The wrath of British Columbia’s foreign-owned fish farming industry is about to descend upon Ottawa. Three multinational corporations are seeking a judicial review and an injunction against the federal government’s recent decision to remove industrial Atlantic salmon operations from the Discovery Islands by June 2022.
After intense consultations with seven First Nations, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan announced on Dec. 17 that she would terminate the licences for 19 open-net pen salmon operations in the area.
But in three separate but similarly worded legal challenges, the companies allege that the minister did not notify the firms such terminations were being contemplated or provide them with “an opportunity to know and respond to the case it had to meet regarding its Aquaculture Licence Applications.”
The companies include Mowi, the world’s largest Atlantic salmon producer; Cermaq, a global firm with feedlots in Norway, Canada and Chile; and Grieg Seafood, which operates 22 ocean feedlots in B.C. Flushed by nutrient-rich currents, the Discovery Islands account for 30 per cent of Mowi’s production in B.C.
The minister’s decision surprised many observers because the federal DFO had just weakened its sea lice restrictions to accommodate the industry’s chronic problems — a menace that has severely affected the population health of young migrating wild salmon.
And in response to recommendations made by Cohen Commission, the DFO had concluded that fish farms “pose no more than a minimal risk to Fraser River sockeye salmon abundance and diversity under the current fish health management practices.”
To industry it looked like the renewal of 19 fish farm licenses in the Discovery Islands was guaranteed.
But that’s when seven First Nations, concerned about the physical and cultural survival of wild Pacific salmon, abruptly changed the status quo. They made it clear to the minister they were convinced by research that the industry’s presence in coastal waters threatened the survival and the recovery of wild salmon.
The Liberal government has promised to move all open-net pen facilities to land-based facilities by 2025.
“This is the first time First Nations and the federal government have been allied on the future of wild salmon,” said Alex Morton, an independent scientist and advocate for wild salmon. The salmon farmers bringing suit “say they respect Aboriginal rights, and here they are in court contesting the right of First Nations to say no.”
Since the federal decision, the industry has pushed back through public relations as well. The BC Salmon Farmers Association has posted letters from employees expressing their concern that as many as 1,500 rural jobs may be lost.
Mayors in the northern part of Vancouver Island have unanimously opposed the decision. In a letter to Minister Jordan, they threw their support behind the industry.
But Homalco First Nation Chief Darren Blaney told the Victoria News that both industry and the mayors are showing little regard for the 102 First Nations that have lobbied hard for the removal of industrial feedlots from the ocean as threat to the survival of wild salmon.
“They voted unanimously to overturn this decision saying that it was a ‘mistake,’ and so does that mean my culture is a mistake?” asked Blaney. “Passing on our culture to future generations, is that a mistake? That’s what this challenge is. It goes right back to the kind of racism that our people have been treated throughout Canada.”
Morton noted that multinational salmon farming companies are being investigated in Europe and the U.S. for acting as a “cartel.” In Scotland, a number of salmon farming companies are being investigated for chemical pollution. In both cases, the companies deny any wrongdoing.
In Chile, authorities levied a record US$6-million fine on Mowi for the escape of 700,000 fish.
“This is an industry in chaos as it resists maturing into closed systems,” said Morton.
Meanwhile, orcas have returned to the Broughton Archipelago where First Nations forced the industry to remove their facilities in order to respect First Nation rights and protect dwindling stocks of wild fish.
Acoustic harassment devices used by the industry to repel fish-eating seals drove away the orcas for 20 years.
“Last year the Burdwood farm, which was located at the hub of four important channels was removed. And when it was removed, the whales came back,” said Morton, who has been documenting the movement of whales and fish in the area for more than 20 years.
The BC Salmon Farmers Association has said the federal government’s decision “puts salmon farming in B.C. and across Canada at risk... during a pandemic when local food supply and good local jobs have never been more important.”