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Two Towns, One Choice

How salmon farming resuscitated a coastal nation and why another said no. First in a series.

Helen Polychronakos 22 May

Helen Polychronakos is a Vancouver-based writer. Her graduate thesis at the University of British Columbia's school of journalism explored B.C.'s aquaculture industry.

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George Robinson, fish farm harvester.

[Editor's note: Last week, a committee of the B.C. legislature called on the province to end open net fish farming on B.C.'s coast in the next five years. For the past eight months, Vancouver journalist Helen Polychronakos has been exploring the world of fish farms and B.C.'s aboriginal communities. This week, in a special Tyee series, we present her reporting on the environmental, economic and cultural impacts of aquaculture and aboriginals on B.C.'s coast.]

The cannery in Lax Kw'alaams, a Tsimshian fishing community 30 kilometres north of Prince Rupert, is deserted. When it was first built in the 1970s, 130 people worked two 12-hour shifts. Every day, around the clock, they stripped fish and filled cans. There were always more fish to strip and more cans to fill. But in the mid '80s the fish stopped coming. By 1996 the band was almost bankrupt. Since then, the cannery has been open on and off, and unemployment had reached as high as 95 per cent.

But down the coast, past Prince Rupert, in Klemtu, a native fishing community on Swindle Island off the Central Coast, the cannery is thriving. The boardwalk in town bustles with employees in hairnets and white smocks. Transport equipment bleeps and flashes as it moves Styrofoam boxes from the conveyor belt to the dockside totes. In a just a few days, yesterday's harvest of Klemtu farmed salmon will be available at a supermarket near you.

Fish farm firms first courted the pristine waters on B.C. First Nations' territory in the 1980s. Back then, fishing communities up and down the coast were in crisis. A changing global market, a warming Pacific Ocean, and the federal government's fishing policies were destroying the industry. First nations' towns that had depended on fish for centuries faced a future with no income and no jobs. Salmon farms stepped into the breach, offering new economic opportunities that could revive these communities. But they come at an environmental cost. Klemtu took the bait. Lax Kw'alaams won't bite. Today, the contrast between the two villages is striking.

This story, the first in a Tyee series on fish farming and B.C. aboriginal communities, examines the economic consequences of saying yes or no to salmon farms. It also looks back at the domestic policies and global pressures that helped kill a resource that fed B.C.'s coastal nations for centuries.

Klemtu plunges into salmon farms

It's December 2006. Percy Starr, a former elected chief, member of the order of Canada and now band manager of the Kitasoo/Xaixais nation in Klemtu, walks into the band office with a box of mandarin oranges imported from China.

"Watermelon...cantaloupes in December. Everything is farmed," he says. "What's their problem with farmed salmon?"

Starr's hearing isn't what it used to be, so his speech is a little slurred. But his defense of the deal he struck in 1998 with Marine Harvest Canada (acquired by the Norwegian farming giant Pan Fish in January 2007) is clear and pointed.

"Marine Harvest -- beautiful people," Starr says. "They accept us for who we are. They're willing to listen. They don't impose."

In Klemtu, salmon farms are a welcome -- and rare -- economic opportunity. Four times a week, around seven in the morning, 15 harvesters board the Island Joye for one of three net-pen sites in Finlayson Channel. They return around seven in the evening with 5,500 fish in the holds of the boat. The next day, 30 employees process the salmon at the Kitasoo-owned plant. About six people pack the fish in Styrofoam boxes. Every couple of days, a tote carries the frozen fish to Bella Bella, where a Vancouver-bound truck picks it up.

In total, Klemtu's salmon farms provide 50 jobs and produce eight to nine million pounds of fish a year. Annual revenues total a million dollars. Monthly salaries for salmon-farm-related work range from $1,500 to $2,000. A vast improvement on the $185 they used to get from welfare. The unemployment rate in Klemtu is still around 40 per cent during the eight months of the year that salmon farms are in operation, but it rises to about 60 when they are not.

That's not perfect, but it's better than the 90 per cent unemployment Klemtu faced in the '80s and '90s. Back then, the only jobs the town had were in the band office and the school. The few fish they processed weren't worth enough to pay for shipping and processing.

Things got so bad that the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs almost moved the community to Kitimat. But the residents here have deep roots. The Kitasoo are one of the last groups to speak Southern Tsimshian, rather than the more prevalent Coast Tsimshian. The Xaixais descend from the Heiltsuk in nearby Bella Bella.

