Science and First Nations are stepping up the pressure to remove fish farms from BC coastal waters.
By Judith Lavoie (First published in the November-December 2017 edition of Focus Magazine)
CHANGES TO THE RULES GOVERNING OPEN-NET SALMON FARMS are in the wind as calls intensify for the federal and provincial governments to step in and stop the game of Russian roulette being played with BC’s wild salmon stocks.
What makes this debate different from preceding decades of polarized arguments is implacable opposition to fish farms from the majority of BC’s First Nations—underlined by the occupation of two farms off north-east Vancouver Island—along with a growing body of evidence showing that wild fish can be harmed by viruses and sea lice spread from captive fish.
Add in dismally low 2017 Fraser River sockeye returns and the much-publicized escape of 300,000 Atlantic salmon from a collapsed Washington State fish farm, and the climate appears ripe for change.
Young wild salmon swim close to open-net fish farm. (Photo by Tavish Campbell)
Perhaps the biggest switch can be seen in the attitude of the provincial government. While the new NDP-led government recognizes the economic benefits provided by a $1.5-billion aquaculture industry, employing 3,000 people, it is juggling those benefits with increasing concerns about that industry’s effect on wild salmon, and the push to move the farms to closed-containment pens on land.
“The BC government is making sounds I have never heard before,” said independent biologist Alexandra Morton, a fierce opponent of open-net salmon farms.
Though the federal government has prime responsibility for fish farms (including their promotion), the Province does have some power—it has responsibility for issuing and renewing the tenure licences of fish farms in BC waters.
At the provincial level, the change from the previous Liberal government was apparent when Premier John Horgan met this fall with First Nations leaders in Alert Bay, followed by his statement that fish farm tenures will be reviewed to ensure wild salmon do not face obstacles on their migratory routes.
Hopes of fish farm opponents are also pinned on an election campaign statement by Claire Trevena, now BC’s Transportation Minister, who told an Alert Bay audience that if the NDP formed government, the party would “make sure that these territories and the North Island are clear of fish farms.”
Also this fall, new BC Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, in a letter to Marine Harvest, criticized the company’s decision to restock farms in the Broughton Archipelago; those licences expire in June but the fish will not be ready for harvest for two years.
“The decision to restock occurs as we are entering sensitive discussions with some of the First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago who remain opposed to open-net pen salmon farming in their territories,” Popham wrote, reminding the company there is no guarantee tenures will be renewed. “The Province retains all of its rights under the current tenure agreements, including potentially the requirement that you return possession of tenured sites at the end of the current terms,” she warned.
All but two tenures in the Broughton Archipelago expire in June, but the company said it must restock, as it has growing animals that need the space. Marine Harvest spokesman Ian Roberts said he hopes discussions happen quickly, as salmon farmers need assurances they can continue to operate.
AT THE HEART OF THE DEBATE around salmon aquaculture is the fear that diseases can spread from farms to wild fish. Although few scientists would claim that salmon farms are single-handedly killing BC’s wild salmon runs, there is incontrovertible evidence that a deadly disease—heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI)—infected fish on a farm in the Discovery Islands.
More alarmingly, researchers have found that HSMI is caused by piscine reovirus, a virus that affects about 80 percent of farm fish in BC, but which the industry previously claimed was harmless.
In Norway—where major firms operating in BC have headquarters—HSMI is known to kill farmed fish, and Norwegian scientists have now cemented the link between piscine reovirus and HSMI. As well, a study by a team of scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Salmon Foundation and Genome BC came up with proof that HSMI is present in BC. “They debunked the myth that piscine reovirus was harmless because they found that HSMI was present in BC,” Morton said in an interview.
Adding fuel to the flames is a recent video, taken by aboriginal leaders, showing sick and deformed fish in the net pens. “The fish were showing classic symptoms of HSMI. They were emaciated and floating with their heads against the net,” Morton said.
John Reynolds, professor of aquatic ecology and conservation at Simon Fraser University, emphasized that it is not possible to pin responsibility for annual fluctuations in salmon runs on fish farms, as there are many issues with ocean survival. “But there’s a lot of evidence that salmon farms are contributing to the problems that wild salmon face,” he said. Even without proof of a major viral outbreak, damage caused by disease transfer may be ticking away in the background, explained Reynolds. “There’s a lot of research which confirms negative effects of salmon farming on the juvenile wild salmon. It is published in many of the world’s top peer-reviewed journals,” he said. “There’s no dispute about that except, perhaps, by people who have something to gain by questioning it. The science on the matter is quite clear,” he added.
All of which makes Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwas’mis First Nation wonder when the federal and provincial governments will take decisive action. “How can they not listen to the clear messages that we do not give any consent to having these farms in our territory” asked Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance.
The salmon farming industry has agreements with some First Nations to operate in their territories, but Chamberlin said that about 90 percent of First Nations communities are demanding an end to open-net fish farming. “There’s the risk of disease and sea lice and the broad infringement of First Nations rights,” he said, reminding government leaders of their support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which entitles indigenous people to giving “free, prior and informed consent on any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.”
If the provincial government is worried about job loss, Chamberlin suggested it put research and development money into developing a viable closed-containment industry. He also predicted more tourism jobs would come to remote communities if wild salmon runs were restored, improving the health of bears and the surrounding ecosystem.
Chamberlin wants to see the federal government genuinely implement all the recommendations from the 2012 Cohen Commission of Inquiry, including the recommendation that the responsibility for promoting salmon farming be removed from the mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) as it is working at cross purposes with DFO’s duty to protect wild salmon.
That is not going to happen, according to an emailed statement from a DFO spokesman, who wrote that “no further action is required on this recommendation as responsibility for production and export is split between several different departments.”
However, the federal government is drafting a five-year Wild Salmon Policy implementation plan and putting $40 million annually, for five years, into research, science and monitoring of Pacific salmon, which gives ground for optimism that wild salmon are moving up the priority ladder.
After more than three decades of fighting open-net pen salmon farms, opponents know the road to change is unlikely to be smooth, but Morton believes the tide is turning. Look at the occupations of the fish farms, she suggested. “The First Nations are immovable. They are endlessly creative and extremely brave.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.