New salmon farm proposals for B.C. coast raise questions about Ottawa’s promised 2025 phase-out

Twelve proposals to expand or create new open-net pen operations — many pitched in partnership with First Nations — may shed light on industry’s emerging tactics to keep fish farms alive in the Pacific

A raft of proposals to expand open-net pen salmon farms on the B.C. coast, including a plan for a new salmon farm off the north-east coast of Vancouver Island, is raising questions about whether fish farming will really be phased out in the province or whether companies will find ways, such as partnerships with First Nations, to circumvent federal Liberal government pledges to remove open-net pen salmon farms from B.C. waters by 2025.

Applications to expand the number of pens or quantity of fish on existing farms have been made by Cermaq Canada, Grieg Seafood B.C. and MOWI Canada West Inc., the three major companies operating in B.C., and fish farming opponents are questioning why the applications were not immediately turned down.

Three of the 12 expansion proposals are in the Broughton Archipelago, where the B.C. government plans to phase out farms by 2023, and five proposals are in Clayoquot Sound where conservation and advocacy groups, including Clayoquot Action, have fought to have salmon farms removed because of diseases and sea lice transferred to struggling wild salmon stocks.

“It is outrageous that DFO would even consider increasing fish farm capacity or production levels in, of all places, Clayoquot Sound,” says Clayoquot Action executive director Dan Lewis, describing the applications as the last roar of a dinosaur industry trying to avoid extinction.

B.C. Salmon Farmers Association spokesperson Michelle Franze did not answer several questions from The Narwhal, but in an emailed statement said not all the proposed amendments involve more fish or more pens.

“Any increased capacity will be within licensing regulations and will not impact the health of the fish,” she wrote.

“All changes to existing farms or for proposed new farms [are] in concert with First Nations and we respect and support their rights to self-determination and governance of their territories.”

In 2019 the federal Liberals and other major political parties promised to phase out B.C.’s open-net pen salmon farms by 2025, although questions remained about whether that meant a transition plan would be in place by that date or whether the farms would be gone.

Map of B.C., showing locations of newly proposed fish farms in Broughton Archipelago and Clayoquot Sound
New salmon farming operations are being proposed for the Broughton Archipelago and Clayoquot Sound. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

Newly-minted fisheries minister Joyce Murray, Vancouver Quadra MP, has since reiterated that she is committed to phasing out the farms and her recent mandate letter supports the 2019 pledge. 

The letter, issued Dec. 16, 2021, says the federal government will continue working with B.C. and Indigenous communities on a “​​responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”

Murray, before her appointment, was already making it clear she wanted changes to salmon farming on the B.C. coast. In an email to her constituents, written last year, she said “Prime Minister Trudeau gets it. In the 2019 federal election he promised to end open-net pen salmon aquaculture by 2025. I will keep working towards fulfillment of that promise.”

In November 2020, after former fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan announced she would start consultations on ending open-net pen aquaculture, Murray described it as big news.

“The health of our sockeye salmon and concerns about the current salmon aquaculture methods have been a high priority since I was provincial environment minister and created B.C.’s first-ever regulations protecting the ocean floor from excessive waste generated by salmon farming operations,” she wrote.

Claire Teichman, Murray’s press secretary, said in an emailed response that the government is committed to transitioning from open-net pen salmon farming in B.C. waters.

However, Teichman did not say whether partnerships with First Nations would allow companies to keep farms in the water after 2025 or explain why expansion applications were not immediately rejected.

Teichman said applications for additional aquaculture facilities are assessed by DFO on a case-by-case basis and the minister’s decisions “are informed by departmental regulations, policy, science advice, fish health information and consultations with First Nations.”

Questions also remain about the promised transition plan, which, so far, has been limited to a report on public engagement and, with carefully-worded responses, it is not certain whether farms will be shuttered by 2025 or plans for the phase-out will be completed by then.

“We have committed to developing this plan by 2025,” a spokesperson for the previous fisheries minister told The Narwhal in early 2020.

Still, fish farm opponents remain guardedly confident that the commitment stands.

“I would be surprised if they back down because it’s another Liberal minority government, similar to the last one, and they made the commitment,” said Stan Proboszcz, science advisor for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, which, with Clayoquot Action, Living Oceans Society and David Suzuki Foundation, is raising concerns about the expansion proposals.

“I can’t imagine a better Liberal minister of fisheries to get these farms out of the water,” Proboszcz said, referring to Murray.

But, the expansion proposals are puzzling, especially as most federal licences are set to expire in June 2022, Proboszcz said.

“There is this looming, very important deadline in June 2022, when we will see whether the government is committed to this,” he said, adding that a concrete, action-based transition plan leading to the 2025 phase-out is desperately needed.

The plan should include federal and provincial help for fish farm employees who lose their jobs, especially in remote and First Nations communities, Proboszcz said.

Lewis, the Clayoquot Action executive director, suspects the expansion proposals are an effort by the fish farming industry to gain concessions around impending shutdowns.

