lice from fish farms are killing wild salmon, I would have to watch a single louse hatch on a farmed salmon and travel for three days and then get on a wild fish. That’s physically impossible, when you have a million fish going around on a farm and the sea lice are only a few millimetres long,” she said.

Still, she says the weight of evidence is on her side. She offers the analogy of coming home to find a window smashed and your television missing: It was likely a burglar, not your mother.

“The government and industry still denies it. This is what is so frustrating. If they said, OK we get there’s a problem, here’s what we’re going to do about it — that’s all I’ve ever wanted them to say to me,” Morton said.

“But they never do that. They always say: There’s no problem. And you, Morton, are — whatever they think I am.”

Atlantic salmon jumps in the Marine Harvest fish farm near Midsummer island near Alert Bay - DARREN STONE

So, are fish farms bad?

Federal research scientist Kristi Miller says she understands the frustration of not having a definitive answer.

She also knows why the debate is so polarized in B.C.: “This is the only place in the world where we still have abundant and commercially exploited wild salmon populations and where we also have an expanding aquaculture industry.”

Sorting it out will require strong and objective science, she says, which is why Miller and others at her Nanaimo lab have begun the largest study ever done on how diseases spread in wild, farmed and hatchery-raised salmon. The Strategic Salmon Health Initiative — a joint project of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Genome B.C. — is studying 47 infectious agents in 96 types of fish.

Miller, who has studied wild salmon for 25 years, began looking at the role of infectious disease in Fraser River salmon declines when she saw some disturbing genomic patterns.

Doing so led her into a political minefield.

In 2011, she became the accidental poster child for the muzzling of scientists when Stephen Harper’s federal government blocked reporters from interviewing her about her groundbreaking study suggesting a virus was behind the 2009 collapse of Fraser River sockeye. She also testified as part of the Cohen Commission investigation into that collapse.

“What became really clear in those hearings and recommendations was that we really didn’t understand what the role of infectious disease in wild salmon declines was.

“Furthermore, even though there are a lot of theoretical risks posed by aquaculture, we really didn’t have any solid scientific data to demonstrate exactly what those risks were in B.C.,” she said.

“We’re working toward that evidence now.”

Proof is hard to nail down, though. Theory might say disease weakens fish and makes them vulnerable to predators, but when a seal eats a salmon it’s hard to show that it was because the fish was sick.

Not everyone shares Miller’s perspective. Fish pathologist Gary Marty says diseases come and go — and the significance of certain diseases has been overstated.

HSMI — the disease that makes fish lethargic — has killed only one to three in every thousand farmed fish since 2006, he said.

Environmental conditions are more significant and can be the catalyst for some problems, he said. For example, bacterial infections spiked when the Blob — a mass of warm water that persisted off the B.C. coast from 2013 to 2016 — appeared.

“Over time, we’ll see increases in some diseases and decreases in others,” Marty said.

Today, he said, about 10 per cent of farmed salmon die before reaching market. The vast majority succumb to conditions such as low oxygen and exposure to toxic algae, and to such predators as jellyfish. Some die when handled or transported, while others are culled because they don’t meet a certain standard.

Marty works out of the province’s Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford, which is the subject of a provincial investigation into conflict-of-interest allegations. The centre provides diagnostic services for both industry and the province.

Fish farm occupation-3.jpg
Dzawada'enuxw Nation Chief Willie Moon and Hereditary Chief Charlie Williams were among local First Nations leaders on site to support the occupation of the Swanson Island fish farm.

Whatever the science does or doesn’t say, First Nations’ claims might be the most potent threat to the aquaculture industry.

A series of court decisions and a shifting political landscape have given Indigenous people more power.

Even here, though, the picture is clouded by grey. The limits of that power are uncertain. Also, some Indigenous communities are divided over fish farming.

The Alert Bay-based ‘Namgis First Nation, however, has presented a united front. Their elected chief, Don Svanvik, says he wants to see fish farms removed from Kwakwak’wakw territory, where he says the companies don’t have authority to operate without the bands’ permission. If the federal and provincial governments are serious about their commitments to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for free and informed prior consent on resource projects, then Marine Harvest’s tenure should not be renewed in June, he said.

