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123 First Nations renew call to close B.C. salmon farms as DFO weakens promise

Recent federal documents appear to walk back 2019 commitment to fully phase out open net fish farms
A now closed fish farm within B.C.’s Discovery Islands region. (Photo courtesy Sheri Beaulieu/Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance)

The federal government needs to follow through on its promise to fully phase out open-net pen salmon farms in B.C., says a coalition of 123 First Nations, environmental groups and tourism associations.

The group renewed their call for action on Wednesday (Sept. 27), saying recent documents from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) have them concerned the government may be weakening its stance on protecting wild salmon.

During the 2019 federal election, the Liberal party’s campaign platform stated they would create “a responsible plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal waters to closed containment systems by 2025.” However, in a framework document for that transition plan released in the summer of 2022, the government appeared to walk back the extent of its promise. It said then it will “progressively minimize or eliminate interactions between salmon open net-pens and wild salmon.”

The introduction of “minimize” as an option has the B.C. coalition concerned. Environmental groups have also noted that DFO approved three fish farm expansion projects between 2019 and 2022, contradicting its long-term commitment.

READ ALSO: Ottawa is scaling back its promise to phase out open net-pen salmon farms, critics say

The closing of the farms has been a major issue of debate in B.C. for years, with the majority of First Nations, as well as many scientists and environmental groups, saying the pens are linked to the transfer of disease to wild salmon, while the industry says close to 5,000 people rely on the farms for jobs.

On Wednesday, representatives of the coalition – which includes sports and commercial fishers, wilderness tourism operators and the Pacific Salmon Foundation – said that open-net farms are not the only risk to wild salmon but a significant one.

Andrew Bateman, a scientist with the foundation, said reports released by DFO in recent years calling the farms a “minimal risk” were specific only to certain areas of B.C. and certain types of wild salmon. Bateman added he was a part of the processes leading up to those reports and claims they were undermined by conflicts of interest.

DFO didn’t answer questions from Black Press Media regarding this accusation.

READ ALSO: Virus found among Atlantic salmon ‘poses minimal risk’ to Fraser River sockeye – DFO

The potential loss of wild salmon is especially personal for First Nations, who have not only relied on the fish for sustenance for thousands of years, but hold a strong cultural and spiritual bond with them as well.

Hereditary Chief Robert Joseph of the Gwawaenuk People said their protocols, dance and ceremony have forever involved honouring salmon.

“It takes on a deep, deep meaning,” said Joseph, who is also Canada’s Ambassador for Reconciliation.

Tyrone McNeil, president of the Stó꞉lō Tribal Council, said in their Nation salmon is always served on special occasions, such as when someone is born or dies or at weddings.

“It’s integral to our diet. It’s integral to our spiritual and mental health,” he said.

Chief Wayne Sparrow of the Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) Indian Band said he doesn’t want to have to be the person telling his grandchildren and great-grandchildren that there used to be wild salmon in the Fraser River.

“If we don’t pull together now, it’s going to be too late.”

And it’s not just First Nations and scientists who are concerned. Representatives for the tourism industry and commercial and sports fishers also spoke out against open-net pen fish farms on Wednesday.

“If salmon were to disappear, the supernatural B.C. brand and tourism industry would crumble….,” said Jeneen Sutherland, executive director of the Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. “Without salmon, our forests, seas and wildlife would be decimated.”

Chief Joseph said they aren’t pushing for changes with any malice toward the farmed fish industry. He said the federal government needs to make sure those people are taken care of too. But Joseph said if serious action isn’t taken to protect wild salmon now, it will negatively impact everyone in B.C.

DFO said in a statement it is continuing to engage with partners and stakeholders.

About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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