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News that thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon escaped a net pen at a Cooke Aquaculture farm near Victoria this week added fuel to a protest by fish farm opponents in Vancouver Wednesday.

At a rally organized by the Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance, First Nations chiefs, community representatives and citizens urged the government to crack down on fish farms, an industry they believe has devastating consequences for wild salmon populations.

The event, held in front of the DFO Pacific Region office, also marked the one-year anniversary of the arrests of Sacheen Seitcham, her husband, brother and niece for trying to prevent a fish farm company from restocking an empty feedlot near Ahousaht. The charges were later dropped.

“We have a sacred relationship with this fish,” Seitcham said to the crowd. “The first food my babies and my grandchildren ate was salmon broth.”

Seitcham says she has been called many names, including protester, land defender, warrior and water protector, but she’s mostly just a grandmother who really, really loves to eat salmon.

The fight against fish farms is a battle to ensure her children and grandchildren will be able to continue to eat salmon.

Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Indian Band reminded the crowd that wild salmon are in her people’s DNA, their blood, their history and all their ancestral stories. That’s how important wild salmon are, she insisted, and people aren’t listening.

“If the government invested their money in wild salmon, we could have healthy stock, a healthy system, and a healthy way of life,” she said.

Wilson also urged the crowd to take control with their own spending, buying and supporting wild salmon and wild salmon farmers, rather than farmed fish.

Wilson has protested outside the DFO office many times before, calling on the government to stop permitting new fish farms and get rid of the ones in place.

Chief Robert Gladstone of the Shxwá:y First Nation agreed. When Gladstone was a child about 40 years ago, he paddled up the Fraser River with his father. “We were poor people,” he shared with the crowd, “and we were trying to catch a couple coho for dinner.”

Gladstone remembers fishing with a happy calm heart, feeling tranquil, feeling whole. “It was a way of life,” he explained, and it still is for many First Nations people along the coast, who have watched the impacts of fish farms on their wild salmon populations.

“The river is powerful, but it is also capable of taking life,” Gladstone said. He said his father told him the river was sacred and that fishing was an act of communicating with the spirit.

If the DFO wants help managing the resource, Gladstone said, it needs to ask First Nations who have the capacity, the knowledge and the formal education to lead sustainable resource management.

“More important, we have the spiritual legitimacy,” he said. “It was given to us when we were put on the river and given the rules that are our culture.”

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and biologist and activist Alexandra Morton are currently investigating the impacts of fish farms in B.C. waters in a mission they call Operation Virus Hunter II.

In company with chief George Qucksister Jr. of the Laichwiltach Nation, the crew aboard the R/V Martin Sheen recently documented wild herring trapped in a salmon farm pen. They continue their research and fight for the eviction of salmon farms occupying the unceded territory of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw.

Fish farms have been linked to the spread of parasites and disease to wild salmon stocks. A 2014 study by Irish and Norwegian researchers “concluded that salmon farming increases the abundance of lice in marine habitats and that, despite the control measures routinely applied by the salmon aquaculture industry, salmon lice in intensively farmed areas have negatively impacted wild sea trout populations by reducing growth and increasing marine mortality.”

Researchers warn that escapes, like this week’s near Victoria, create the risk that farmed Atlantic salmon will spread disease and compete for food with already threatened wild salmon stocks.  [Tyee]

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