Raising Salmon

In British Columbia, First Nations’ diverse approaches to fish farming highlight the tension between economic opportunity and preserving cultural and ecological values.

UPDATE: On December 17, following consultation with the seven First Nations whose territories include the Discovery Islands (Homalco, Klahoose, K’ómoks, Kwaikah, Tla’amin, We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum), located between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, the Canadian government announced a plan to phase out all open-net pen salmon farms in the area within 18 months. In the same press release, Canada reasserted the federal government’s intention to see “the responsible transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”

ON A CLEAR DAY in August 2017 K̓wak̓waba̱‘las set out to write a new chapter in his peoples’ struggle against colonization. In a small skiff, ̓K̓wak̓waba̱‘las and his niece, Tł⁄a̱li’ł⁄a̱las, boated up to the Swanson Island fish farm, in the Broughton Archipelago in northeast Vancouver Island, and boarded it with suitcases and camping equipment.

An elementary school teacher, elected council member of the ‘Na̱mg̱is First Nation, and a hereditary chief of the Ławit̓sis First Nation, K̓wak̓waba̱‘las, who goes by the English name Ernest Alfred, had, for years, watched the wishes of his people ignored by the Canadian government and Mowi (formerly Marine Harvest), a large Norwegian corporation that claims to be the biggest producer of farmed salmon in the world.

Thus began a 284-day occupation of the fish farm, which drew support from neighboring First Nations and international conservationists.

Alfred was determined to have the voice of his people heard in a conflict that had been simmering for decades. The conflict pitted the promise of economic growth through high-yield aquaculture against a natural local food economy revolving around wild salmon that had defined the region for millennia. Citing a variety of cultural, environmental, health, and taste reasons, almost no Indigenous people from the region, including people who work at the fish farms, eat the farmed salmon grown there. For the First Nations of the Broughton, corporate profits for foreign-owned fish farms had trumped their aboriginal rights and the ecological health of their territory for long enough.

What happened in the Broughton is part of a larger debate over salmon farming within numerous First Nations around Vancouver Island.

“We went out there because we had no fish,” says Alfred. “For our people, salmon is not a menu choice. It’s within our DNA. We are the fish. We are the salmon people.”

The Swanson Island occupation spurred occupations on other farms in the region and led eventually to a government-to-government agreement between the ‘Na̱mg̱is, Ḵwiḵwa̱sut̓inuxw Hax̱wa’mis, and Mama̱liliḵa̱la First Nations and the governments of British Columbia and Canada, called the Broughton Archipelago Transition Initiative (BATI). The agreement affirmed that consent from First Nations is required for the continued presence of fish farms in the region and created a pathway to permanently end salmon farming in the archipelago.

When Ernest Alfred began his occupation of Swanson Island, there were 17 fish farms in the area. Today there are seven.

Citing a variety of cultural, environmental, health, and taste reasons, almost no Indigenous people from British Columbia eat farmed salmon.

When Alfred stepped foot on the Swanson Island farm in 2017, there were 17 active open-water net-pen farms in the territory. Today, only seven remain. Barring a change of heart from the First Nations, the remaining farms will also be phased out in the coming years.

What happened in the Broughton is part of a larger debate over salmon farming within numerous First Nations around Vancouver Island. While some First Nations have opposed fish farms since they appeared in the 1970s, others continue to welcome them as a source of economic opportunity, even as the issue has divided their communities. The debate hinges in part on the role that open-water salmon farms play in the ongoing decline of wild salmon.

With increasing power over what goes on within the boundaries of their traditional territory, this moment presents opportunities and risks for the First Nations. Within a complicated matrix of settler-colonial and corporate influences, each Nation must sort out how to balance traditional cultural values, food security, and economic opportunity.

ON THE WESTERN SIDE of Vancouver Island, opposite the Broughton Archipelago, Clayoquot Sound is a collection of rugged forested islands nestled amongst flooded fiords, surrounded by steep mountains. The region is accessible only by boat or a single road. Its ancient rainforests helped earn it designation as a United Nations biosphere reserve. For two decades now, the sound has also been home to over a dozen fish farms, located within the territories of the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations.

