Hummingbirds circled the cedar woven hat worn by Hereditary Chief Gigame George Quocksister Jr, Tsahaukuse.
He was speaking to a flotilla protest May 23 at an empty fish farm in the Discovery Islands, off the east coast of Vancouver Island.
“We do not want any farms restocked in our territory. We’ve been trying to get these farms out of our territory for 18 years,” he says.
Quocksister is Laichwiltach, and he was joined by elected Chief Darren Blaney, of Homalco Nation.
The two chiefs say they’re committed to protecting wild salmon. They thanked Minister Bernadette Jordan for her decision to phase out fish farms, and hope it is a turning point in the story of declining stocks.
“Ǧilakas’la (thank you) says Quocksister in Kwak’wala. In ʔayʔaǰuθəm (Ayajuthem), Blaney says, “E’mote.”
In December, fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan announced her decision to phase out fish farms by July 2022.
The protests were in response to the restocking of three fish farms – agreements were in varying stages of discussion with at least two First Nations.
Minister Jordan has now decided against the restocking of fish farms at Cermaq’s Venture Point and Brent Island sites. The company also applied to extend operating dates beyond her July 2022 deadline – which the minister has also denied.
Restocking “just one more time”
Chief Chris Roberts of We Wai Kum says his nation was in the process of an agreement with Cermaq, the Mitsubishi owned aquaculture company.
“They can say it took them by surprise, but this decision was coming. So I think they could have been a lot more proactive in preparing for it. There was a judicial review. I believe Mowi Canada also filed an injunction with the courts and they won that,” Roberts explains. “It meant that the minister had to consider an application to restock the farms.”
Justice Peter George Pamel decided in an April 5 decision that Mowi Canada West and Saltstream would “suffer real and irreparable harm” if they werren’t allowed to restock three farms in the Discovery Islands for one more cycle.
“This was a very tough decision for my council to make, and myself – to even go down this pathway,” says Roberts, who sees this as another example of the government making decisions for First Nations. “Essentially our sovereignty of our territory was being challenged.”
“As a Nation among the Laich-kwil-tach with very strong title and rights to the area in question, we see ourselves as the appropriate decision maker – rather than a rights holder that has to be consulted.”
Roberts says part of the problem is a difference in perspective around obligation to consult, “to hear out our issues and concerns with the decision still ultimately being left up to the DFO Minister. That is not reconciliation and that is not moving along a spectrum of implementing UNDRIP.”
Roberts says 80-90 per cent of these farms are located within the Laich-kwil-tach territory, which includes Wei Wai kum, We Wai Kai, and Kwaikah Nations.
“An extent of that brings in Klahoose, Tla’amin, Homalco, and even K’omoks, but it’s our core area right in the doorstep of our villages and where we live. And that’s added a layer of complication.”
Cermaq proposed to postpone restocking until after the out-migrating Fraser sockeye had passed through the area. Roberts says that’s great they considered that, to mitigate impacts.
However, it takes 18 months to grow to full size. Roberts notes a delayed start would mean they wouldn’t complete their growth cycle until after June 2022, when all 19 farms in the area are supposed to be out.
The 18-month growth cycle also means the “consideration” of out-migrating salmon isn’t completely accurate – the farmed fish would have been only be 75 per cent grown and still in pens when 2022 migrating salmon pass through.
“At the heart of it, we do have the same objectives over the long term, which is restoration of wild salmon rehabilitation of our ecosystem and watersheds to be able to bring back those historical numbers that we can rely upon,” says Roberts.
Chief Blaney gestures to the inlets behind the fish farm at Brent island. “We called this ƛaqnač (KL-aq-nuch), it meant ‘long in the back.’ Our people used to have smoke houses and cabins there. They can get [the fish farms] out of there, and we can rebuild the stocks in these areas. There’s so many little creeks our people relied on.”
The difference is in perspectives of how much the fish farm impacts correlate to salmon stock decline.
Roberts says there are multiple factors. “The light’s been shone on the impact of the salmon farming activities on the migratory pathway. And it’s really complex, there’s tons of other impacts.” He gives examples of forestry practices and harvests en route.
Quocksister says while there may be multiple threats to wild stocks, he believes the fish farms have been the largest impact.
Biologist Alexandra Morton says after only five months of fish farm closures in the Discovery Islands, the impacts are visible and measurable. “The number of sea lice infecting juvenile wild salmon in Okisollo Channel has declined by 95 per cent between 2020 and 2021. We are beyond excited to report that most of the young salmon look pristine, with iridescent scales untouched by sea lice,” she wrote.
“So that means our future, it gives us hope for the future. And I think that’s what we were all hoping for when we got this farm shutdown,” Blaney says.
“It’s no secret that when the fish farms got here our salmon stock started to decline – to its lowest point in recorded history,” says Quocksister.
He says ten years ago, 30 million salmon returned to this area – and last year the numbers declined to 283,000.
“Any First Nation that signs an agreement with fish farms, they should have to forfeit their food, social and ceremonial fish because that’s happening with every other First Nation if the stocks are wiped out. It’s forfeiting everybody’s food, social and ceremonial,” says Blaney.