Faced with the end of their village, and maybe their way of life, Starr and his economic development officer Ben Robinson scrambled for other options: they negotiated with the federal and provincial governments; they bargained with industry giants such as B.C. Packers. What they wanted was a business partner who would keep their fish plant working, but couldn't find one they felt comfortable with.

So, between 1989 and 1993, they dove into salmon farms. The village operated Kitasoo Aquaculture Ltd. independently until 1998. But when the band realized they didn't have the resources to keep it going, they again sought a partner. Marine Harvest offered them a deal that gave the Kitasoo a lot of control over the management of salmon farms.

The site tenures are owned by the Kitasoo. Their renewable, 10-year contract is revised and fine-tuned every five years. The band has trained divers who conduct independent studies of the ecosystem. If they find anything troubling, Klemtu can pull out of the deal with 30-days notice.

Though sea cucumber cultivation and logging also provide some jobs, salmon farms account for 50 per cent of the town's economy. They've allowed this community to thrive, despite the infrastructure gaps that cut Klemtu off from the rest of the province and to maintain, in at least some form, the connection to a fish that has fed their people for centuries.

'Fish people'

Relying on boats and the sea is nothing new for the Kitasoo/Xaixais.

"We are fish people," says Starr. "We use herring eggs, we smoke salmon, we jar it, we eat it fresh."

Starr's childhood in the '30s and '40s was synchronized to the life cycle of the salmon. In spring and summer, his family left Klemtu for one of the camps scattered along the coast and its adjacent rivers. Men fished and children and women dried, smoked and jarred. Starr's mother would fill 10 apple crates a year to last through winter. She sold or traded surpluses.

The cycle persisted after contact with Europeans. The newcomers colonized the coast with canneries that employed children and their mothers. Aboriginal fishermen were enlisted to supply the processing plants. In the summer, though, everyone returned to their fishing camps. Starr's three sons inherited his way of life.

They may, however, be the last generation to learn the ways of the fish people.

"Years ago, there was no commercial demand [for salmon] yet, so we had miles and miles and weeks and weeks of spawn," says Starr. Today there's spawning here and there. The rivers that were giving us the salmon, they don't have enough spawners. They don't have enough"

Sea change hits coastal First Nations

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) first noticed troubled fish stocks in the North Pacific in the 1950s. A century of industrialization and demand on a capitalist scale was then beginning to show its effect on marine resources. World War II inventions such as radar technology and diesel engines helped drive an overheated fishing industry.

"The fallacy of the notion that the fish were inexhaustible became apparent," says Don Radford, B.C.'s regional director at DFO.

In 1966, licenses for commercial fishing became mandatory. The DFO also imposed limits on the size and capacity of vessels and gear. But technology kept turning against them, like an unstoppable Frankenstein. Over the years, boats equipped with freezers, global positioning systems and other gadgets caught more fish, faster.

So in the '70s, the department imposed quotas on the number of fish that could be caught. The communal quota they started, though, was a disaster. It goaded fishermen into a race for the "total allowable catch" (TAC) calculated by DFO.

"[With group quotas] the fishery can happen quickly. Sometimes it's as short as 15 minutes," says Radford. "You can overshoot, and you don't know who caught the fish that went over the quota."

After the group quota fiasco, the DFO switched to an individual quota system for species like kelp and herring. Each fisherman was allocated a share of the TAC.

"Once they've caught their share, they're done," says Radford. "The fishery is managed much more conservatively -- there is no over-harvesting related to competition around the race for the fish."

Radford adds that this system of individual quotas has saved herring and virtually every species it has been applied to.

But salmon, which First Nations such as Lax Kw'alaams and Klemtu have relied on for centuries, is not amenable to this statistical approach to conservation. It's hard to determine a sustainable TAC for a fish that moves around like the salmon.

Climate change has aggravated the situation. Warmer waters wreak havoc on the salmon return. So it grows more and more unpredictable every year.

As a result, salmon is still managed by communal quota and the window of opportunity for commercial fishermen is extremely short.

Battling in the courts

Lax Kw'alaams' fishing fleet, for instance, remains anchored to the dock most of the year. "Years ago, they fished four months a year," says Wayne Drury, fisheries manager for the Nine Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams (NATT). "Now, they're lucky if they get two weeks."