“It’s kind of a tactic. It’s like asking for a milkshake and getting a cookie. They hope by making a fuss the government will soften what they’re going to do and maybe keep the farms in the water,” he said.

“Just don’t get trampled by the dinosaur as it drops and flails around,” Lewis advised the federal government, adding a reminder that any expansion of the industry moves in the opposite direction of the commitment to remove the farms.

Lewis believes there is no time to waste in getting remaining farms out of the water, especially as Clayoquot Sound has now become a stronghold of the industry at a time when wild salmon in the area are on the verge of extinction.

“There are 20 farms here, all hidden up the inlets, so they are out of sight, out of mind. People who visit Tofino don’t even realize the fish farms are here,” he said.

Clayoquot has pristine old-growth, protected in the 1990s, so habitat is not a problem, but conservation wins are being undermined by the salmon farms and the loss of wild salmon puts the ecology of the entire area at risk, Lewis said.

Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, is optimistic that the end of open-net salmon farming is in sight.

But, for those who have spent years fighting the farms, there is always a touch of caution as victories, such as the federal government decision to order salmon farms in the Discovery Islands to close by June 2022, are fought by the industry.

The four companies operating in the Discovery Islands — Cermaq, Mowi, Grieg and a numbered company — have launched a court challenge asking for a Federal Court judicial review of the decision.

“I have learned not to start singing and dancing until it’s done,” Chamberlin said.

Expansions and new farms must be approved by the federal and provincial governments. The province is responsible for tenures, such as any expansion in the area occupied by the farm, and the federal government is responsible for licences, including issues such as increases in production.

An emailed statement to The Narwhal from B.C.’s ministry of agriculture, food and fisheries does not clarify whether partnerships with First Nations will allow companies to continue operating.

“In June 2018 we announced a new salmon aquaculture policy, effective June 2022, which says no new tenures along B.C.’s coast unless the fish farm operator has negotiated agreements with the First Nations in whose territory they propose to operate and the operator can satisfy DFO (fisheries and oceans canada) that their farm will not adversely impact wild salmon stocks,” the statement reads.

B.C. salmon farm Tavish Campbell
Salmon smolts in a B.C. open-net pen salmon farm. Photo: Tavish Campbell

Salmon farming companies lean on B.C. First Nations

While some First Nations leaders are becoming increasingly concerned that companies are pushing hard for partnerships in an effort to avoid closures, others are eyeing the potential economic opportunities.

Ernest Alfred (Kwakwabalas), elected councillor for the Namgis First Nation and a Tlowitsis Nation hereditary chief, said fish farm companies are taking advantage of First Nations communities by offering financial or job benefits.

Even though the real job numbers are usually low and many First Nations do not want the farms in their territories, it can result in split communities, Alfred said.

“When you go into these communities what you find is a lot of division thanks to industry which comes in with big, fat checks and basically bribes communities. We are talking about a lot of money, which communities really need, but, when you actually talk dollars and cents you are right back at the stage of talking trade beads and old blankets infected with smallpox,” he said.

Added complications are the differences between elected chiefs, looking for economic opportunities, and hereditary chiefs, tasked with protecting the environment, Alfred said. That along with overlapping territorial claims and the problem of downstream First Nations not wanting diseases or sea lice spreading to wild fish from farms supported by upstream nations, he added. 

While some nations, such as those around the Broughton Archipelago and Discovery Islands have fought to protect their rivers and wild salmon, others are looking at benefit agreements, he said.

“Our salmon swim past our neighbour’s territory and pick up sea lice, so how does their benefit agreement override our rights to have our fish return healthy and their right to say no?” he asked.

“It is really sticky.”

Biologist and wild salmon activist Alexandra Morton is not surprised the industry is fighting and she is concerned that, as companies read the writing on the wall, they are leaning hard on First Nations.

Although not all First Nations have come to the point of actively opposing fish farming, most are not comfortable with the industry because of the documented effects on wild salmon runs, Morton said.

“I can only imagine that, under their constitution, (the companies) have to do everything they can to protect the interests of their shareholders, so they’re trying to resist the trend of phasing them out,” she said.

“What the industry looks like to me is that it’s as if the Roadrunner has gone off the cliff and his legs are still going,” Morton said.

Attitudes towards salmon farms, both among the public and within DFO, have undergone a massive change in recent years, helped by cutting edge research into pathogens on fish farms, she said.

That change in attitude was seen in November in the $500,000 fine issued to Cermaq after the company pleaded guilty to spilling 500 litres of diesel into the water near Campbell River, Morton said.

“That’s the first fine I have seen. I know it was made by a judge, however, the Crown decided to go ahead and prosecute. Normally those things are let go. That’s a real shift in the mood,” Morton said.

That attitude shift was reinforced last month by a downgrading of B.C. farmed salmon by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program which now lists the fish as “red,” which warns retailers with sustainable seafood procurement policies not to buy or sell B.C. farmed salmon.