In the clear water at the mouth of the Kennedy River, Tuu-tah-qwees-nup-sheetl, or Joe Martin, watches a small school of sockeye salmon dart beneath the boat. Martin, a Tla-o-qui-aht elected council member, traditional carver, and Tribal Parks Guardian is at first surprised, then delighted, to see the fish. This river used to brim with tens of thousands of sockeye as they made the short trip to the lake to spawn. Following a century of overfishing and logging, fish numbers collapsed, putting an end to commercial and subsistence fishing. “The rivers here aren’t being fished, but still salmon runs are declining,” says Martin, who blames the fish farms for the continued declines.

Sockeye are one of seven native species of salmon found in British Columbia. Salmon are born in freshwater streams, where adults lay eggs and spawn in gravel beds. Young salmon hatch and stay in their home stream until they grow big enough to brave the open ocean. They then spend most of their life at sea, often traveling thousands of miles before returning to the exact reach of the stream of their birth to spawn and die. In a perfect cycle, the marine nutrients from their bodies enrich the freshwater ecosystem, fertilizing the stream and surrounding forest, and increasing the vigor and growth rates of the forest as a whole and of young salmon born there.

According to ƛaʔuuk — who also goes by Gisele Martin — Joe Martin’s daughter and a Tribal Parks Guardian herself, it’s impossible from a Tla-o-qui-aht perspective to see salmon separately from the forests of their territory. These forests have traditionally provided a myriad of food, medicines, and materials for housing and clothing for the Tla-o-qui-aht. “That cedar is made out of salmon,” she points out. “There is a saying in our language: Everything is interconnected. Hišukʔiš c̓awak” [pronounced: hish-uk-ish tsa-wak].

In British Columbia, salmon numbers have been dropping for over a century as settlers have logged the forests and overharvested the fish.

Salmon spend most of their life at sea before returning to the exact reach of the stream of their birth to spawn and die.

In a perfect cycle, the marine nutrients from salmon bodies fertilize the stream and surrounding forest and increase the vigor and growth rates of the forest as a whole.

Traditionally, salmon fishing is accompanied by ceremony and strict guidelines that allow a certain number of fish to pass upstream before harvest can begin. Historically, salmon were almost exclusively caught either in the freshwater stream where they were returning to spawn or close to the mouth of that stream as they prepared for their freshwater journey. Catching fish in this way allows people to ensure that enough fish return to the stream to maintain healthy populations.

“Our food is our medicine and what we eat becomes a part of who we are,” says Gisele Martin. “My life source is connected to wild salmon. My culture is connected to wild salmon.”

But on this part of the Pacific Coast, salmon numbers have been dropping for over a century as settlers have logged the forests and overharvested the fish. The majority of commercial fishing happens in the ocean where it is not easy to pair fishing activities with sustainable returns to specific home streams. Still, until about two decades ago, British Columbia’s wild coast was still a stronghold for salmon populations, with tens of millions of fish returning to spawn in the Fraser River and other smaller streams along the coast. Then the fish farms arrived.

“Twenty years ago, I would expect that I would easily get 150 sockeye,” says Ho’miska̱nis, aka Don Svanvik, a hereditary chief and current elected chief of council of the ‘Na̱mg̱is First Nation. “I would can a whole bunch and freeze about 70 of them, 40 of them to be smoked when it cools off, the rest to eat throughout the year. Last year I caught four.”

IN THE 1980s, Canada courted Norwegian corporations to bring industrial-scale fish farms to BC as part of an effort to increase economic activity in the remote region. “We didn’t really have a say in it,” says Svanvik. At the time, First Nations leaders were regularly excluded from resource management decisions. The ‘Na̱mg̱is never signed an agreement with Mowi and began fighting for the company’s removal not long after it arrived.

The Ahousaht First Nation, meanwhile, has embraced the fish farms in their territory. In 2010, it signed an agreement with Cermaq, a Norway-based subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation that claims to be the world’s second-largest salmon farming company. Today, the Ahousaht territory hosts the largest salmon farming venture in Clayoquot Sound with 10 farms, and Ahousaht’s leadership continues to support Cermaq’s presence in the territory.

Ahousaht hereditary chief Hasheukumiss, aka Richard George, says that the financial arrangements between the Ahousaht and Cermaq are private — but confirms that Cermaq pays a fee for their presence in their territory, a common arrangement in the region. He notes that Cermaq also provides support to the Ahousaht in numerous ways: local scholarships, cleanup activities, and community events. Cermaq is also committed through the agreement to employ 50 percent First Nations members for its operations in Ahousaht territory. According to George, this amounts to around 30 full time employees.