Blaney believes the salmon can stand a chance in rebuilding, if all the fish farms are removed.
He gestures to the inlets behind the fish farm at Brent island.
“We called this ƛaqnač (KL-aq-nuch), it meant ‘long in the back.’”
The inlet stretches out long and narrow behind the island.
“Our people used to have smoke houses and cabins there. They can get them [fish farms] out of there, and we can rebuild the stocks in these areas. There’s so many little creeks our people relied on,” says Blaney.
“Our fish – they are resilient. They will come back if we give them the chance. If you keep these farms out of here, we’ve closed the door,” Quocksister says.
Roberts says Cermaq has told him the restocking would have meant 30-40 jobs would be preserved a little longer.
Quocksister disagrees that the large companies have local jobs in mind, saying, “I can’t see them doing this for the workers. It’s all about the profit.”
Blaney says it’s discouraging to hear of First Nations willing to help foreign aquaculture companies restock.
“Any First Nations that signs an agreement with fish farms, they should have to forfeit their food, social and ceremonial fish because that’s happening with every other First Nation if the stocks are wiped out. It’s forfeiting everybody’s food, social and ceremonial,” says Blaney.
“So it’s quite a trade-off: a few dollars for our culture, a few dollars for food that’s meant for impoverished communities. The food coming from these oceans are what will help restore our people’s health and their diets.”
Blaney points out the fish farm profits are not going to Canadian companies. Mitsubishi-owned Cermaq along with Norwegian-based Mowi and Grieg Seafood own 90%of BC’s farmed salmon industry.
He says rebuilding wild stocks will restore “this coast as it was”, and will bring back food security and livelihoods for locals, such as sports fishing and commercial fishing.
“There are big flood lights on all night long at the fish farms, four of them. Pit lamping has been illegal since 1966. These attract all the baby fish, is it any wonder our salmon are gone?”
“It’s not going to be overnight,” Blaney says, noting the four year cycle, ”they have to build up over a few generations,”says Blaney.
Quocksister says all the fish farms must be removed, not just in the Discovery Islands.
Blaney agrees, and explains the journey Fraser River sockeye must make to get to the ocean. The salmon fry travel from the Fraser River, through Discovery Islands, to the open ocean after passing the north tip of Vancouver Island.
Along with concerns of virus or disease, wild stock conservationists have questions about the lights used at night time.
“There are big flood lights on all night long at the fish farms, four of them. Pit lamping has been illegal since 1966. These attract all the baby fish, is it any wonder our salmon are gone?” asks Quocksister.
Roberts shares this concern.
“As fishermen we’re out there trying to get herring, we’ll turn the floodlights on while bringing them up. You can’t tell me they’re not attracted to the light,” he says.
Roberts says Wei Wai Kum’s agreement hoped to incorporate more stringent measures, and he has questioned Cermaq about the lights.
“The pit lamping thing, that’s one that we haven’t settled on,” Roberts says. He says he’s been told the farms rely on an artificial growth cycle. The fish can be fed more if they are awake, therefore growing faster.
Genetic study on fish farm virus
A new study released May 26 conducted genetic analysis at University of British Columbia. The study concludes that PRV-1 originated from Norwegian salmon farms. “DFO said don’t worry, it was a local and harmless virus,” says Morton.
The genetic analysis shows this is not the case, this specific virus called PRV-1 was brought from Norwegian fish farms.
“What is really disturbing is some of the scientists on this paper are in DFO,” says Morton. This virus has spread into the Skeena, Rivers Inlet, up the Fraser River. The government coverup is over, but the impact will be much harder to erase than the sea lice,” says Morton.
“I’m really disappointed in our consultation process with DFO,” says Quocksister. “This is a constitutional obligation from the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Chief Quocksister and Chief Blaney apply a traditional lens to their leadership that considers generations to come, they say.
Their Nations are a salmon culture, and salmon were seen “as gift-bearing relatives, and were treated with great respect.” This has been a foundation for over 10,000 years.
2021 is the seventh year of no sockeye to feed their people.
Aboard the Marinet during the flotilla, Blaney shared an ancient story about the salmon standing up first of all the animals, to offer themselves for the humans. He explains the cultural obligation was to care for, and respect the land, plants, and animals.
“We’re losing ground on that, because it’s become all about the money and that’s not a way to be respectful of our environment. We have to hold our end of the bargain.”
Blaney doesn’t want this to be the last generation to know of Homalco’s salmon culture.
Blaney and Quocksister welcome Minister Jordan’s decision to not restock, “It is a good decision for salmon,” says Blaney.
“There is still the issue of a company overturning the Minister’s decision and leaving First Nations out of the judicial review. It is a bad precedent for Aboriginal rights across Canada.”
Quocksister rallied the protestors at the flotilla, “We have to push hard so that these farms don’t get restocked. Our salmon are at the brink now, we have to fight harder to maintain our salmon.”
Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is a guest on Klahoose, Homalco, Tla’amin territories. She works with IndigenEYEZ, has written and produced for First People’s Cultural Council project and Cortes Radio. Her journalism covering Indigenous health, Vancouver Island, and Indigenous art, can be found at IndigiNews, the Discourse, APTN, and the (Toronto) Star, among other places.