The failing grade was assigned by Seafood Watch because of the ongoing inability of the industry to control the impact of sea lice, viruses and bacteria on wild salmon, as well as the use of delousing chemicals in farming operations.

Grieg Seafood’s B.C. fish farm proposal causing a storm of controversy 

Forming partnerships with Indigenous communities, even when First Nations are willing partners, comes with complications on the B.C. coast.

The problem of who speaks for a nation and which nations must be engaged came to a head in Port McNeill Nov. 30, 2021 when Grieg Seafood held open houses on a proposed new salmon farm in Chatham Channel.

The company, which has three more farms in nearby Clio Channel, is planning a joint venture with Tlowitsis Nation, but other nations also have claims in the area.

Ma’amtagila hereditary chief Andrew Wadhams, (Chief Hamdzidagame’ Siwis’) whose father was a hereditary chief of both the Tlowitsis and Ma’amtagila nations, said the site is clearly within Ma’amtagila traditional territory.

“We are letting them know that they are talking to the wrong people. They should be talking to us. This is our land,” Wadhams said.

“When they say this is Tlowitsis unceded territory, it’s not true,” he said.

Tlowitsis Councillor Thomas Smith said objections from other nations came as a surprise and, as Tlowitsis is in stage five treaty negotiations with the province of B.C., questions of overlapping jurisdictions should have been raised previously.

“Our traditional territorial map has been out since the beginning of the treaty process, going back to 1993 or 1994. There’s a lot of political intrigue going on and we are not quite sure why it is happening,” Smith said.

“We have had comments about it before, but we’ve never had anyone assert that we don’t have jurisdiction or it’s not ours … We’re going to try and work through it and move on,” he said.

The salmon farms are a benefit to the nation and will help finance a much-needed new community south of Campbell River, said Smith, who does not know whether Grieg’s partnership with the nation means they can carry on operating after 2025.

“We’ve done all the things we are required to do … and they can either approve our request or deny it,” he said.

Grieg communications director Amy Jonsson referred The Narwhal to a statement the company and Tlowitsis issued last June in which Grieg managing director Rocky Boschman said integrating Indigenous businesses into core operations reflects the work the company is doing around reconciliation.

Such integration is “how we create even more opportunity than before with our First Nations partners,” Boschman said.

Alfred said there is a major overlapping issue between at least four nations and the company has been told, in no uncertain terms, that, if the proposal goes ahead, it will be heading to court.

“Grieg Seafood was all but threatened with a hefty, hefty lawsuit,” Alfred said.

The proposed farm is causing angst because it would go slap dab between the two areas where farms have already been removed, Alfred said.

“In many views, it is really quite disrespectful to the many people that have fought to have the farms in the Broughton and the Discovery Islands removed,” he said.

Wadhams said hereditary chiefs were not contacted about the planned salmon farm or about the meeting and, after hearing about it at the last minute, many turned up at the open house in full regalia, accompanied by hereditary chiefs from other nearby First Nations who oppose the new farm.

“We have other nations reaching out to us in support,”  he said.

“All other nations, including the hereditary chiefs of the Tlowitsis and Ma’amtagila, are in opposition to adding any more farms in our area where our wild salmon migrate and (we want) to get the existing ones out,” Wadhams said.

Hereditary chiefs have control over land, waters, resources, title and rights — not the elected chief and council who are in place to run the band office, Wadhams said.

“So these guys aren’t including the right people at these tables and are overstepping their boundaries,” he said.

The Ma’amtagila Nation now has legal counsel and is writing to both levels of government about the proposal, Wadhams said.

“It’s mind-blowing. Our resources, our beaches and especially our wild salmon, are paying the price,” he said.

Threats to our environment are often hidden from public view.
So we’ve embarked on a little experiment at The Narwhal: letting our investigative journalists loose to file as many freedom of information requests as their hearts desire.

They’ve filed more than 300 requests this year — and unearthed a veritable mountain of government documents to share with readers across Canada.

But the reality is this kind of digging takes lots of time and no small amount of money.

As many newsrooms cut staff, The Narwhal has doubled down on hiring reporters to do hard-hitting journalism — and we do it all as an independent, non-profit news organization that doesn’t run any advertising.

Will you join the growing chorus of readers who have stepped up to hold the powerful accountable?
Threats to our environment are often hidden from public view.
So we’ve embarked on a little experiment at The Narwhal: letting our investigative journalists loose to file as many freedom of information requests as their hearts desire.

They’ve filed more than 300 requests this year — and unearthed a veritable mountain of government documents to share with readers across Canada.

But the reality is this kind of digging takes lots of time and no small amount of money.

As many newsrooms cut staff, The Narwhal has doubled down on hiring reporters to do hard-hitting journalism — and we do it all as an independent, non-profit news organization that doesn’t run any advertising.

Will you join the growing chorus of readers who have stepped up to hold the powerful accountable?

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