Some First Nations Are Fighting Fish Farms in BC to Protect Their Waters and Cultures

Although foreign-owned fish farms promise economic benefits, some Native peoples are working to protect their aboriginal rights and the ecological health of their territory.

Two members of the Wuikinuxv First Nation prepare wild salmon to feed to guests to their territory during the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, which brings together First Nations from across the Pacific Northwest.

December 21, 2020 update: On December 17, the Canadian government announced a plan to to phase out all open-net pen salmon farms in the area around the Discovery Islands immediately south of the Broughton Archipelago within 18 months. The plan, developed in consultation with seven First Nations whose territories include the Discovery Islands—the Homalco, Klahoose, K’ómoks, Kwaikah, Tla’amin, We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum—also reasserts the federal government’s intention to see “the responsible transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”

This article was published in partnership with Earth Island Journal, and appears in their Winter 2021 issue.

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, Alfred and his niece, Tła̱li’ła̱las, 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, 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 who participated in the occupation, corporate profits for foreign-owned fish farms had trumped their aboriginal rights and the ecological health of their territory for long enough.

Chief Earnest Alfred, K̓wak̓waba̱'las, elected council member of the 'Na̱mg̱is First Nation traditional leader of the Ławit̓sis First Nation, at the naming ceremony for his grand daughter in Alert Bay.

Chief Earnest Alfred, K̓wak̓waba̱’las, elected council member of the ‘Na̱mg̱is First Nation traditional leader of the Ławit̓sis First Nation, at the naming ceremony for his granddaughter in Alert Bay.

“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 similar responses on other farms in the region and led eventually to a government-to-government agreement between the ’Na̱mg̱is, Ḵwiḵwa̱sut̓inuxw Hax̱wa̱’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 there.

When Alfred stepped foot on Swanson Island 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, those 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 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 paved 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.

The mouth of the Moyeha River were it empties into Clayoqout Sound. Almost the entire river's watershed is protected in a provincial park but the salmon runs in the river have crashed.

The mouth of the Moyeha River were it empties into Clayoqout Sound. Almost the entire river’s watershed is protected in a provincial park but the salmon runs in the river have crashed.

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.

Joe Martin. Tla-o-qui-aht member, master traditional carver, Tribal Parks Guardian and elected member of council for Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.

Joe Martin. Tla-o-qui-aht member, master traditional carver, Tribal Parks Guardian and elected member of council for Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.

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 streams 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.

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.”

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. Catching fish in this way allows people to ensure that enough fish return to the stream to maintain healthy populations.

Ho'miska̱nis, Don Svanvik, a traditional carver, and hereditary chief and current elected Chief of Council of the ‘Na̱mg̱is First Nation under a carving he made on the waterfront in Alert Bay.

Ho’miska̱nis, Don Svanvik, a traditional carver, and hereditary chief and current elected Chief of Council of the ’Na̱mg̱is First Nation under a carving he made on the waterfront in Alert Bay.

“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, also known as 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 B.C. 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 has chosen to embrace the fish farms in their territory. In 2010, they signed an agreement with Cermaq, a Norway-based subsidiary of the Mitsubishi Corporation that claims to be the second-largest salmon farming company in the world. Today, the Ahousaht territory hosts the largest salmon farming venture in Clayoquot Sound with 10 farms.

Cermaq fish farm anchored to Saranac Island in the Ahousaht First Nation's territory.

Cermaq fish farm anchored to Saranac Island in the Ahousaht First Nation’s territory.

Ahousaht hereditary chief Hasheukumiss, also known as 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 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.

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

“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.”

Ahousaht member Lenny John is an outspoken critic of his nation's approach to fish farms and has engaged in numerous protests and direct actions against them.

Ahousaht member Lenny John is an outspoken critic of his nation’s approach to fish farms and has engaged in numerous protests and direct actions against them.

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. “The fish farms . . . . have a part but are not solely to blame,” he adds.

