As the federal government considers bringing in new laws to govern fish farms, there is widespread skepticism that the government will act in the public interest.
Tensions surrounding salmon farming are running particularly high in British Columbia where more than 100 operations dot the south and central coast. Many of the farms are located in the territory of First Nations who oppose open-net fish pens along wild salmon migratory routes.
‘Namgis First Nation Hereditary Chief Ernest Alfred says he finds the federal government’s consultation on potential new fish farming rules “a little suspect.”
“Let’s be honest, the federal government has, up until now, been pretty well blatantly helping this industry,” Alfred told DeSmog Canada.
Alfred said both the provincial and federal governments should realize that there can be no genuine reconciliation with First Nations while fish farms remain in the Broughton Archipelago.
“The economy on the coast is based on wild salmon,” he said. “This whole place is built on the bones and scales of the fish.”
In 2016 a Senate Committee recommended the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) introduce an Aquaculture Act and the department is now holding consultations on whether such legislation is needed and, if so, what shape it should take, spokeswoman Michelle Rainer told DeSmog Canada in an e-mail.
“Should a decision be made to develop proposed aquaculture legislation, the main aim would be to provide consistency and clarity for aquaculture operators across the country, while simultaneously reassuring Canadians that robust environmental measures are in place,” Rainer said.
DFO is wrapping up consultation sessions this month with First Nations, industry associations, licence holders, local governments and non-governmental organizations and feedback will be shared with the provinces, according to Rainer.
In the highly charged atmosphere surrounding salmon farming in B.C., suspicions about DFO’s promise of balancing industry benefits with protection of wild salmon are running at an all-time high.
The ‘Namgis First Nation, which has actively opposed salmon farming in its territory for decades, recently participated in a months-long occupation of a Marine Harvest fish farm in the Broughton Archipelago alongside the Musgamagw and Mamalililukulla First Nations.
In early March the ‘Namgis filed an application for an injunction against Marine Harvest, to prevent the company from restocking the nearby Swanson farm with up to one million Atlantic salmon smolts.
On March 26 federal Justice Michael Manson rejected the injunction request, telling the ‘Namgis their application was made too late. But Justice Manson agreed there is “real and non-speculative likelihood of harm” to the First Nation’s way of life due to fish-borne disease.
The ‘Namgis also applied for a judicial review of federal policy that allows fish to be placed into coastal farms without testing for piscine reovirus or heart and muscular disease.
“It is my opinion that the underlying application for judicial review should proceed as expeditiously as possible,” Manson said in his 41-page ruling.
Recent research found wild salmon that swim past fish farms are at a higher risk of contracting piscine reovirus, a virus that affects the health of fish hearts making it more difficult for them to swim upstream to reach spawning grounds. The Canadian Ministry of Agriculture estimates 80 per cent of Atlantic salmon farmed on the West Coast enter Pacific waters already infected with piscine reovirus.
As the federal government mulls over the need for an Aquaculture Act, the province is faced with the contentious problem of whether to renew 22 fish farm tenures of which 18 are in the Broughton Archipelago and opposed by six First Nations.
The tenures, which include Marine Harvest’s Swanson Island site, are due for renewal in June, meaning fish now being moved into the pens will not be ready for harvest until two years after the current licences expire.
British Columbia’s Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations Minister Doug Donaldson said it is too soon to speculate when a decision will be made on the tenures and government is holding discussions with First Nations.
There are opportunities for closed containment, but more work needs to be done, Donaldson said.
“There is one existing closed containment facility in B.C. and there are advancements in the technology in other parts of the world,” he said, adding the province is keeping a close eye on facilities in places like Scotland and Norway to see how B.C.’s industry could adapt.
Alfred says both governments are moving too slowly as there is already a dramatic collapse of sockeye and pink salmon runs around Kingcome and Knight Inlets.
“We know the fish farms are contributing and it’s only going to get worse,” he said.
Donaldson said he believes new aquaculture legislation could help.
“Given the federal government is the lead agency responsible for activities in Canada’s oceans, it’s important they have a strong regulatory framework in place. We share the same goal: to protect wild salmon,” Donaldson told DeSmog Canada.
Others are not so sure.
The fish farming industry has been lobbying for an Aquaculture Act since 2011, which arouses suspicions among those who want to see salmon farming moved into closed containment pens — a development that would mean dramatic changes for industry.
“One thing the industry is asking for is consistency around funding for marketing,” Stan Proboszcz, science and campaign advisor with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, told DeSmog Canada.
“Essentially, it sounds like they want more taxpayer dollars to market their industry.”
Proboszcz said he’s worried industry groups have been highly engaged with the government on the Aquaculture Act.
“Especially if the salmon farming industry is leading the charge on consultations with government, it’ll likely mean relaxed industry oversight, less monitoring, and growth of an industry that spews virus-ridden bloodwater into B.C. oceans,” he said.
Watershed Watch Salmon Society, along with Living Oceans Society, David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, West Coast Environmental Law and many others, recently wrote a sharply worded letter to the federal government after the groups found Aquaculture Act consultations were being held among fish farm stakeholders on the East Coast of Canada, but not out West.
The letter outlined several governing principles for an Aquaculture Act which include moving open-net fish farms into closed containment systems, recognition of Indigenous rights, transparent reporting systems on the use of drugs, presence of disease, lice and parasites and a strong restriction on the introduction of diseased fish into B.C. waters.
The letter resulted in government meetings being arranged with western groups but Proboszcz said the process is moving too fast, with a federal recommendation expected this June.
“I believe that, given all the problems this industry has faced recently in B.C. around viruses and diseases, escaped fish moving into our waters from Washington…everyday British Columbians deserve to have an opportunity at this stage to provide their input — not down the road when the big decisions on direction have already been made,” he said.
The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance which represents ocean farmers of seafood says legislation is needed to set clear, consistent national standards.
“(The Act) would allow for much greater federal-provincial coordination in how our industry is managed. This will simplify cross-provincial operations and focus attention on creating sound, science-based rules,” the alliance said in a statement.
“Rather than being regulated under a 150 year old Fisheries Act, the Aquaculture Act would recognize our industry as a farming activity — consistent with the approach of other leading jurisdictions around the world.”