Svanvik, who is in talks with both the province and federal governments, said the ‘Namgis will meet with B.C. officials soon.

“The message we have for them is that this has all been done without our consent,” Svanvik said. “We don’t want them to renew the leases.”

A string of legal victories has seen claims of land and title recognized: In 2004, the Haida decision said the Crown must consult First Nations before exploiting lands to which they may have claims. In 2014, the Tsilhqot’in decision was the first time a Canadian court formally declared that Aboriginal title exists.

On the flip side, some decisions have been less promising for First Nations. Last month, the Jumbo ski resort got the green light, even though a First Nation claimed it violated sacred territory.

How fish farms will fit into the shifting political matrix is also unclear. In October, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham penned a letter to Marine Harvest warning that the province might not renew its tenure in June, citing the UN declaration. Premier John Horgan followed up, saying that UNDRIP doesn’t mean “veto” power for First Nations.

Even though the ‘Namgis oppose the fish farms, Svanvik laughs when asked if Isaac or any other local employee has faced backlash from the community for working one.

“Those are our people. They gotta work,” Svanvik said.

Still, he sits in the anti-farming side.

“We already live in poverty, basically, Indigenous people on this land. There’s a concern there, but at some point, we have to put some things first. And the wild fish, our environment, has to take precedence.”

A gutting machine slices and cleans about 15 fish per minute. - DARREN STONE

On a Thursday in Port Hardy, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, salmon from Marine Harvest’s fish farms slip down a stainless-steel slide, one by one.

They land on a conveyor belt and are weighed before a mechanical arm kicks them off to a gutting machine, which slices, slurps and thoroughly cleans 15 fish per minute. The salmon then head up to quality graders — employees who examine the fish for belly thickness, external blemishes, internal cuts and deformities — before being boxed according to grade and size.

“From the time a fish comes into the building until it’s in a box, is about two minutes,” said processing director Stephen Hall.

Marine Harvest’s Port Hardy operation is the Norway-based company’s most efficient plant globally and one of the most technologically advanced in North America, company spokesman Ian Roberts says.

On this day, it processed 31,803 fish from its farm in the Broughton Archipelago’s Doctor Islets. A total of 7.3 million salmon passed through the plant in 2016. That’s a lot of fish. It’s also a lot of jobs.

This is the inescapable fact: However valid the arguments against open-net pen fish farming might be, the economic loss of the industry would be significant.

Farm-raised salmon was a $558-million industry in 2016, according to the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association. And it’s growing: The association says that’s a rise of 36 per cent since 2013.

Port Hardy Mayor Hank Bood: "Given the amount of employment here, everyone has a neighbour who has some link to the fish farms." - DARREN STONE

If ocean-net pen fish farming ended, so would this processing plant, which employs 90 people. “It would shut down,” Hall said.

That’s not insignificant for a town of 4,300.

“Given the amount of employment here, everyone has a neighbour who has some link to the fish farms,” Port Hardy Mayor Hank Bood said.

The industry meshes well with others, he said. “This area has got a lot of territory, a lot of coastline. There isn’t a conflict between the tourism industry and fish-farming industry. Here, there’s so much room that there isn’t the conflict.”

Beyond offering jobs, Marine Harvest donated $250,000 to help build a swimming pool in town, Bood said.

Roberts said the company wants to operate in communities where it’s welcome.

“We definitely want to be welcomed where we are. There are a few nuances, though. Even a community that welcomes you, with a two- to three-year election cycle, that can change,” he said.

Marine Harvest had a 15-year deal with the Mamalalikula before there was a leadership change and the First Nation joined the protest against it, he said.

“What do you do with a multimillion-dollar business built on an agreement that gets flipped in two years? You kinda say: ‘Tough, guys,’ ” Roberts said.

He said he’s feeling good about the prospects of the province renewing the company’s tenure.

“I think the province understands the value of a 30-year business, but also the improvements in the business over that time,” Roberts said.

Fisherman Chris Cook with the boat he used to fish with, in Alert Bay. - DARREN STONE

To understand the fervent opposition to fish farming in Alert Bay, is to know the keystone role salmon has played in the culture, economy and history of the region.

The ‘Namgis origin story begins with a supernatural being who turns a man, Gwa’nalalis, into a river.

