The recent renewal of fish farm tenures is just the latest in a long saga of denial of First Nations’ fishing rights.
IN 1930, a group of First Nations fishermen gathered around a fire to wait out a storm on Langara Island. They were sheltered by their rowboats pulled up on the beach as the storm set in. Salmon prices were so low, gas so high, and federal policy so targeted to support commercial companies, the fishermen had abandoned motors and returned to hand-trolling to make ends meet.
Visiting them that night was Haida elder Alfred Adams, Nangittlagada. He had come with an idea that he had picked up in Alaska—he wanted to form a Native Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) for increased recognition of aboriginal rights in hunting, fishing, trapping and timber harvesting in off-reserve traditional lands. And he wanted to meet with Ottawa officials about these matters. The BC Native Brotherhood was founded in 1931.
Another leader of the Brotherhood, Guy Williams (Haisla), who went on to become a senator in 1971-82, wrote, “The men listened long into the night, no one noticing that the fire had gone completely out and the great rollers were still pounding the beaches heavily from the grey cloud wall at the edge of the world…”
Ninety years later, at the edge of the world, the Brother and Sisterhood still fight on against a metaphorical grey cloud wall: that of the corporate fish industry, morphed into its latest permutation of farming Atlantic salmon.
Three Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Hereditary Chiefs, including Willie Moon (r), deliver an eviction notice to workers at a Cermaq/Mitsubishi fish farm in 2016. (Photo by Tamo Campos)
When the NDP government recently announced their decision to continue to allow open net-pen salmon farms until 2022, it was no surprise to the activist descendants of the fishermen on that Langara beach. Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Elected Chief and Traditional Leader Okwilagame (Willie Moon) of Kingcome Inlet stated, “We’ve been fighting fish farms in our territory for over two decades, and that battle does not end with today’s announcement. We will fight it in court through the various legal tools at our disposal…”
Fighting fish farms is just one chapter in a century of fighting for aboriginal fishing rights, a battle where traction has only been gained through the courts. Politically, there has been little progress, federally or provincially. The pattern of pushing on ahead with ever more aquaculture, followed by token slow-downs, usually in the form of moratoriums, is all too familiar. The provincial government has no real jurisdiction for regulating the federal fisheries other than the granting of land tenure permits for the farm itself. It has only ever used slow-down-and-study approaches to fish farms over the last 30 years.
In the 1980s, a Namgis fisherman, Chris Cook, joined the board of the Brotherhood right about the time the fish farms were being brought into his territory around Alert Bay. He was one of the first to warn his community about the impacts of the farms. He had already experienced the devastating social impacts of the 1971 Davis Plan, which implemented a fishing license buy-back program. The commercial fishing fleets were blowing locals out of the water, at the same time that stocks were declining. The buy-back program was the final nail in the coffin for small-scale native fishermen; it favoured those with capital who could improve the efficiency of their boats to meet increased operating standards. Through the buy-back program, the DFO reduced the number of boats; those who couldn’t afford to upgrade had no alternative but to sell. DFO further consolidated the fleet by giving larger boats the ability to obtain rights to fish in other areas.
A token grandfather clause provided a special Native licence, but it only provided a right to fish, not the ability to sell the licence. The Brotherhood had some influence on the Indian Fishermen’s Assistance Program, in which capital was made available to upgrade equipment, but again it favoured existing boat owners who had the down payment necessary to get in on the scheme.
Fishing policy did not change substantially when, in 1996, the federal Mifflin Plan replaced the Davis Plan—and neither did the results. Corky Evans, then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for BC, summed up the two world views of fisheries at a standing committee on fish: “If you’re an economist, you would say that the Mifflin Plan to reduce the fleet to increase the viability of the remaining operators was a perfectly rational response to a changing technology and market conditions. If, however, you were a resident of Ahousat, or maybe a lot of the people in this room, you would say that it’s the elimination of half the jobs in your community.”
Atlantic salmon open-net fish farms arrived on the coast in the early 1980s as mom-and-pop operations around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. There were just 10 farms in 1984, but within a couple of years, the industry had consolidated and grown ten-fold, and started shifting from farming local species of salmon to Atlantics.
In the north, only the tiny remote village of Klemtu brought fish farms in. The village didn’t have much choice: it had lost all its fish boats through the Davis and Mifflin plans. It had a fish processing plant standing empty and few other options to sustain its community.
Cook says Indigenous bands were left with no choice but to turn to aquaculture because of erosion of their fishing opportunities. He speaks about the divide-and-conquer tactics and his people “being used as pawns by the aquaculture industry.”
