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DFO named in aquaculture class action suit

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been drawn into what could be a precedent-setting case for aboriginal rights in British Columbia.

Last Thursday the federal government was named as a co-defendant in a class action lawsuit dealing with fish farms, sea lice and wild salmon in the Broughton Archipelago. The suit was originally filed against the provincial government by the Kwicksutaineuk/Ah-Kwa-Mish First Nation (KAFN), whose traditional territory includes the Broughton. KAFN Chief Bob Chamberlin is the representative plaintiff.

Chamberlin said the way in which the province has managed aquaculture in the region has contributed to a decline in wild salmon populations, and therefore infringed upon KAFN fishing rights. They are seeking an injunction prohibiting salmon aquaculture permits in the Broughton Archipelago until adequate consultation and accommodation has taken place.

Lead counsel JJ Camp said this suit is the first class action lawsuit addressing aboriginal rights in British Columbia.

"The purpose is to give these nations who customarily fish in these waters access to justice as a group so that they are not trying to bring individual actions which are difficult, time consuming and expensive," he said. "The reverse side of that coin is that the courts don’t want to have similar lawsuits inundating the courts."

The province filed the motion to name the federal government as co-defendants in light of a February, 2009 Supreme Court ruling that the DFO, not the province of B.C., should be responsible for managing fish farms.

Chamberlin has been working with the First Nations Fisheries Council and the DFO to help develop a new federal framework for regulating aquaculture. After being barred from a meeting with Fisheries Minister Gail Shea earlier this month, he speculated that it was because the DFO had become involved in the suit.

"I'm hoping that's not the reason why, but that's the only difference between our relationship, or our lack of relationship, with the feds from three weeks ago until today," said Chamberlin. "I'm no stranger to the DFO circle. I thought we were making some progress."

Neither the DFO nor the province would comment as the case is before the courts.

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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