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 the 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 these 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.

Alexandra Morton at her home on Malcolm Island in the territory of the ’Na̱mg̱is First Nation.

Alexandra Morton at her home on Malcolm Island in the territory of the ’Na̱mg̱is First Nation.

While improved practices have, in some cases, reduced the environmental footprint of aquaculture in recent years, 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 B.C. 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.

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 impact from fish farms in British Columbia. Similar correlations between sea lice and wild salmon declines have been documented elsewhere, including in Norway.

A collection of sea lice on an adult Chinook salmon caught in the open ocean in Tla-o-qui-aht territory. On an adult fish these sea lice are harmless, but this many lice on a juvenile salmon could be fatal.

A collection of sea lice on an adult Chinook salmon caught in the open ocean in Tla-o-qui-aht territory. On an adult fish these sea lice are harmless, but this many lice on a juvenile salmon could be fatal.

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.”

Both government officials and fish farm operators 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 in connection to these violations—instead creating variances to the guidelines to allow farms to continue operating.

Earlier this year, self-reported numbers by companies including 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, farm-raised 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 has 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 offering more transparency and allowing members of the First Nation to monitor their activities.

In response to questions about the company’s refusal to leave, communications officer Lisa Stewart wrote in an email: “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.”)

“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.”

A Cermaq fish farm in Ahousaht First Nation's tradiotional territory at Saranac Island in Clayoqout Sound.

A Cermaq fish farm in Ahousaht First Nation’s traditional territory at Saranac Island in Clayoqout Sound.

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.”

Muuchinink, also known as 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 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.”

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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 systematic racial discrimination and forced assimilation that Indigenous people have had to contend with in Canada for centuries.

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 B.C. claims jurisdiction over the land and issues permits for farms to anchor their operations to land.

A totem pole carved by Joe David, sits on the waterfront in Tofino, BC in honor of the hereditary chiefs of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. Cermaq's fish processing plant sits behind it on the waterfront.

A totem pole carved by Joe David, sits on the waterfront in Tofino, B.C. in honor of the hereditary chiefs of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. Cermaq’s fish processing plant sits behind it on the waterfront.

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

Beyond the archipelago, there is broader movement to evict these fish farms from all of British Columbia. 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 carefully 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 and other resource development on the territory of First Nations that 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.

“Our governments have come together to help revitalize and protect wild salmon, and provide greater economic certainty for communities and local workers,” B.C. 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, Chief Svanvik notes that dealing with the colonial government is still far from easy, noting the ’Na̱mg̱is First Nation is involved in a court battle over open-net-pen fish farming with the Canadian government that started before BATI and continues to this day.

“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 (a mispronunciation of ’Na̱mg̱is, according to Svanvik) 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.

A coho salmon jumps in still marine waters along the central coast of British Columbia, Heiltsuk First Nation unceded traditional territory.

A coho salmon jumps in still marine waters along the central coast of British Columbia, Haíłzaqv First Nation unceded traditional territory.

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 on a wider scale and offer a possible win-win alternative to near-shore fish farms, one that would continue to 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 for coastal First Nations, finding a way around this conflict is critical. As Alfred points out: “For us, it’s about food sovereignty. We are bak̓wa̱m [First Nations people]. We want our fish back.”

Top photo: Two members of the Wuikinuxv First Nation prepare wild salmon to feed to guests to their territory during the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, which brings together First Nations from across the Pacific Northwest.

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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David Moskowitz works in the fields of photography, wildlife biology, and education. He is the photographer and author of three books: Caribou Rainforest, Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest and Wolves in the Land of Salmon. He has contributed his technical expertise to a wide variety of wildlife studies regionally and in the Canadian and U.S. Rocky mountains, focusing on using tracking and other non-invasive methods to study wildlife ecology and promote conservation. He helped establish the Cascade Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project, a citizen science effort to search for and monitor rare and sensitive wildlife in the Cascades and other Northwest wildlands. Read more >

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