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Fish farm plan a 'political decision not based on science or fact': Chiefs

Chiefs of First Nations who support salmon farming express defiance
Deputy Chief Dallas Smith addresses a Campbell River press conference earlier this year. (Alistair Taylor/Campbell River Mirror)

The mood was defiant and the words were strong at a press conference Wednesday, June 20, involving chiefs of First Nations who support salmon farming in their territories.

"Meaning(ful) consultation needs to happen and we have not had it thus far," Hereditary Chief Hasheukumiss, Richard George, Ahousaht Nation, said, "and to be called last night and to be told about a five-year transition plan and that's the end of it. After that, well, that's not going to sit well with us and we're not going to stand for it."

The press conference in Vancouver came immediately after the federal government announced it will ban open-net-pen salmon farming in five years after extending current licences to allow for companies to transition to land-based or closed-containment operations. The government had promised to phase out the farms by 2025.

"Our Nations have been the stewards of our coastal territories since time immemorial," a statement from the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (the Coalition) says. "Due to human impact on wild Pacific salmon stocks since colonization, many Nations have had to evolve their salmon stewardship and food security to include salmon farming. As a result, the sector has become interwoven into the fabric of our communities over the past few decades, and anything less than a responsible, realistic, and achievable transition of this industry, as promised to us by the Government of Canada, will be unacceptable."

The Coalition says the federal government's salmon farming plan "falls short" of what member Nations discussed with the government. The Coalition will continue to participate in the ongoing transition process with the federal government towards closed containment systems. However, the process has to respect member nations' rights and objectives. The social and economic health of their communities is reliant on sustainable growth and the ability of the sector to attract investment, as finfish aquaculture supports meaningful employment in their territories.

While the Coalition's statement professes cooperation, individual chiefs who spoke at Wednesday's press conference didn't mince words.

" As we're all aware of, a high paying job, a family supporting job, in a First Nations community is like four jobs anywhere else," Coalition spokesperson and Tlowitsis Acting Chief Dallas Smith said. "With the unemployment that we face in our communities, with the downturn of Pacific salmon, with forest resources being managed the way that they are, we need to continue to find a way to economically support our people while building a sustainable path forward."

The decision was criticized on the basis of who it appeared to be appeasing.

"There's profound sadness and disappointment with the decision to prioritize the whims of so called environmentalists over the rights of the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations," said Chief Terry Walkus. "This decision is an attempt to extinguish constitutionally-guaranteed rights and titles."

Deputy Chief Isaiah Robinson, Kitasoo Xai'xais Nation, said, "This is a political decision. This is not based on science or fact. But it's based on the appease of white privileged activists who fearmonger false data and build anti-fish farm narratives. This decision is the work of billionaires and activists who misguide and mislead Vancouverites."

These First Nations got into aquaculture because they provided opportunity for their communities. 

"When colonization hit, our people were economically excluded, leading to the generational trauma of poverty," Chief Robinson said. "We have decided to join this overall salmon aquaculture industry and build a business that could be great for our people. And based on the economics and social well being without compromising our traditional knowledge and stewardship efforts."

The decision is also incompatible with reconciliation, the chiefs said. 

"I can't express enough this process is far from reconciliation," Chief George said. "No longer can we trust Canada to do the right thing; to walk alongside of us with what I call 'reconcili-action.' Far too long has reconciliation been on the table. My grandfather, my father have gone through it. And right now I've had enough of it. Right now, we're about 'reconcili-action' and it's high time Canada walks alongside of us, collectively, together with solutions moving forward." 

The feasibility of the federal government's plan was questioned. Chiefs felt developing the technology to transition to land-based aquaculture within five years is unrealistic for the industry as a whole and was more difficult for First Nations communities with a limited land base and energy sources. In the end, the plan could kill the economic opportunity provided by aquaculture.

"Five years to transition to land based or closed-containment in my territory is the same as shutting our operations down," Chief George said.

Alistair Taylor

About the Author: Alistair Taylor

I have been editor of the Campbell River Mirror since 1989. Our team takes great pride in serving our community.
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