The Ugly Side of “Beautiful Fish”

A recent proposal of five fish farms leaves little hope for reconciliation for North Vancouver Island First Nations

Desiree Mannila

Territory of the Ma’a̱mtagila Nation, a fact recognized by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1886 and again in 1914.

Territory of the Ma’a̱mtagila Nation, a fact recognized by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1886 and again in 1914. Photo by Tavish Campbell, courtesy of

A proposal for five new fish farms off the north coast of Vancouver Island has sparked disappointment for ocean protectors who achieved the phase-out of seventeen fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago in 2019. The farms are being proposed by John Smith from Tlowitsis First Nation, in partnership with Grieg Seafood. Smith is attempting to rezone the Chatham Chanel to allow these farms.

The proposal is in direct opposition to the work that wild fish advocates have done to remove the farms from their territories. Decades of work has resulted in the federal government committing to creating a phase out plan by 2025, as well as a promise from the Government of British Columbia to establish rigorous new rules for renewals of salmon farm tenures in BC waters past 2022. The proposal is a shock to the 102 Indigenous communities that signed a petition in 2019 demanding farms be removed from their territories.

On November 30, 2021 an open house was held in Port McNeill for the Ga’Guump Fish Farm rezoning proposal. Hereditary chiefs from at least six Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw nations gathered to voice their opposition. “We hope these deaf ears listen to the people of the land,” urged David Knox, a hereditary chief from Kwakiutl First Nation, “consultation is everything.” The chiefs reaffirm that the territory is not exclusive, and call on the agencies to cancel this proposal.

Chief Kwakwabalas urges fisheries to step back – “you are not a stakeholder here. We’re talking about our territory, and we’re talking about our title and rights.”

At the open house, Kwakwabalas, Chief Ernest Alfred, addressed the specific locations, “The Ma’a̱mtagila own this area! They own this area, but it isn’t exclusive. You need to understand that this is disputed territory.”

“The federal government needs to understand [that] as long as they continue to farm salmon in this terrible method, this terrible way, where the wild salmon come into direct conflict with the farm salmon – there’s no such thing as reconciliation” says Kwakwabalas.

Kwakwabalas is a Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw hereditary chief and elected councilor. The name “Kwakwabalas,” inherited from his great-grandfather and given through ceremony, carries generations of strength. In 2017, Kwakwabalas accompanied a group of wild salmon protectors to occupy the Swanson Island fish farm for 284 days. The participants managed to document and publicize the inadequate conditions of the farmed fish.

The Ma’a̱mtagila Nation shared a strong press release on Dec 15, 2021. “We have some strong words for our relatives – to clean up their act and to quit with the greed now,” says Alfred. The release notes that, “of the sixty people present at the online portion, none spoke in favour of the project.” Ma’a̱mtagila hereditary chief Andrew Wadhams reminds the deciding authorities, “we’re not going to go away” and urges them to “do the right thing.”

Chief Kwakwabalas at a feast marking two years anniversary of the Swanson Island occupation. | photo provided by Chief Kwakwabalas

The proposed farms are located in disputed territory between nations, explains Kwakwabalas. “One swipe of one signature, one swipe of the pen, the Smith family assumed all Ma’a̱mtagila territorial rights,” he says.

Ma’a̱mtagila – fighting for existence

The Ma’a̱mtagila are a Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw nation that amalgamated with the Tlowitsis First Nation in 1945, under an agreement to have each nation represented by one chief. Contrary to a membership vote in 1976, Alec Smith of Tlowitsis continued with sole chieftainship and named his brother, John Smith, to be successor for life in 1982. “Ma’a̱mtagila” was removed from the amalgamation in 1998, under the premise there were no members left. The Ma’a̱mtagila are currently fighting for not only their territory, but their existence.

Watershed Sentinel asked the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) about what processes are in place to address challenges, if First Nations do not want fish farms impacting their territories. The department responded, “DFO consults with First Nations that claim territory where that site is located,” and their input may be “considered by the decision-making authority.”


Contradictory information

Smith believes farmed salmon pose little threat to wild stock. In an interview with Watershed Sentinel, Smith states, “They’re not predatory, they’re just like goldfish at home.” He says, “we train all these fish, the food has to be sinking for them to eat it.”

Salmon are a predatory species, and according to a 2016 investigation on the dietary habits of Atlantic salmon, the fish were found to be an “opportunistic, generalist predator.” In 2017, videos circulated revealing farmed fish ignoring the fish food in their pen.

In 2017, out of 60 active BC fish farms, DFO sampled 7200 farmed fish, finding 7 digested wild stock – at least 4 confirmed to be herring, a valuable source of nutrition for wild species. The open-net pen farms allow bacteria, viral pathogens, and sea lice to flow out into the path of migrating wild salmon stocks, while providing an entrance for smaller wild fish such as herring and juvenile wild salmon.

Smith describes fish farms as an “economic driver” for the nation. Tlowitsis has three fish farms operating in Clio Channel. Smith describes his fish as beautiful – and expensive. In an interview with Watershed Sentinel, Smith explained most of these fish are sold in America or Ontario. He gives the example of his fish being served to the wealthy at prestigious horse races, saying only “lower grade ones” are sold locally.

Kwakwabalas stresses “the salmon collapse is almost irreversible” if these farms continue. “In our culture, we’re told stories, we can’t abuse anything or mistreat any of the environment, or things will be taken away. We’ve messed around with Mother Nature far too long.”

Following the discontinuation of restocking several farms in the Discovery Islands, Kwakwabalas says that after “30 years of monitoring” they witnessed salmon migrating to the sea that “were not molested by sea lice, or pathogens or disease.” The industry is actively trying to discredit these important findings.


Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw hereditary chiefs refuse to be silenced

In August 2021, a committee of Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw hereditary chiefs responded to the rezoning request by writing to several governing bodies, “we are vehemently opposed to any fish farms within the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw territories.” They asserted “you cannot meet the needs of the Indigenous people, nor do you have the authorization to make such a decision.” The letter concluded stating there is a “conflict of interest” in the support for fish farms from the Nanwakolas council*, adding there has been no consultation with all the nations they claim to represent.”

The Nanwakolas council aids five nations, including Tlowitsis, with land and water agreements and provides a Guardianship Program that protects “ancestral rights and responsibility to take care of their lands, waters, wildlife and food sources for future generations” (Nanwakolas Council). On paper, the Nanwakolas Council is formed of a board of directors, with a director for each nation. Nations are supposed to vote for a director. In practice, this is not happening, according to a member from one of these nations. Wishing to remain anonymous, they explain their nation has been left out of consultation and has not been able to vote for who represents their nation. The Nanwakolas Council declined to comment on the matter.

Smith says one of the jobs of his nation’s Guardian program is to defend fish farms “invaded by anti-fish farm people.”

Chief Kwakwabalas believes it is up to the community to stop turning a blind eye. “We can’t keep just ruining the environment and thinking that we’re all going to be okay.” He urges fisheries to step back, “you are not a stakeholder here. We’re talking about our territory, and we’re talking about our title and rights.”

“Reconciliation is in plain view,” Kwakwabalas says. He says this will require people to step beyond their personal lives, to dedicate themselves to this fight. “That looks like guardianship.”

Photo by Tavish Campbell

*Editor’s note: Nanwakolas did not respond to the request for an interview requested on October 4th.

Desiree Mannila is a proud member of the Da’naxda’xw first nation. In addition to her new ventures with journalism, she is a full-time mom and student at Thompson Rivers University. She is currently a participant in the Watershed Sentinel’s Indigenous Junior Reporter Mentorship Program.

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