A broad coalition of First Nations leaders, wilderness tourism operators, environmental NGOs and commercial and sport fishing organizations gathered in North Vancouver Sept. 22 demanding the federal government fulfill recommendations of the Cohen Commission to immediately remove open-net salmon farms from the Discovery Islands, and abolish all others from BC waters by 2025.
A total of 101 B.C. First Nations have endorsed the conference’s demands, relating to the 2012 inquiry into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye. Justice Bruce Cohen issued 75 recommendations to government in his final report, including the removal of all 18 open net salmon farms from the Discovery Islands by Sept. 30 this year unless the spread of sea lice and viruses pose at most a minimal risk to wild fish.
But First Nations salmon advocate Robert Chamberlain accused Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) of minimizing the risks of salmon farms on wild stocks.
“I often tell people, ‘don’t mistake my passion for anger.’ Well I’m not saying that anymore. I’m angry. I don’t like what’s happened to the wild salmon of British Columbia. I don’t like that my great aunts and uncles are not able to eat foods that they have [eaten] their entire lives. That really pisses me off, and we have to stand up now or we’re not going to have this resource for our grandchildren.”
Roughly 270,000 sockeye are expected to return to the Fraser River this year, the lowest on record.
A number of factors are blamed for the crisis, including climate change and warming waters, over fishing and increased predation from protected marine mammals. However opponents of salmon farms point to independent studies that indicate lice loads in sea farms are causing devastating impacts on vulnerable out-migrating juvenile salmon. The industry and DFO disputes these claims.
Citing the landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1990, known as the Sparrow Decision after the late Musqueam gill netter Ronald Sparrow that helped cement Aboriginal fishing rights across the country, Musqueam Indian Band Chief Wayne Sparrow said his nation is prepared to return to court to force the implementation of the Cohen recommendations.
“We were asleep at the wheel for a while, thinking that those recommendations were going to be adhered to by the federal government,” Sparrow said.
“We’ll fight back. We’ve tried sitting at the table to try to get the governments to listen to us, and it’s fallen on deaf ears. If they continue to not listen to us, Musqueam is in a position to take up Sparrow 2 and extend our rights that were proven in 1990.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to transition open-net pens from all B.C. waters by 2025. But Jordan has since clarified a workable plan will be in place by that date, with implementation possibly years later, worrying wild salmon advocates that change might come too late.
Numerous First Nations leaders echoed Sparrow’s frustration with DFO over what many see as a conflict of interest in its role to both protect wild salmon and promote salmon farming. Justice Cohen also noted the potential for conflict of interest, and recommended oversight of salmon farms be transferred to another department.
Judy Wilson, a member of the Shuswap Nation and Secretary-Treasurer for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, compared the struggle to protect wild salmon to a state of war.
“But this war is different; it’s policy and legislation and unilateral decisions being made by DFO.
“What government, what department has the right to ignore the law of the lands, especially to ignore our Indigenous laws of our land. Our nations are outside the treaty process, so we’ve never relinquished or surrendered any of our land or waters to the government … we need DFO to vacate. We need DFO to totally reform.”
Representatives of the commercial fishing sector joined the press conference with similar demands.
Dane Chauvel with the Commercial Fisherman Troller Association said fishermen are reporting unprecedented lice loads on out-migrating salmon smolts. He acknowledged First Nations have more political clout than the commercial sector and hoped for further cooperation to reverse the environmental and socio-economic consequences of the salmon crisis.
“Coastal and Indigenous communities have been decimated over the past decades, and this decimation has coincided with the emergence of open-net pen salmon farming,” he said.
“It certainly was laid out in the Cohen inquiry as a smoking gun. When we look at neighbouring jurisdictions like Alaska, where they don’t have open pen salmon fisheries, they have vibrant coastal fishing communities and healthy ecosystems and healthy salmon returns. We don’t have that in British Columbia.”
Salmon farms are required to treat their salmon when lice loads exceed three per fish. The first fix is a chemical feed, but as lice immunity increasing salmon farms have invested heavily in mechanical treatments using fresh water baths and pressurized water.
Last June Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, released a report based on data supplied by salmon farm operators that argued these treatments were ineffective when lice levels exceed the DFO limits.
Speaking at Tuesday’s conference Wristen said at one point during the study up to 99 per cent of out migrating juvenile salmon were infested with sea lice at potentially lethal numbers.
The salmon farm industry has challenged that report over its methodology used the same data to show treatments were effective a vast majority of the time.
“There’s been extensive research done in the decade since the Cohen Commission that indicates salmon farms are not harming the health of wild salmon population,” Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for the BC Salmon Farmers Association said. “We must of course farm responsibly and effectively manage issues such as sea lice, which we do.”
The sector is required by DFO to publicly report sea lice findings and other operational data on a regular basis.
Hall points to numerous studies supporting the efficacy of sea lice treatments.
In January last year DFO also released a study prompted by the Cohen recommendations that found the risk of the Piscine orthoreovirus pathogen spreading from farms to Fraser River sockeye is also minimal.
Correction: An earlier version of this stories referenced independent studies on sea lice and viruses related to salmon farms, when the studies pertain only to sea lice. The above story has been corrected.