The unveiling of the province’s new fish farm rules has generated a mixture of confusion, relief, alarm and skepticism.
On June 20, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham was expected to make an announcement about the fate of fish farm licences in the Broughton Archipelago that have been strenuously opposed by several First Nations. Those provincial licences expired at midnight and have apparently been converted to a month to month renewal.
Instead the minister rolled out a new policy for fish farms altogether.
Effective in 2022, the provincial government will only grant tenures to fish farm operators provided they meet two conditions.
The owners of industrial open net pens or fish feedlots must now prove to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (also known as DFO), which has regulated the industry since 2009, that their operations will not adversely impact wild salmon stocks.
In addition they “must negotiate agreements with the First Nation(s) in whose territory they propose to operate.”
“We will look to DFO to bring the best science to determining where and under what conditions open-pen fish farms can operate without threatening wild salmon and other species,” Popham said.
But the government media advisory added that no decision about contested tenures in the Broughton had been made. “The Province and Broughton-area First Nations are continuing discussions, which began Jan. 30, 2018, to resolve concerns regarding specific farms in the Broughton Archipelago,” it said.
Early this year the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation walked away from those negotiations on the Broughton because it didn’t feel the province was prepared to cancel tenures in a region where First Nations had not given consent to the farming operations.
Two years ago the Dzawada’enuxw, a fiercely independent people that live in Kingcome Inlet, issued eviction notices to both Marine Harvest and Cermaq who operate 20 fish farms in the Broughton.
Dzawada’enuxw leaders have characterized the industry as a colonial force that threatens wild salmon and that never had their permission to operate in their territory.
The industry has no agreements with the Dzawada’enuxw.
The Dzawada’enuxw said the new government policy would not deter its legal title claims or an injunction to squash the renewal of any fish farms in their territory.
“We are disappointed — though not surprised — by this policy, which violates our Aboriginal title and rights,” said Willie Moon (Okwilagame), Dzawada’enuxw First Nation elected chief and traditional leader.
“We will fight it in court through the various legal tools at our disposal, including an application for an injunction, a judicial review, and title and rights claims.”
Hereditary Chief Joe Willie (Hawil’kwo’lal) added that, “The fish farming industry is infringing on our way of life by breaking the natural circle of life that has sustained us since time immemorial. This cannot continue.”
In a press release, Marine Harvest said it “is aware of the position of the First Nations leadership in the Broughton area and is hopeful that the company can work constructively with them to address the concerns they have about Marine Harvest’s 12 farming sites.”
The BC Salmon Farmer’s Association, which represents the largely foreign-owned industry, seems to have been caught off guard by the broadness of the announcement.
“B.C.’s provincial government appears to be making a significant policy shift on how it will manage Crown land tenures with today’s announcement regarding salmon farms,” noted a prepared statement.
“The change in consultation requirements appears to be significant, said association spokesperson Shawn Hall. “We haven’t been involved in discussions about this change nor asked for any feedback on how it might impact our members, so need some time to consider it before commenting further.”
The industry, which leases about 120 fish farm tenures in coastal waters, exports 85 per cent of its Atlantic salmon production to high-end U.S. urban markets at a time when many First Nation communities face critical shortages of wild salmon.
Scientists generally agree that fish farms, combined with climate change, river destruction and overfishing, have played a role in decimating wild salmon stocks in Norway, Scotland, Ireland and Canada.
Although many First Nations have formal agreements with Norwegian or Japanese-owned fish farms, many do not and are adamantly opposed to the farms as a threat to wild stocks due to viral disease outbreaks and devastating sea lice plagues.
A sea lice epidemic on Japanese-owned Atlantic Salmon feedlots in Clayquout Sound has reached unprecedented levels and threatens the survival of migrating wild fish there.
The BC Union of Indian Chiefs welcomed the provincial policy change as a new approach.
“Open net-pen finfish aquaculture presents a very real threat to wild salmon, First Nations communities and to the economy of British Columbia,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
He added that the new requirements were long overdue and that “this industry needs to move to on-land closed containment facilities.”
But in interviews, Chamberlain said the Broughton can’t wait until 2022 for a decision.
Corporate industry leaders have also reached similar conclusions and cited stagnant or declining fish production caused by disease and persistent sea lice infestations — a deadly industrial problem that has devastated wild fish populations in Norway, Scotland, and Canada.
“One important factor is that we lack in the ability to manage diseases properly,” said Knut Nesse, CEO of Nutreco, at a major industry conference earlier this year.
Nutreco, a Dutch firm, is leading global provider of feed for industrial fish and shrimp farms.
“This is why we have to invest more in research and development in looking at new production systems, such as contained solutions. This will enable us to better control the animals and the environment,” added Nesse.
Independent biologist and researcher Alex Morton said the debate on fish farms has finally reached a critical turning point due to First Nation resistance.
“For the first time in 30 years the provincial government has recognized that the industry is having an impact on wild salmon and it has acknowledged that wild salmon create far more tourism and recreational jobs than fish farms,” she said.
“The question now is this: does the industry want to grow up or go away?”
The government is expected to make an announcement about the fate of the Broughton licences soon.
Once a licence has been denied by the province, the operator has 60 days to remove infrastructure, but extensions can be granted.