A moratorium on further expansion of fish farms was put in place in October 1986, after pressure from fishers following a massive bloom of phytoplankton on the Sunshine Coast that killed an estimated 100,000 fish. That same year, a commission led by David Gillespie explored some of the stickier issues of growth.
Again the Brotherhood raised alarms on the impact to their own salmon fishery, the commercial fishery, and the environment. But many fishing families had already lost their fish boats and livelihoods and so were left with no alternative to get any fish. The recommendation of the Gillespie commission was to lift the moratorium but introduce stricter, clearer guidelines. The moratorium was lifted in 1987 by the Socreds.
During the early 1990s, salmon farms became increasingly owned by transnational corporations and more operating processes became automated, resulting in fewer jobs. Farm locations became concentrated off the coasts of the mainland and east Vancouver Island.
In 1995, the NDP instituted a moratorium on the issuance of new salmon farm licences. Production at existing sites, however, was allowed to intensify. During this time, aquaculture companies ramped up their operations, forging an agreement with some Native villages, and increasing tension between neighbouring First Nations who had placed their own moratoriums on the farms.
By 2000, the aquaculture industry accounted for 15 percent of BC’s total agriculture production. In 2001, fish farm expansion once again hit the pressure valve. The federal Auditor General’s Report came out, followed by the Standing Senate Committee, and the David Suzuki Foundation-funded Leggatt Inquiry. Not one of the three inquiries gave green lights to fish farms.
Stuart Leggatt, a retired judge, was given independence to hear and review the evidence. Leggatt gave a definite red light and recommended a permanent moratorium and switch to closed-containment, land-based operations. Cook spoke at its release: “I’m tired of sending letters. I’m tired of talking. I hope my people stand up and start to fight.”
The Standing Senate Committee recommended the precautionary approach, while the Auditor General reported that DFO was “not fully meeting its legislative obligations under the Fisheries Act to protect wild Pacific salmon stocks and habitat from the effects of salmon farming.” It recommended keeping the moratorium while more public review was conducted.
In 2001, a Liberal government was elected provincially. Despite the recommendations of the three bodies, the moratorium on new locations for fish farms was lifted in 2002. The south was now wide open for expansion, while a battle was waged in the northern communities where there were still livelihoods to be made in the wild salmon fishery. By 2008, a total ban was placed on open-net fish farms on the north coast (north of Klemtu).
In 2012, the $37 million Cohen Commission reported on its examination of the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, making 75 recommendations, most still unmet, though a moratorium on fish farm tenures around the Discovery Islands was put in place by the Province. In 2016, Chief Bob Chamberlin noted to the press, “The part I find disingenuous with freezing [licences] of the farms in Discovery [Passage], is that just up the coast, five or ten miles from there, they’re expanding the industry and creating new farms.”
In 2017, Chris Cook was still fighting in his territory on Vancouver Island for a southern moratorium. His First Nation, the Namgis, led the way in setting up the first closed containment, land-based fish farm. At age 75, Cook told the press: “What happened to us, the coastal First Nations people? My words would be ‘economic assassination.’”
Most recently, on June 20, 2018, BC Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham announced that any fish farm will need approval of local First Nations to operate beyond 2022. Fish farm operators will also have to “satisfy Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that their operations will not adversely impact wild salmon stocks.”
Is this a true turning point, or just another twist in the tale of fish farms destroying the wild salmon fishery? Does it spell the end of open net-pen salmon farming on BC’s coasts? What happens if the NDP government gets defeated? How much damage has already been done?
While the Union of BC Indian Chiefs views the new plan as “an initial step on the pathway to preserve and safeguard the future of wild salmon,” others are disappointed and wary.
Chief Willie Moon of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation is leading the legal challenge. The Dzawada’enuxw First Nation is not waiting around for another four years of negotiation with the fish farm operators while fish stocks continue to decline. The Nation’s lawyer, Jack Woodward, said, “What the Dzawada’enuxw require is legal rights now, not political promises four years from now, when there may be a new government in power with no obligation to follow its predecessor’s policy.”
Meanwhile, six Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, including the Dzawada’enuxw, continue their occupation of a Broughton Archipelago fish farm, which they began on August 24 of last year.
As for the requirement that fish farms show they are not harming wild salmon stocks, many of the Indigenous salmon protectors of the north island have no trust in what they see as a politicized scientific community.
Yet another standing committee has formed, and the prospect seems probable that the struggle over salmon fish farms on BC’s coast will become a 100-year war.
Briony Penn is currently working with Xenaksiala elder Cecil Paul, Wa’xaid on Following the Good River, Stories from the Magic Canoe of Cecil Paul. Rocky Mountain Books, due out in 2019.
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