Crunch Time for BC's Contested Salmon Farms

With tenures up for renewal in June, will the BC government honour their commitment to Indigenous rights?

Alice De Wolff

Wild salmon defenders at Betty Cove (Bonwhick Island) fish farm site | Photo: April Bencz

The BC government is facing a coalition of First Nations and a widening spectrum of groups that are opposed to open net pen salmon farming in BC’s wild salmon migration routes. These nations and groups are waiting on the government’s critical decision to deny or approve the renewal of provincial tenures for fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago, as the tenures for 20 contested fish farms are up for renewal on June 20.

Seven First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago have been in discussions with the provincial government since last summer, when they publicly stated their lack of consent to the operation of open net pen farms in their territories. In August 2017, they also began direct actions, including occupations of fish farm sites. In the fall, the new NDP government committed itself to respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which includes the right to free, prior and informed consent on the part of First Nations.

The government’s decision on the renewal of these tenures presents its first opportunity to indicate whether it intends to actually implement its commitment to the UN Declaration.

While activists have been ordered by the courts to stay off the fish farms, the camp near a Marine Harvest farm on Swanson Island remains active. Other activists are regularly out on the water monitoring the industry’s activities on 18 other contested farms. What has developed over the last two months is the emergence of other groups and government bodies that are picking up the critique of the industry.

This is a critical month. The pressure is on BC MLAs to show that they intend to respect UNDRIP by not renewing the tenures contested by the seven First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago, who have been clear and unified in stating that fish farms do not have their consent to operate in their traditional territories.

In March, Washington State decided to phase out open net pen Atlantic salmon aquaculture farms. BC is now the only jurisdiction on North America’s west coast that allows these farms.

In early April, 50 of BC’s top chefs signed a letter urging the BC government to end leases for open net salmon farms. Chef David Hawksworth said: “It’s clear that these salmon farms are bad for the fish and the environment and, as a result, our industry.”

Later in the month, the Association of Vancouver Island & Coastal Municipalities supported two resolutions: the first opposed open net pen fish farms, and the second supported protecting wild salmon. All BC municipalities will further debate these motions in the fall.

Recent reports

Both the federal and BC provincial governments have received reports in the last month that support the concerns raised by First Nations, environmental and other opponents of open net pen salmon farms.

What has developed over the last two months is the emergence of other groups and government bodies that are picking up the critique of the industry.

On April 5, the BC government released a January 2018 report from from the Advisory Council on Finfish Aquaculture, which was set up in 2016 to advise the provincial government on salmon farming. It’s unclear whether the report provides a blueprint for provincial policy, however its recommendations include that the government:

• keep the moratorium on new salmon farm tenures until a public feedback process is complete
• consider putting farms in areas where there is lower salinity to reduce sea lice infestations
• establish a cap on how many farmed fish are allowed in a certain area
• establish an independent science council to review “conflicting science” and fill information gaps about the farms.

Importantly, the Minister’s Advisory Council also recommended that the government “Acknowledge and incorporate First Nations’ rights, title and stewardship responsibilities in all aspects of fish farm governance, including tenuring, licensing, management and monitoring in a manner consistent with UNDRIP.” The industry has stated their opposition to this recommendation. In an April 5 press conference, BC Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said the government will keep the moratorium on new salmon farm tenures in place while it gets feedback from the public and First Nations on other recommendations in the report.

Pressure on the Federal Government

Federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand released her audit of open net fish farming on April 24. It concludes that the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is not adequately managing the risks salmon farms pose to wild fish. The report emphasizes the need for the government to address the conflict of interest within DFO’s mandate between protecting wild salmon and promoting the salmon farming industry. It recommends that DFO:

• conduct disease risk assessments by 2020
• clarify its role in the prevention of disease in wild salmon, and apply the precaution- ary principle to managing aquaculture
• establish safe thresholds for the deposits of drugs and pesticides into net pens, and develop independent testing of these thresholds
• establish national standards for nets and other equipment to prevent fish escapes
• enforce compliance with regulations.

“The department [DFO] is at risk of being seen to promote aquaculture over the protection of wild salmon,” Commissioner Gelfand said. Eddie Gardiner of Wild Salmon Defenders takes this further: “It is more accurate to say that Canada’s regulatory regime fails to protect wild fish from fish farms. It is forced to focus on ‘mitigation’ and not prevention. It is impossible to regulate this industry to sustainability and protect wild salmon because open net pen technology is fundamentally flawed.”

This is a critical month. The pressure is on BC MLAs to show that they intend to respect UNDRIP by not renewing the tenures contested by the seven First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago, who have been clear and unified in stating that fish farms do not have their consent to operate in their traditional territories. Both levels of government need to demonstrate with concrete action that the health of wild salmon comes before the demands of the fish farming industry.


Alice de Wolff is a member of the Comox Valley Chapter and the national Board of the Council of Canadians.

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