In November 2006, the band sued the federal government, demanding they be granted expanded commercial rights over fishing waters located in their traditional territories.

"It's about the right to make a reasonable living from section 35 [of the 1982 Constitution Act], which says that we can collect sea resources for ceremonial and traditional purposes, but that we can't sell it," says Drury.

Section 35 recognizes that fishing is a way of life for B.C.'s First Nations. So the DFO subtracts from the total allowable catch a number of fish reserved for aboriginal social and ceremonial practices, as well as for their basic food subsistence. The privilege, however, does not apply to commercial fishing rights. Aboriginal fishermen still have to stick to their allotment of the TAC for fish they want to sell. And that quota is too restrictive, according to the Lax Kw'alaams. It does not allow them to make a comfortable living. In their court case, the band is asking the government to recognize expanded commercial rights for Lax Kw'alaams fishermen.

Lax Kw'alaams takes the high but rocky road

In the meantime, however, an alternative economic base has remained elusive for the NATT. In 2000, the band contemplated salmon farms as a way to revive an economy devastated by the loss of fisheries. But after some discussion, the hereditary and elected councils came to unanimous decision: fish farms were just too risky.

"We may be desperate for jobs, but we're not so desperate that we're willing to sacrifice our natural resources," says Eugene Bryant, who was a councillor at the time.

The economy hasn't flat-lined completely. There have been a few make-work projects, such as the federally-funded construction of a cement boardwalk. The band office, the school, the recreation centre and the health centre also offer a few jobs each. While forestry contracts provide about 19 spots, with seven more to come next year. There are also a few general stores, video stores, and a gift shop.

Unfortunately, the effects of the closed cannery trickle down to all these businesses. A sign at one of the general stores reads, in black marker: "No pay, No credit." It lists three people who have been barred from shopping here.

Ironically, this store is on the ground floor of a well-maintained white and blue clapboard building called "The Rocky Road Hotel."

Tourism is one option they've considered. But they have little control over it and reap few benefits from the fishermen who come here every summer.

In August 2006, the province sponsored a $100,000 Coho derby just off the shores of Lax Kw'alaams. This flashy marketing campaign was intended to revive tourism in Northern B.C.

But all local communities get from these schemes is an irritating reminder of their exclusion.

"We see guys come up here all the time. Voom... voom... voom...they take our fish and don't put anything back," says band councillor Gerry Lawson.

While sports fishermen zoom around in luxury boats, the commercial fishermen of Lax Kw'alaams are forced to swallow DFO's bitter medicine of quotas and restrictions. That doesn't seem fair to Lawson's colleague, Gloria Russel.

"Over the years our fishermen couldn't take Coho out of the water," she says "DFO was trying to restock the Coho for the derby."

Russel's assessment of the derby may sound cynical, but who can blame her? Lax Kw'alaams seems to have gotten a raw deal all around.

The town is only 30 kilometres north of Prince Rupert. It shouldn't be "isolated." But there is no highway along the Tsimpsean peninsula, so it is. A round trip on the sea plane costs $80, and the B.C. Ferries' boat only stops twice a week -- and only then when the weather's good. An RCMP detachment and full-time nurses look after the community of 1,200, but the doctor only comes in once a week. The school, meanwhile, only goes up to grade 10, after which students, if they make it that far, have to move to the city. If they have relatives in Prince Rupert or Vancouver, they're lucky. If not, they board with strangers.

The band hopes that if they can win expanded rights over the commercial fishery they can bring in enough cash to begin to address some of these problems.

Bad management blamed for difficult choices

But winning that right could be difficult. There is a long held European legal precedent underlying the government's right to manage the fisheries as they choose.

"It goes back to Magna Carta," says the DFO's Radford. "There is a clause that committed the King to stop granting exclusive fishing rights. Out of this prohibition, came the notion that the fish were a common property."

The DFO quotas were originally meant to mitigate the excessive fishing brought on by this free-for-all. However, the government relies on these ancient precedents to justify its reticence to grant special fishing privileges to First Nations.

B.C.'s Sports Fishermen's Alliance echoes this point. They've hired a lawyer to give their point of view (which falls on the side of government) in the Lax Kw'alaams court case.

"They [Lax Kw'alaams] are claiming ownership and the right to dictate who can and cannot fish," says the Alliance's president, Bill Otman, adding that fish are a public resource according to Canadian law.

