A B.C. First Nation that was looking to begin salmon farming has dramatically reversed course by closing ranks with an environmental organization it once opposed. The two groups signed an unusual cooperation agreement to help protect a lengthy stretch of the Canadian West Coast against the fish farming industry.Legally-drafted protocols are usually signed between non-government organizations and the federal or provincial government, but the elected chief of the Xwemalhkwu (Homalco) First Nation based in Campbell River got together with the president of the Georgia Strait Alliance Thursday to ink a written commitment that the two groups will work together for the restoration and preservation of marine waters in Bute Inlet - thetraditional home base of the Homalco - and its surrounding area.Chief Darren Blaney said he mistrusts the B.C. government and remains anxious it might use new legislated powers it gave itself late last year, to force salmon farms into place in the Homalco's claimed territorial waters in and around the inlet, against the wishes of the First Nation.
"I'm suspicious. I don't trust them," Blaney acknowledged, adding that he hopes to sign similar protection and cooperation agreements with boththe Klahoose and Sliammon First Nations, who also have territorial waters adjoining the area the Homalco are claiming.The comment was made following the official signing of the pact with the GSA under president Jim Manly, a formal protocol drawn up by a Vancouver lawyer. The mutual commitment was negotiated with GSA fisheries personnel over close to 18 months since Blaney took over leadership of the Homalco, now based out of a new reserve set up a few years immediately south of Campbell River.Previous chief was pro-farmingUnder the previous, now-ousted chief, the FN seemed favourable towards salmon aquaculture, including fish farms. It set up a hatchery to help restore salmon runs to three major river systems in Bute, and it conducted talks with at least one fish-farming company about having some pen sites relocate to the area from unsuitable sites off the west coast of Vancouver Island.But Blaney said that all that changed after he was elected and the company indicated it couldn't commit to hiring numbers of Homalco members for as long as five years, because it had to give first consideration to its own personnel from the existing farms.The Homalco quickly withdrew its support of proposed sites in Bute, adding weight to recreational fishermen, area resorts and members of the Comox-Strathcona Regional District board of directors against net-pen sites in the area. It still continued to operate the Orford Riverenhancement hatchery in the inlet, and is interested in concentrating on operating bear-watching tours in the area.Both sides expressed pleasure at Thursday's protocol-signing ceremonies. Blaney said in a statement that wild salmon are integral to the Homalco's culture and the wellbeing of the inlet. He called the signing "another step towards protecting and restoring this precious resource in our traditional territory".Manly referred to recent collaboration between the two organizations, with researchers studying the interaction between wild and farmed salmon regarding sea-lice.'Right to farm' can't compel First NationsThe ceremony was also attended by regional board chairperson Jim Abram, who said he doesn't agree with Blaney's fears about the government perhaps eventually forcing fish farms on the First Nation.Abram, who was present at Blaney's invitation, acknowledged that after it opposed various farm-site rezoning applications in its area - and particularly around Bute - the regional district had its own concerns about the new right-to-farm legislation and particularly it including fish-farming.From discussions stemming from that, Abram said his clear understanding is that the right-to-farm legislation is targeted at local governments rather than First Nations - which government agencies are legally required to consult on issues potentially impacting their traditional territory.Abram said he, six board directors and number of C-SRD staff members met with B.C. Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Minister John van Dongen several months ago, about the legislation. They were specifically assured - in front of ministry officials - that the new legislation admittedly includes fish-farming but is designed to enable the government to overrule local government bodies only once they have shown themselves to be"unreasonable" by choosing to stand against industrial development without a sound basis to do so and without following proper procedure.Minister: fish farm opponents not 'unreasonable'Abram, whose area of representation on the C-SRD includes Bute and who has stood against a number of site-rezoning applications for would-be fish farms alongside other rural C-SRD directors in the past, said van Dongen directly stated that the CSR-D hasn't proven to be unreasonable in his view. So van Dongen reassured he and the cabinet wouldn't be likely to step into the approvals process in the C-SRD area.Abram also disputed that there has been any pattern of acceptance or rejection of salmon farms in the regional board's handling of rezoning bylaws in the past. He said that while the board has turned down nine rezoning applications from the industry, in that same period it approved about 26, one of them for a site at Churchhouse, in the Homalco's waters near the mouth of Bute Inlet.Another farming applicationThe board has received another salmon-farm rezoning application for the Raza Island area close to the entrance to Bute, and is slated to hold a formal public hearing on a rezoning bylaw for the site, on Quadra Island May 18.GSA fisheries coordinator Eric Blueschke, a sportsfishing guide for one of the tourist lodges on nearby Stuart Island for the last 16 years, has indicated he will likely bring out numbers of fishing guide and recreational fishermen to the hearing, to oppose the rezoning proposal.Blueschke was the GSA's lead negotiator on the formal protocol signed in the Homalco's Community Centre on the reserve Thursday, and the alliance has been firmly against salmon-farming expanding in the near-shore waters of the BC coast for close to a decade.Campbell River journalist Quentin Dodd is a regular contributor to The Tyee.