Still, support for the farms among community members is mixed.

‘There is nothing you can do to fix the decline of wild salmon if you don’t remove fish farms from their habitat.’

“The hereditary chiefs and Chief of Council work for Cermaq. They protect the company. They are getting rich off of it but Ahousaht is poor,” says Len John, an Ahousaht member who runs a small boat charter and water taxi company. “We, the people, don’t see that money. We have homeless people, elders with homes that are gutted, with no running water.” While declining to comment on the specific arrangement between Cermaq and Ahousaht, Chief George denied that any of the hereditary chiefs profit from the arrangement with Cermaq, stating that “nothing gets pocketed in any personal way. All those funds go into economic development.”

Are fish farms causing the wild salmon to decline? George sees the loss more as a result of poor forest and fishery management than farms. “Are the fish farms to blame? They have a part but are not solely to blame,” he says.

However, a growing consensus of experts disagree with this assessment. Biologist Alexandra Morton, founder of the Raincoast Research Society in the town of Sointula, says “There is nothing you can do to fix the decline of wild salmon if you don’t remove fish farms from their habitat.” Morton has been studying the impacts of fish farms on wild salmon in the region since 1996, around the time salmon farms appeared in Broughton Archipelago. Her research shows a clear correlation between the farms and dropping wild salmon populations.

Morton says the best approximation for a net pen salmon farm is an industrial feedlot for cattle. Most farms in British Columbia use Atlantic salmon, a species not native to the Pacific Northwest. Salmon fry are produced in fish hatcheries on land and then transplanted out to net pens in sheltered marine waters. A typical farm contains numerous pens covering 5 to 10 acres of water and between 500,000 to 1.5 million salmon. Fish are raised in the pens for two years and fed a mixture of ground fish and supplements including crop proteins, food colorings, and drugs before being harvested and shipped globally.

While improved practices have, in some cases, reduced the environmental footprint of aquaculture, fish farms still have a significant ecological impact, particularly when placed in the migratory routes of juvenile wild salmon, as they often are. Feces and chemicals leak from the pens. The sea floor below often becomes a wasteland. Food from the farms can attract juvenile wild salmon into the pens, and there is some evidence that wild salmon can contract diseases from the farmed fish. Some farmed fish escape and can compete with native fish — in 2019, for example, a fire at a BC Mowi facility led to a large-scale escape event involving up to 21,000 fish. (A series of nine assessments commissioned by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, however, found that several viruses and parasites found on fish farms pose only a minimal risk to wild fish. Independent researchers like Morton are skeptical of these findings.)

A typical salmon farm in the Pacific Northwest covers 5 to 10 acres of water and contains between 500,000 and 1.5 million fish.

The largest impact on wild salmon appears to be sea lice. Under natural conditions, according to Morton, sea lice are a “benign parasite” for adult fish. But for juvenile fish, which don’t have the scales to prevent lice from boring into their skin, infestations can be fatal. A fish farm can produce several billion larval sea lice a day in the migration route of juvenile fish, and both farmed and juvenile wild salmon can become infected, which significantly increases mortality for the wild fish. In 2001, coinciding with a sea lice outbreak in fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago, Morton found nearly every out-migrating juvenile salmon she sampled in Broughton had lethal levels of the parasite. Based on her research, she correctly predicted the near complete collapse of the pink salmon runs affected by this outbreak, marking the first documented decline of salmon connected to fish farms in British Columbia. Similar correlations between sea lice and wild salmon declines have been documented elsewhere, including in Norway.

Canada has mandated that companies implement measures to decrease sea lice numbers, most typically treating farmed salmon with chemical parasiticides or hydrogen peroxide. Despite this, explosions in sea lice numbers tied to fish farms continue to occur episodically in the region. Today, Morton continues to document lethal infestations in her research. With the commercial fishery gone and the sport fishery vastly reduced in the Broughton, Morton adds, “The only thing eating wild salmon out here is sea lice.”

‘They are trying to find ways to appease us. But they haven’t met our position in terms of getting out of the water.’

