Ban on New Fish Farm Permits Sidelined as Escaped U.S. Farmed Salmon Increase in B.C. Waters

Fugitive fish from a collapsed salmon farm in Washington State are showing up in the waters off Campbell River, Tofino, Sechelt and Saanich, but, last week, delegates at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention side-stepped a debate on salmon farm licensing.

Instead, an emergency resolution from the Victoria council asking the province to deny any more open-net aquaculture permits and to phase out existing open-net operations in favour of land-based pens, was referred to the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities for further discussion.

The Victoria resolution, which also called for a transition plan for workers and adequate consultation with Indigenous governments, said the proliferation of open-net fish farms, stocked with Atlantic salmon, threatens local waterways and wild fish “undermining the economic, social and ecological wellbeing of local communities.”

Opponents of salmon farms fear that Atlantic salmon, packed into pens open to the ocean, spread diseases and sea lice to wild stocks. Escaped farmed Atlantic salmon from the Washington State fish farm, owned and operated by Cooke Aquaculture, have traveled as far as 250 kilometres over the last month. 

Between 2011 and 2017 there have been only three confirmed reports of Atlantic salmon off the B.C. coast, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. As the CBC reports, since August 19 the federal government has received reports of 40 sightings.

First Nations-led protests against salmon farms are continuing at two Marine Harvest fish farms off north-east Vancouver Island and the resolution points out that many fish farms were built in Indigenous territories, without consultation “undermining the shared objective of reconciliation and respectful relations between indigenous and non-indigenous governments.”

Victoria Councillor Jeremy Loveday was hoping the emphasis on finding alternatives for fish farm workers and the shock value of Atlantic salmon turning up in communities around the B.C. coast would be enough to gain the support of delegates.

“In my opinion this is not a satisfactory result. I would have liked to have had a discussion on the floor at UBCM,” Loveday told DeSmog Canada.

“I thought that, after the accident, people would be more willing to have this discussion and put their foot down and say enough is enough,” he said.

But, even though it seems the future of wild fish is at stake and the resolution suggested a job transition plan, some delegates, from municipalities with open net fish farms in their area, worried about job loss, Loveday said.

“There was a sentiment within UBCM delegates that they weren’t supportive of the motion at this time… Some are just opposed and others want more time for discussion,” he said.

Controversy over open-net fish farming has raged for more than three decades, with a resolution similar to the Victoria motion endorsed by UBCM in 2006, but concerns reached a new peak this summer.

In addition to the escape of an estimated 165,000 Atlantic salmon from the Puget Sound farm, a video released to DeSmog Canada, showed blind, diseased and deformed fish in B.C. fish pens.

The video was shot by Ernest Alfred, a traditional leader from the ‘Namgis, Tlowitsis and Mamalilikulla First Nations, who is now leading protests at the farms on Swanson and Midsummer islands.

“We don’t want fish farms in our territory and we’re going to sit here until they’re all gone,” said Alfred.

On Thursday the group Fish Farms Out Now! occupied the offices of Agriculture Minister Lana Popham while members of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound occupied the office of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser to put pressure on the provincial government to remove open-pen fish farms from territories where no free, prior and informed consent has been given.

The occupations are the first in a series of escalating actions, said a news release from the groups.

Popham said in a statement that she is committed to working with First Nations, the aquaculture industry and Fisheries and Oceans Canada “to ensure B.C.’s aquaculture sector is environmentally sustainable and respects First Nations rights while continuing to provide good jobs for British Columbians.”

In a Facebook posting Popham said the aquaculture file is complicated.

“In the next couple of weeks myself and the Premier will be sitting down with First Nations to have a government to government discussion — the beginning of a new relationship,” she wrote.

“I have also requested that federal Fisheries Minister (Dominic) LeBlanc and the industry join us at another meeting as soon as possible.”

The last new permits for fish farms in B.C. were approved in 2015 and a committee looking at wild salmon and the aquaculture industry is expected to submit a report to Popham by the end of November.

Image: Farmed salmon in a B.C. fish pen. Photo: Courtesy of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Tamo Campos.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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