Who will speak for those who swim?

Sister Nations take a stand for wild salmon

Just over 3 months ago, two Sister Nations – Homalco and Tla’amin –  were celebrating the approaching departure of fish farms from  their territory. Canada made the decision to phase out fish farms in the Discovery Islands after Indigenous Nations made a strong case, during consultation, for the removal of over-crowded, virus and sea-lice riddled farms from the migration path of young salmon. The decision meant that the  Nations could focus on stewardship of remaining streams and watersheds, to nurture the next generation of sockeye, chum, coho, pink and chinook. 

But industry is choosing to put corporate profits ahead of  Indigenous rights and the survival of Fraser sockeye. Four fish farm operators in the Discovery Channel have applied for  a Judicial Review of Canada’s decision, and obtained an injunction allowing the restocking of fish farms – despite the federal government’s ban.

That’s outrageous. 

Despite the fact that fish farms were brought to their territories back in the 1980’s without their consultation or consent, Indigenous Nations now have to push hard to have a say in the upcoming Judicial Review. 

The companies aimed their legal challenge at Canada, but Homalco and Tla’amin do not intend to sit on the sidelines while an issue vital to their survival is haggled over by government and industry lawyers. The two Nations have applied to be heard as “respondents” – an equivalent status to Canada’s in this legal challenge in which the future of wild salmon hangs in the balance. 

“As Xwe’malhkwu (Homalco) people we hold a deep responsibility to protect wild salmon. I have personally witnessed the decline of wild salmon since the introduction of open-pen fish farms in Homalco territory. Homalco has stood united with our neighbouring First Nations and allies in opposing these fish farms.” Chief Darren Blaney, Homalco First Nation

“Our water and lands are precious. Our foods, medicines and all that we needed came from the land and waters of our territory. This is why Tla’amin members continue to be good stewards. It is each member’s responsibility to care for our lands and waters.” Hegus (Chief) John Hackett, Tla’amin Nation

What’s so fishy about fish farms ?

Most fish farms raise Atlantic salmon, a species not found in the wild in British Columbia. Along with fears that mass escapes of farmed salmon would put Atlantic salmon in competition with local wild salmon, overcrowded farms endanger the health of migrating salmon.  

As they swim past on their way to the open Pacific Ocean, young smolts have to run the gauntlet of farms spewing virus-laden effluent into the waters. One of the viruses, piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), is highly contagious and can cause a heart disease in wild fish. 

Research done by Alexandra Morton, salmon and orca researcher, has shown that sea lice infect the majority of ocean-bound juvenile salmon that pass closely by the crowded farms. Virtually all of the sockeye (99%) that passed through the Wild Salmon Narrows’ salmon farms in 2020 were infected with a lethal load of salmon lice.  

With fish farms out of these watersheds, wild salmon have a fighting chance to survive. Canada’s own Science Advisory Secretariat found that Fraser River salmon are on a path to extinction “unless their survival is maximized by removing all sources of harm”. Fish farms are the #1 threat to wild salmon, all five species of which spend important parts of their life cycle in Homalco and Tla’amin territories. 

The only responsible course of action is to ensure that all salmon farming in the open ocean there is promptly shut down. 

A History of Resistance

In the 1980s, Norwegian corporations began bringing industrial-scale fish farms to B.C. These open-net ocean farms were placed along wild salmon migration routes without consultation with Indigenous Nations, who began to protest the arrival of the polluting industry almost as soon as it arrived in their territories. 

In 2005, Homalco Nation successfully took Canada to court over a federal decision to allow Atlantic salmon farming in one particular farm in the heart of Homalco’s territory in the Bute Inlet. The federal government had amended the fish farm license of Marine Harvest to replace Pacific Chinook with Atlantic salmon, without consulting Homalco. The Nation first won an injunction prohibiting the transfer of Atlantic salmon to the Bute Inlet farm. Subsequently, the Judicial Review found that the Crown had breached its duty to consult with Homalco.

Meanwhile, in the Broughton Archipelago, just north of the Discovery Islands,  Namgis councillor and elementary school teacher K̓wak̓waba̱’las (Ernest Alfred) began an occupation of Swanson Island fish farm in 2017 that lasted 284 days. The Swanson Island occupation spurred similar responses on other farms in the region and led eventually to a government-to-government agreement between three First Nations located in the Broughton Archipelago and the government of British Columbia, called the Broughton Archipelago Transition Initiative (BATI).

The agreement affirmed that consent from First Nations would be required for the continued presence of fish farms in the Broughtons. Subsequently, British Columbia extended this principle to all fish farms in the province. However, Canada, which has shared jurisdiction over fish farms, was reluctant to follow suit. Instead, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans blithely continued to promote the industry.

However, the federal government had its own set of pressures to deal with. Back in 2012, the Cohen Commission had recommended that Canada prohibit fish farms in the Discovery Islands, and since then the feds had lost several court cases regarding fish farms. Finally, in 2020, the federal government began consulting with Homalco, Tla’amin and five other First Nations about a possible phase-out of fish farms from the Discovery Islands. Based on that consultation – which, according to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Bernadette Jordan, heavily informed the decision – the federal government announced a  ban on fish farms in December 2020, intended to phase out all 19 aquaculture farms in the Discovery Islands by June 2022.

Let the rivers run wild

To ensure the last fish farms are forever banned, Homalco and Tla’amin Nations aim to go to court to bring forward abundant evidence of the harms presented to wild salmon, to their communities, and to ecosystems. 

Backed by RAVEN supporters, who donated $45k and counting to their legal costs,  Nations were in  court on Tuesday, April 20 to press for their right to be heard as respondents, a status equivalent to Canada’s in this Judicial Review. By mid-May we will know whether they have won this important first step, allowing them to participate fully in the upcoming Judicial Review. Meanwhile, take the pledge and spread the word: donate at https://fundraise.raventrust.com/salmon-nations.

Image ©Tavish Campbell.

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