Fish out of water: a new future for salmon farming

An in-depth report on British Columbia's salmon farming controversy and how a Northern B.C. First Nation is spawning solutions.

Photo from bigstock.com

On a windy, wet morning earlier this week, two councillors from the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation near Clayoquot Sound took a boat three miles out in the ocean to greet a visitor. They stopped as they came near Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior, which displayed a giant sign along the deck:  “End destructive salmon farming.”  They pumped their fists in support, as the boat went by to join a larger fish farm protest planned by Clayoquot Action.

Close up of photo by Tofino Photography, courtesy of Greenpeace

The councillors, Terry Dorward and Joe Martin, oppose the 21 fish farms in their region. But they also know there are some people in their community who depend on these farms to make a living for their families.  “I know there are a lot of people who work out there in the fish farms, and I'm certainly not against any of them,” Martin told the Vancouver Observer. “But we want the fish farms out of our waters, because I'm concerned about our wild stocks.”

It's been over 20 years now since Creative Salmon, a Chinook salmon farm, set up in their traditional territory. These days, the company's website features a glowing statement by the Tla-o-qui-aht, praising the “economic benefits” the farm has given their people. Dorward commented that the unnamed writer of the statement is "obviously avoiding" concerns about fish farms' impact on their coastal waters.

Wild salmon in BC have been on a decline for years, with no definitive answers as to why this is taking place. Industry advocates point out that there's "correlation, but no causation" between salmon farm expansions since the 1980s and declining wild salmon returns. Things came to a head after a total collapse of the Fraser River sockeye in 2009: the Department of Fisheries and Oceans expected over 11 million fish to return, but just 1.4 million did, setting off alarms about how millions of fish could have gone "missing".

The federal government launched a mammoth 18-month federal inquiry known as the Cohen Commission to get to the bottom of the cause. But after three million pages of documents were reviewed and 179 witnesses heard, there was no “smoking gun” to be found. While acknowledging that fish farms can introduce diseases to the wild, The Cohen Commission laid the blame on a multitude of factors, including climate change. 

Both sides claimed victory. Fish farmers said the report proved that they weren't to blame, while wild salmon advocates cheered Justice Cohen's recommendation to freeze new open-net salmon farm production in the Discovery Islands until September 2020. And if there was any evidence that open-pen fish farms posed a threat to wild salmon, to close the farms altogether. 

In many wild salmon activists' view, the link between new diseases in wild BC salmon and the fish farms couldn't be clearer. Dorward and his colleagues were especially alarmed after the deadly Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) virus was found in their territory two years ago and have since lobbied for independent testing.  What disturbs Doward and other salmon farm opponents is the fact that  fish farms are “open-pen” -- fish are raised in nets out in open seas, where fish feed, wastes and additives are put directly into the ocean.

Salmon farmers argue that their industry is already among the most intensely regulated in the world, and that they have  equally high stakes in a healthy marine environment. 

But as Martin and Dorward know, there's a strong tension between economic benefits and protecting the wild salmon. Last year, the Tla-o-qui-aht threatened legal action as Mainstream Canada was working with neighbouring Ahousaht First Nation to build a fish farm which the Tla-o-qui-aht vehemently opposed.

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