Indigenous leaders are calling on Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc to immediately halt fish farming along British Columbia’s coastal region following the release of video footage showing diseased farmed Atlantic salmon –some blind, others with swollen gills and blisters—swimming through pens thick with fish feces.
The calls came as a small, First Nation-led group occupied a Marine Harvest salmon farm on Swanson Island, about 17 km from Alert Bay, B.C., with a promise to remain until the provincial government revoked the operation’s license of occupation. This followed a brief occupation on Wednesday which targeted the Cermaq-owned farm on nearby Burdwood Island.
Hereditary Chief Ernest Alfred, from the Nagmis, Lawit’sis and Mamalilikala Nations, was involved in the Swanson Island occupation which triggered a response from local RCMP who are also at the site.
“This place is ours and we’re not moving,” said Alfred, in a Facebook post published shortly after the occupation began. “We must stop open-net fish farms in our waters…. It’s time to stand up and take a stand.”
In an interview with APTN National News earlier in the day, Alfred said he planned to “step it up” against the fish farms.
“You can’t ignore the issue of rights and title, which are clearly being violated here,” said Alfred. “You have politicians traveling the country talking about reconciliation. How can we have reconciliation when we have this disease running through our territory?”
A spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations, said the fish farm legally obtained its license and there were no plans to rescind it.
“While we respect the right of people to engage in peaceful protests, we also expect them to follow the law,” said spokesperson Vivian Thomas, in an emailed statement. “The license of occupation was legally issued.”
Thomas said the provincial government is not issuing any more licenses to fish farms.
B.C. issues licenses to fish farms to set up shop on Crown land while Ottawa issues the license to grow the fish.
Marine Harvest referred all questions on the on-going occupation to the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.
Jeremy Dunn, executed director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said Marine Harvest was open to dialogue with the First Nations leadership who are welcome to view their operations at any time.
“I believe the gentlemen on the farm asked to speak to Marine Harvest senior executives and when they were approached for a conversation asked Marine Harvest to speak with the chiefs,” said Dunn. “That outreach has happened. They are welcome to stay and observe the operations if they wish.”
Striking footage of sickly farmed salmon was gathered this month by Laichwiltach Nation hereditary Chief George Quocksister Jr. and Alfred as part of a long-running campaign to push fish farms in their current form out of the region. Some First Nations fear the salmon farm industry threatens to wipe out wild populations within the next decade, posing a threat to their Constitutionally-enshrined Aboriginal right to wild salmon.
“Dominic LeBlanc should shut these fish farms down, period,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “They cannot assure myself, as a leader, that they are not having more than an inconsequential harm to my section 35 rights to a protected fishery.”
LeBlanc’s office deflected queries from APTN to the department.
Aided by the activist Sea Shepherd-owned Martin Sheen vessel, Quocksister Jr. and Alfred traveled to 11 farms between Campbell River and Alert Bay, gathering underwater footage of the fish. The footage, revealed emaciated and diseased salmon, some with sea lice, mingling with wild fish, including herring and rock cod.
Footage from the currently occupied Swanson Island farm showed numerous salmon with what appeared to be sores, blisters and swollen gills. At another farm on Klaoitsis Island, owned by Grieg Seafood, footage revealed emaciated and blind salmon.
Dunn said the footage distorted the reality of salmon farms.
“These are images that have been cherry-picked by activists to meet their purposes,” said Dunn. “The farms visited by the activists are very healthy and (the fish) will grow up very healthy.”
Dunn said he did not know what sort of diseases may have caused the blistering, blindness and gill swelling depicted in the footage. He said only about one per cent of farmed salmon carry pathogens that pose a threat to wild populations.
“Abnormalities in farm-raised salmon are rare,” he said. “The overall health of farm-raised salmon is very high. Over 90 per cent of salmon that enter the sea make it through to harvest.”
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans echoed Dunn saying the B.C. fish farm industry is tightly monitored and meets all required regulations.
“DFO veterinarians, biologists, fish health technicians and resource managers conduct approximately 400 compliance and monitoring finfish aquaculture site visits each year, including an average of 120 fish health audits. Compliance has been strong and has improved over time,” said department spokesperson Vance Chow, in an emailed statement. “From 2011 to 2014, finfish aquaculture farm compliance with fish health management plans was 97.8 per cent. DFO audits showed high agreement with industry data.”
Biologist Alexandra Morton, a long-time critic of fish farming methods in B.C., said she doesn’t know what is causing the abnormalities in the salmon captured by the footage, but it may be symptoms from a previously unknown disease or diseases.
“It is a big deal. The swollen gills, I have no idea what it is. The blisters all over them, I don’t know what that is. The blindness, I don’t know what that is,” said Morton. “The trouble when you hold animals together is that diseases change and a disease that is very uncommon can become common…. There is an incredible number of new salmon diseases that were discovered when farming started.”
Morton said she was also disturbed by the amount of fish feces in the pens holding the salmon.
“You realize they are marinating in it, and that is an incredible way to spread disease,” said Morton.
Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Hereditary Chief Willie Moon, who is also chief councillor for the community, led Wednesday’s Burdwood Island occupation. He said the recently captured footage surprised him despite his familiarity in battling the industry.
“No, we didn’t expect it to be that bad,” said Moon. “It is proof now that it is happening in our water.”
Moon said he believes sea lice and pathogens from salmon farms are directly responsible for the decimation of wild salmon population and he worries it will be almost totally wiped out within five years.
“We always said we never wanted these fish farms in our territory,” said Moon. “We need to come together, all of us, not just First Nations, but everybody — the grizzly bear tour groups, the tour groups that do the whale watching — we all need to come together because one day soon, we are going to be out of work. When you look at the salmon, they feed the grizzly bear, the whales feed off them, when they are gone, what happens?”
Moon said he wants LeBlanc and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was once a senior chief from the province, to meet with the territory’s First Nations on the issue.
“We have invited them to our community and none of them have come to our territory yet,” he said.