But these European precedents ring hollow to First Nations such as Lax Kw'alaams. They want to retrace the paths and lineages that lead back to their ancestors.

"Harvesting the ocean used to be the backbone of the community," says Drury. "Of course, you can't survive off the marine harvest alone."

Drury points to the talks about the "grease trails that were once the height of Tsimshian entrepreneurship," as one example of their former economic diversity.

"The Coast Tsimshian had trails from the coast to inland, all the way to Portland in the U.S. They traded oolichan (candlefish) grease for other things. The commercial fishery is an offshoot of that."

Questioning the collapse

Drury isn't alone in his belief that DFO's quotas and restrictions have brought unnecessary hardships to coastal First Nations. B.C.'s fish stocks may not be crashing quite as dramatically as we've been led to believe, says Charles Menzies, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia, a former commercial fisherman and expert witness in court cases involving aboriginal fishing rights.

"There's no collapse of fisheries. That's a pile of nonsense," Menzies says. "Small streams have been diminished, but the overall production is stable. The crisis is a social crisis. [Aboriginal fishermen] have been excluded."

For one, many of their own resource management practices are now illegal. For centuries, chiefs would reengineer creeks and streams to ensure maximum takings during the salmon spawn, but this practice is now hampered by legal restrictions.

Menzies says it doesn't make sense for the government to criminalize aboriginal management techniques. They never endangered the ecosystem to the same extent as European fishing practices.

Furthermore, DFO's quotas and fees have made it impossible for small coastal communities to pursue their traditional livelihood.

"The cost of fishing is getting higher and higher, and the rate of return is not worth it anymore," says Menzies. A new halibut license, for instance, costs about $3,500 and a new seine boat $2 million.

"[The government] would have to add 40,000 to 50,000 pounds to the halibut quota to make it worth it," Menzies says.

But Radford argues that factors beyond DFO's control are causing the economic crises faced by so many of BC's coastal First Nations who rely on Coho, Pink and Chinook.

These species were once a lucrative industry. But in the 1980s, Norway developed aquaculture technology. When salmon farming spread to Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Chile, wild salmon lost their value on the world market.

"Norway and Chile provide by far and away the greatest proportion of salmon to the world's markets. That changed the price structure," says Radford. "The fuel cost to take out a boat to go and chase down salmon is very high now days."

And, of course, climate change and warmer waters in the North Pacific have led to an observable decline of salmon returns in the Fraser, the Skeena, and their tributaries.

To mitigate the resulting economic hardships, DFO invested $11 million in the Northern Native Fishing Corporation. This group purchased 245 licenses that are communally owned and available to aboriginal fishermen.

Unfortunately, whether you blame the global market, climate change, or government quotas, licenses may be useless if they can't get you enough fish to make a living.

Different solutions

Kitasoo hereditary chief and elder Archie Robinson thinks it'd be best to lay off endangered stocks for now.

"I witnessed the demise of the salmon," he says. "The environmentalists say, 'protect the wild salmon.' Where's the goddamn wild salmon?"

Salmon farms seemed like a suitable alternative when, in the mid '80s, Klemtu was left with a single gillnet boat, a processing plant, and no fish.

Elders like Starr and Robinson don't regret the deal with Marine Harvest that granted their people's wish to stay.

"When you meet these people they're happy," says Starr. "They're smiling." Indeed, the daily bustle around Klemtu's dock is a post-card-perfect snapshot of success.

At lunch time, the boardwalk fills with workers headed for the café. Winnie Robinson walks briskly with a friend.

Like everyone in this small community, she stops to greet a stranger. When asked how she likes working at the factory, she beams that special Klemtu smile and says:

"Keep them coming. I love it!" Then, taking note of the stranger's pen, tape recorder and camera, she adds, "Don't ruin it for us."

Meanwhile, the cannery in Lax Kw'alaams remains closed. Their fishing fleet bobs on the choppy waters by the dock. There is no resolution in sight for the court battle they've waged against the DFO and the sports fishing industry. Economic viability lies at the end of a long -- and rocky -- road. But it might be worth the wait. They are, perhaps, the tortoise to Klemtu's hare, taking their time to find a more sustainable solution.

[Stay tuned for part two of the Tyee's special series on salmon farming and Aboriginal communities' aquaculture ecological impact]  [Tyee]

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