Government officials have acknowledged sea lice violations in the region in recent years. In 2019, the federal government reported sea lice levels well above regulatory thresholds at several Cermaq farms, and committed to acting on the issue. “The Government of Canada recognizes that, in working within the precautionary approach, we need to ensure sea lice management measures include robust enforcement actions and that these measures meet the highest international standards,” Minister of Fisheries Jonathan Wilkinson said of the commitment. Despite this, Morton says Canada has declined to take enforcement actions — instead creating variances to the guidelines to allow farms to continue operating.

Earlier this year, self-reported numbers by Mowi and Cermaq also confirmed excessive sea lice numbers. Cermaq, however, declined to respond to questions about the impact of its near-shore farms on wild fish.

THE SITUATION FOR THE TLA-o-qui-aht First Nation is perhaps even more complicated. Creative Salmon, the Canadian-Japanese company that operates on the southern end of Clayoquot Sound, is much smaller than the Norwegian corporations that dominate the industry. The company markets certified organic, Chinook salmon, a species native to the Pacific, and operates four net-pens in the territory, in waters with a large amount of freshwater inflow, which naturally reduces the chance of a sea lice outbreak.

Still, concerns about the detrimental impacts of fish farming have turned the opinion of many Tla-o-qui-aht members against the farms, including the majority of their elected council and several of their hereditary chiefs. In 2019, when the agreement between the Tla-o-qui-aht and Creative Salmon expired, the nation’s elected council passed a resolution calling on the company to leave their territorial waters. Thus far, Creative Salmon has refused — instead allowing members of the First Nation to monitor their activities. In an email response, communications officer Lisa Stewart said: “Creative Salmon has open communication with Tla-o-qui-aht and is always available to provide information about our operation.” (Stewart also disputed that there is “huge evidence” that fish farms have a negative impact on the marine environment, saying that “All farming has impacts, whether on land or at sea.”)

‘It’s a divide and conquer scheme,’ says Dorward. ‘The reality is we are a colonized people.’

“They are trying to find ways to appease us,” says Terry Dorward, an elected council member. “But they haven’t met our position in terms of getting out of the water.”

When asked whether Creative Salmon was operating without the Tla-o-qui-aht’s consent, Dorward responded, “Yes and no.” Despite ignoring a clear demand from the elected council to remove its farms, Creative Salmon is operating with the consent of the hereditary chiefs while renegotiations continue. Dorward sees the company taking advantage of a jurisdictional maze with roots in Canada’s Indian Act.

First enacted in 1876, the Indian Act was originally designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples and allow for the acquisition of their lands and resources for settlers. Regardless of their traditional governance system, the act imposes elected councils as government entities for each First Nation in Canada. On Vancouver Island, where most First Nations maintain a traditional hereditary system of leadership, this has led to two centers of political governance. While a majority of the Tla-o-qui-aht elected council would like to see fish farms gone, the hereditary chiefs are split. With these two entities divided, Joe Martin, an elected council member whose lineage includes hereditary chiefs, says that “the [colonial] government will choose to work with whomever will do what they want.”

Joe Martin, a Tla-o-qui-aht elected council member, traditional carver, and Tribal Parks Guardian, blames fish farms for declining salmon runs.“The rivers here aren’t being fished, but still salmon runs are declining,” he says.

Biologist Alexandra Morton, who has been studying the impacts of fish farms on wild salmon in Broughton Bay since 1996, says that with the commercial fishery gone and the sport fishery vastly reduced in the region,, “The only thing eating wild salmon out here is sea lice.”

Muuchinink, aka Bruce Frank, one of six Tla-o-qui-aht hereditary chiefs and a member of the Creative Salmon-Tla-o-qui-aht Fish Farm Committee, unequivocally supports Creative Salmon’s presence in the territory. He even asked Creative Salmon to vet the questions I asked him before agreeing to be interviewed. Based on his own experience as a commercial fisherman, Frank doesn’t believe the fish farms are a problem for wild fish. “I don’t blame fish farms. I blame Fisheries and Oceans Canada for how they managed commercial fishing,” he says. “One of our elders, back in the ’90s, said to me, ‘[The fish farms] are not going to go away, might as well work with them.’ It’s something I keep in mind.” As for who has the power to decide, Frank makes it clear: “The [elected] council doesn’t have jurisdiction. I do.”

Saya Masso, tribal administrator for the Tla-o-qui-aht, later clarified that no individual hereditary chief has such authority. Such decisions are made collectively by the group of chiefs, he said.

