As federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc was in West Vancouver Tuesday, promising that his government would act on all 75 recommendations from the 2012 Cohen Commission into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon, independent biologist Alexandra Morton was sailing into friendly waters on northern Vancouver Island and casting doubt on the government’s intentions.
“There is no substance to it,” said Morton, pointing out that LeBlanc has avoided any commitment to act on the Cohen recommendation to separate promotion of aquaculture from its duty to protect wild salmon or to put the brakes on the salmon farming industry.
The progress report, delivered by LeBlanc, noted that Fisheries and Oceans oversight of salmon farming meshes with the department’s mandate and LeBlanc said at the news conference that DFO has a responsibility to promote the sustainable use of “fish resources in a way that is good for the local economy.”
That does not go down well with Morton, a thorn in the side of the salmon farming industry and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for decades.
In addition to the federal Liberal’s apparent reluctance to rein in the salmon farming industry, Morton is discouraged by government’s earlier decision to extend fish farm licences from one to six years, running counter to Cohen’s recommendations.
That is a decision that disrespects First Nations, said Morton in an interview from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s research vessel Martin Sheen as she sailed into Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory, where one-third of B.C.’s salmon farms are located.
“I don’t understand how they can give the industry long-term licences and now (LeBlanc) says he is going to enact the Cohen recommendations,” said Morton, who is conducting sampling around fish farms to establish whether piscine reovirus (PRV) — a virus found in farmed fish — is present in wild salmon and whether there are hotspots of the virus around the farms. PRV has been linked to Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation in fish.
Instead of making vague promises to talk to aboriginal groups, LeBlanc should be meeting with the hereditary leaders to find out what is happening to wild salmon runs around salmon farms, Morton said.
“The salmon farming industry has been in Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory since the 1990s and they have never given them permission, but no one is compensating them and they are suffering,” she said.
Her words were echoed by Dzawada’enuxw councillor and fisheries coordinator Melissa Willie, who is also on board the Martin Sheen.
“There are 27 farms in our territory and we have never given them permission to be there. We just continue to write letters opposing them,” she said.
Damage from the farms is evident not only in declining salmon runs and the number of sea lice, but also in clam beds, Willie said.
“All that shit is going into the water. I don’t believe it’s being flushed out and the beaches are becoming muck. It’s our whole food chain. We want them totally out of our territory and I just hope someone is listening,” she said.
The Cohen Commission report languished on governmental back shelves for four years while the Conservatives were in power, but hopes were high that it would see the light of day under the Liberals and some, such as Willie, remain optimistic that there will be help, not only for the Fraser River sockeye, but for all B.C.’s salmon.
Willie is hoping that the secret weapon might be Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation.
“Her grandmother was one of ours. We hope to get her involved,” Willie said.
However, salmon farming companies have economic agreements with many First Nations and at least two have denied the Martin Sheen permission to come into their territory.
That is a choice that is up to them, said Morton, who hopes they will not find they are importing diseases from the farmed Atlantic salmon into their traditional fishing grounds.
Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, found some encouraging aspects in LeBlanc’s progress report, although he said it lacked detail
“I found it positive that the minister spoke about looking after all species of salmon in B.C. and it was not just the restricted view of Fraser River sockeye and the Discovery Channel fish farms,” he said.
The emphasis on science and research, backed by an additional $197 million in funding announced last March, is good news, but the government should now be adhering to the precautionary principle until those science gaps are filled, Chamberlin said.
“That means stop expanding fish farms, stop creating new licences and stop setting the table for this industry. Science needs to be at the table,” he said.
Innovative programs such as tagging salmon smolts and genome science should be able to determine the major salmon stressors and pinpoint those industries causing grief to wild salmon, Chamberlin said.
But, until those scientific holes are filled, salmon farming industry expansion must be stopped, he said.
Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, applauds the renewed emphasis on science and said LeBlanc has reinforced his government’s commitment to making science-based decisions for all Canadian fisheries.
But that does not mean curtailing the salmon farming industry and longer licence terms are necessary to provide security for the companies, he said.
“These licences could be revoked at any time if the farmers are not living up to their licence conditions,” he said, emphasizing that members of the Salmon Farmers Association work closely with government, scientists and academics and are concerned about the health of their own fish while being acutely aware of the importance of wild salmon.
Alexandra Morton’s virus-hunting patrols have added additional stress to salmon farmers and it is “important to distinguish between advocacy and science,” Dunn said.
Morton shows no sign of contrition and believes she is providing a voice to counteract the powerful lobby of Japanese and Norwegian-owned salmon farming companies.
“The industry is entrenched and everyone is afraid to say ‘this is not working,’ ” she said.
Instead of protecting those interests, government should be looking at rearing salmon in closed containment pens on land, which is being done by Namgis First Nation on northern Vancouver Island, Morton said.
Photo by Amanda Carroll, UNR Department of Art/Photography