Adam Olsen Legislature

Green MLA Adam Olsen on how B.C.’s new fish farm rules could backfire

‘We are allowing these companies to pollute for free’

The law of unintended consequences could see the NDP government’s new rules regulating fish farm tenures have the opposite effect, says B.C. Green Party MLA Adam Olsen.

The new regulations, which do not take effect until 2022, say companies must negotiate agreements with First Nations in whose territory they propose to operate and the industry must convince Fisheries and Oceans Canada their operations will not adversely affect wild salmon stocks.

Expiring tenures in the Broughton Archipelago, which have been the focus of First Nations protests and frustrations, are being renewed on a month-by-month basis while government-to-government talks are held between the province and First Nations in the area.

Olsen worries the NDP plan will create division among First Nations as some, within the immediate coastal area, could be persuaded to welcome the industry because of lucrative benefit agreements without broader consideration of the effect on wild salmon.

Government is taking the long overdue step of ensuring the industry offers benefits to First Nations, but divide and conquer tactics could potentially turn First Nations against each other, Olsen said.

If the Department of Fisheries and Oceans continues to allow the industry to operate, instead of open net pens disappearing within four years, as anticipated, there could actually be an increase, Olsen said.

“If this creates more fish farms, which might be the case, what happens to the First Nations who rely on the salmon, but are not in the territory of those farms?” he asked.

“This has been profiled as a step forward for reconciliation and Indigenous relations, but I would say there has been one-half step forward and one full step back,” he said.

“I don’t think this was fully thought through,” he said.

The Narwhal held a wide-ranging question and answer session with Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, whose critic roles include ministries responsible for fish farm tenures and aboriginal relations.

Are wild salmon runs threatened by fish farms?

I am becoming increasingly convinced by science that is being published that not only sea lice but (diseases) have been proved to transfer from the farms to the wild salmon.

What are the other factors affecting wild salmon?

Fish farms pose a large threat to wild salmon, but human behaviour is posing a large threat as well.

Agricultural practices, watershed management or mismanagement, how we use critical salmon habitat as drainage ditches and the nutrient loads and pesticides. It’s the same with municipal development and how we build our communities and our roads.

We should be making sure critical salmon habitat is not blocked and it’s the same with forestry practices. If we are cutting irresponsibly and not preserving and protecting critical creek habitat then they have no place to return home to.

What do wild Pacific salmon mean to you?

They are part of my family…We are the salmon people and we have been taught to respect that family and recognize the importance to the environment, to our communities culturally and to the economics.

I see them as being the perfect symbol of how we should be working towards creating a sustainable environment, a sustainable society and a sustainable economy.

Are you optimistic we will have wild salmon four years, 10 years, 20 years from now?

Yes, I am optimistic because our salmon relatives are very resilient.

They have taken everything we have thrown at them and, yes, there has been a devastating collapse and the sense of urgency is probably not where it should be, but good salmon policy is good environmental, economic and social policy and what I have been encouraging government to do is put the political will behind a commitment to conserving, protecting and enhancing wild salmon habitat. Then they do have a good chance.

The provincial government has a lot more responsibility for wild salmon than we take ownership of.

We are the regulatory authority in all those areas and if we showed the political will to put the fish at the centre of decision-making and not some political calculation, we will do good for them.

What do you think of NDP efforts to protect wild salmon — better than the BC Liberals?

To be candid, it doesn’t take much to be better than the Liberals on this file and frankly that’s not good enough.

In the early 2000s, then minister John van Dongen said — and I am paraphrasing — wild salmon are not the focus, the focus is private industry and fish farms.

The NDP government has said they will get behind wild salmon and I want them to keep saying that and then I want them to do it and go all in on it.

These salmon are in our blood, in our veins, they run through us and a very high percentage of British Columbians want this government to go all in on wild salmon.

What would you do differently if you were in government?

I think it is critical to have support of local First Nations, but there are broader conversations that need to take place with Indigenous communities across the province.

Salmon are not localized. They are not born and raised and die in the same area, they have this massive migration pattern so everyone is implicated when anyone makes a decision to farm salmon.

What we would have done (with) the expiring tenures in the Broughton Archipelago, is we would have allowed those fish in the net pens to be harvested and we would then have cancelled the tenures and required the companies to decommission the site.

It’s an industry that has been encouraged by government, with 6,000 workers, so we would then invest in the innovation side of moving this industry on land. We, as government, would have supported the industry in the transition.

The second piece is that we would have helped them brand a product that is environmentally friendly, ocean-safe salmon. It would be a premium product with premium value.

When someone in California or Oregon is purchasing a product they could look at it and say ‘this is a B.C. product and it’s ocean-friendly.’ Unfortunately what’s going on here is the government is trying to be all things to everybody and we are not at the head of that innovation.

The other piece is that this is an example of a changing industry and the government could have embraced that and seen an opportunity to help workers in transition because this is not going to be the last time in which an industry is replaced by another industry and workers are displaced.

We could have learned how to support other workers transitioning from an industry that has been hit by innovation.

Are you convinced closed containment could be done on a large scale?

These companies in B.C. that are saying it’s not viable are making investments in other parts of the world because that’s the way this industry is going.

As a provincial government and federal government, which owns a lot of the blame, we are allowing these companies to pollute for free. We are allowing the blood water to be released and fecal matter to pile up and all sorts of behaviour and if these farms were on land they would have to deal with their waste.

The people of B.C. are picking up a lot of their costs, so, of course, the mathematics are going to look different, but we can demand better.

They are pushing back strongly against these changes because it benefits and suits them.

What about the federal government’s role? Why has the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) not been more assertive in protecting wild salmon?

I have a very poor perception of DFO. I grew up on the Tsartlip Reserve and the relationship between DFO and our communities has not been a good one. They have not treated us well.

I think there’s a conflict of interest. They are not only responsible for wild salmon, they are also responsible for the aquaculture industry and the growth of the industry.

Your favourite recipe for salmon?

Straight up — on the barbecue with salt and pepper.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

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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