Dorward sees the elected council as a colonial construct, but he also emphatically believes that all members need a voice in what happens in their territory. As it stands, he sees Creative Salmon’s position as exploiting the split within the Tla-o-qui-aht’s leadership.

“It’s a divide and conquer scheme,” says Dorward. “The reality is we are a colonized people. Our collective leadership have differing views that are contrary to one another when it comes to how to ensure the well-being of the people and the environment. We want to be strong and unified.”

THE FACT THAT SALMON FARMING was brought into First Nations’ territories without their consent is just one of many examples of systemic racial discrimination and forced assimilation Indigenous people have had to contend with in Canada.

The entire Pacific Coast of Canada is unceded Indigenous territory. None of the First Nations in the region have ever signed a formal treaty or legal agreement giving up their lands to the Canadian government. Despite this, until very recently, settler-occupied lands have been ruled by the Canadian government with little or no regard to the wishes of First Nations people. When it comes to coastal affairs, the Canadian federal government still claims primary jurisdiction over the ocean and the activities of fish farms. It provides licenses to corporations to transfer salmon into farms, and oversees the impacts of these farms in marine waters. The provincial government of BC claims jurisdiction over the land and issues permits for farms to anchor their operations to land.

When it comes to coastal affairs, the Canadian federal government still claims primary jurisdiction over the ocean and the activities of fish farms.

So pushing back against the farms has been complicated, to say the least. As ‘Na̱mg̱is council member Alfred recalls about the struggle to get the farms out of the Broughton Archipelago: “We were fighting a Norwegian-owned industry, the federal government, and the provincial government.”

Beyond the Broughton Archipelago, there is broader movement to evict these fish farms from all of BC. Citing concerns about declining wild salmon, in 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party made a pledge to eliminate all open-water salmon farms by 2025. Under pressure from industry, however, Trudeau later shifted his message to “creating a plan by 2025.”

Trudeau has also committed to Canada interacting with First Nations under the rules set forth by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The declaration requires Canada to engage in government-to-government negotiations and gain formal consent for activities such as fish farming on the territory of First Nations who have not formally ceded their land.

According to Alfred, the UNDRIP guidelines were critical in reaching the Broughton Archipelago agreement. “When we say ‘no,’ it has to be recognized in a court of law,” he says.

Despite the success of Broughton Archipelago Transition Initiative, Na̱mg̱is Chief Dan Svanvik says that dealing with the colonial Canadian government is far from easy.

“Our governments have come together to help revitalize and protect wild salmon, and provide greater economic certainty for communities and local workers,” BC Premier John Horgan said of the agreement. “These are the kinds of gains true reconciliation can deliver.”

But that agreement is just the beginning. Entrenched political, economic, and cultural interests that discriminate against First Nations will take time and consistent effort to undo. Despite the success of BATI, Svanvik notes that dealing with the colonial government is still far from easy. “In our fight to save wild salmon, industry has partnered with [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] against us,” says Svanvik.

The challenges aren’t just from external forces. “We are struggling with colonialism,” says Tribal Parks Guardian Gisele Martin. “With capitalism, colonial racism, and ecocide, keeping our community and culture alive is a challenge. It is a mistake to think that salmon farms could replace the vital contributions that wild salmon lifecycles make to our home and community.”

For the ‘Na̱mg̱is, navigating beyond open-water fish farms means looking backwards and forwards to create their future. The Nimpkish River was once home to one of the largest sockeye runs in Canada. The ‘Na̱mg̱is people have set up a hatchery on the river and reinstituted a fishery there for subsistence fishing. The nation’s fisheries specialists aim to rebuild the run to something closer to historic numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Now there are about 60,000 fish in a good year.

The ‘Na̱mg̱is Nation has also set its eyes on another possible resolution to the problems caused by open-water fish farming and the loss of employment with their eviction. In 2012, the nation started Kuterra, a company engaging in salmon farming in huge containers on land. The goal is to help make this technology readily available and offer a possible alternative to near-shore fish farms, one that would generate jobs and income locally while minimizing impacts on the marine environment.

As far as the survival of wild salmon goes, approaches will undoubtedly vary from nation to nation, but finding a way around this conflict is critical. As Alfred points out: “For us, it’s about food sovereignty, our food security. We are bak̓wa̱m [First Nations people]. We want our fish back.”

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