“There you will be a river for as long as the days dawn in the world, and you will be full of salmon so that your descendants may never starve,” the being says.

Elder Chris Cook says community members used to eat 100 salmon each per year — it was as common as potatoes are for some other cultures.

Now they’re lucky if they get 10.

Cook, one of only five commercial fishermen remaining in the community, remembers the fishing boom well.

“I’m 75 years old. I started fishing when I was 14. What I’ve seen in my time? For us as the Kwakwak’wakw people, the ‘Namgis people, we were at a good, awesome place financially and fishing was great in our area,” he said.

In the 1950s and 1960s, commercial fishing was part of an economic boom in the region, which put Alert Bay at its epicentre. Cook remembers when the island community hosted two shipyards, five fuel stations, a cannery, a sawmill, a legion, two bars and a liquor store.

“It was the hub of the north. The miners and loggers all came here. At one time, there were 17 taxis here. There were seven docks here and they were all packed,” he said.

Overfishing put an end to that. As it did, the government launched a series of “buy-back” programs, beginning in 1970, to shrink the number of fishing licences. Where there were once 40 seine-boat skippers in Alert Bay, just three remain. Fishing is now too expensive for most.

“What happened to us, the coastal First Nations people? My words would be: ‘an economic assassination,’ ” Cook said.

And if aquaculture was at first seen as an answer to the loss of the fishery, some now worry it threatens the wild stocks that remain.

If fish farming is at fault, it’s only partially so, authorities say. The Cohen Commission found a range of factors influenced the 2009 collapse of Fraser River sockeye stocks, including river contaminants, shoreline development and climate change. This year, when returns were less than one-third of what was projected, the ocean-warming phenomenon known as the Blob took much of the blame.

Whatever the cause, Alert Bay’s fishing economy has gone the way of the wild salmon. “Today, there’s no fish,” Cook said. “So where are they?”

Ernest Alfred, a 'Namgis traditional leader who has led the occupation of Marine Harvest's Swanson Island farm. - DARREN STONE

Ernest Alfred, a ‘Namgis traditional leader who has led the occupation of Marine Harvest’s Swanson Island farm, describes salmon as vital to the First Nation.

It’s at the heart of a culture. Even when the community celebrates the naming of a new child, it’s with a salmon feast — it can’t be Kraft Dinner and meatballs.

“It’s no secret that our people would just not exist without the salmon,” he said. “When we say we’re protecting our salmon, we’re actually protecting our home.”

Alfred has been the face of the ‘Namgis at occupations, rallies and public events.

On this day, he’s back in Alert Bay for a brief rest between a visit to Vancouver for a court date — he’s one of five occupiers named in Marine Harvest’s application for an injunction — and a fish-farm occupation.

Alfred is visibly exhausted from the fight.

“I’ve lost 30 pounds. You lose your appetite sitting on a fish farm.”

It’s stressful, too. Like Isaac, who didn’t like his photos being posted on social media, Alfred says he has been harassed online by those who favour fish farms.

“The toll and the sacrifice of everybody involved is huge. My relationships with my family have all been adversely affected. My relationship with my partner has been negatively affected. We’re suffering financially, because I’m out of work and have been for four months,” he said.

He gets boosted by support. At a recent potlatch, about 1,000 people stood in support of fish-farm opponents. Last weekend, leaders from five northern First Nations linked arms with those in the Broughton Archipelago. Days earlier, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council from up the coast in Bella Bella terminated its stewardship protocol agreement with Marine Harvest, in solidarity.

As wiped out as he is, Alfred’s passion doesn’t wane. “[Marine Harvest] says they want to sit down and negotiate with us? Well, we’re not negotiating. We’re not taking their trading beads,” he said.

“Our talks happen government to government. We will talk nation to nation. We are not interested in renters.”

The occupiers are preparing a defence for their next court hearing, on Dec. 14. Even if the injunction ordering them to stay off Midsummer Island is confirmed, there are other fish farms and other ways to fight them.

“We’re not giving up. We have to leave Midsummer, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop. We could take our occupation somewhere else, it might not even be a fish farm. The options are there. But we’re not going to get quiet, we’re actually getting louder,” he said.

“I’m very tired. But this is where it gets good.”