An icon at stake
The salmon is an important icon on Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, connecting peoples on opposite sides of the world’s second largest country.
Canada stretches 3,500 miles from Newfoundland and Labrador in the east to British Columbia in the west. But while salmon unites these peoples, it’s also at the heart of an issue that divides them.
“People care about and benefit from salmon for many different reasons,” explains a spokesperson for the government of Canada. “It is fished for food, social and ceremonial purposes by First Nations and many Indigenous communities. Moreover, salmon angling is a valued recreational activity by both local residents and non-residents. Salmon are considered an indicator of environmental quality, an animal of respect and an attraction for eco-tourism, and have an importance beyond economic returns.”
Canada’s Indigenous communities comprise three distinct peoples – the First Nations, Métis and Inuit – each with unique histories, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. The 2021 census counted over 1.8 million Indigenous people, making up 5% of the country’s population. Most, just over a million, belong to the First Nations. Of the 630 First Nation governments across Canada, a third live in the Pacific Northwest province of British Columbia.
The five species of Pacific salmon found in British Columbia and the Yukon are: Oncorhynchus nerka (sockeye), O. kisutch (coho), O. tshawytscha (chinook), O. gorbuscha (pink) and O. keta (chum). Pacific salmon are an intrinsic part of many First Nation cultures.
“Native Nations of the Pacific Northwest define themselves as ‘Salmon People’,” according to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, which goes on: “There are many geographic regions that distinguish Native Nations or language groups from one another in the Pacific Northwest. Despite physical distance and cultural diversity, salmon is a unifying factor.”
One such region, surrounding the cities of Vancouver and Seattle, comprises the Georgia Basin in British Columbia, and the estuarine Puget Sound in Washington State. At its heart are the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, sometimes called the Salish Sea, in honour of the native peoples who have lived there for thousands of years.
The Coast Salish is a group of ethnically and linguistically related Indigenous peoples who, long before colonisation, depended on salmon as a source of staple food, wealth and trade. Traditional fishing is deeply tied to Coast Salish culture. Salmon were seen as gift-bearing relatives and treated with great respect. They are a cultural symbol in totem poles, canoes and oars, representing life, abundance, prosperity, nourishment, dependability and the renewing cycle of life: through their death salmon sustain coastal forests, and they return every year, nourishing humans, bears and other animals over and over again.
Another region is the vast Columbia River Basin, reaching from the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, down across the US border and into the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. The First Nations of the Columbia River Basin “could rightly be called Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum, or ‘Salmon People’, for how completely these sacred fish shaped our cultures, diets, societies and religions, and continue to do so today,” writes the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC).
“To call salmon a staple of the tribal diet would be an understatement. The First Salmon Feast is part of the traditional tribal religion of the Columbia Basin. The feasts move upriver with the fish. Known by various names including Washut, Longhouse and Seven Drums, this religion continues to guide tribal people and connect them with the Creator and the gifts He has given them. It also connects followers to the land and to the culture practised by their ancestors.
“Fishing for salmon is just as integral an aspect of tribal culture as consuming it. Salmon are worth our time, energy and sometimes even risking our lives. That is why it was troubling when the number of salmon that returned up the Columbia River each year grew smaller and smaller. By the 1960s, the numbers had dipped so low that tribal concern turned into alarm that we might lose our sacred fish. The tribes did not have the political voice or power to fight the decline. Fortunately, those days are past.”
“Pacific salmon stocks are declining to historic lows,” agreed Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in its 2019 State of Pacific Salmon report. “Recent marine heatwaves, changes to marine food webs, warmer freshwater conditions, more extreme rain and drought, and various human activities are all contributing to current trends in salmon numbers.”
Tensions over plummeting wild salmon populations have simmered for decades. In British Columbia (BC), 2020 saw a recorded low for sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River at an estimated 283,000 fish, down from a high of 28.2 million in 2010. First Nations and other campaigners have argued open-net fish farms have contributed to the collapse because sea lice and other pathogens transfer from them to migrating juvenile wild salmon.
In September 2020, 101 BC First Nations and their supporters called for the removal of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands, a major salmon migration corridor in the north of the Salish Sea, asking that the farmed salmon be moved to land-based closed-containment systems.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had directed the former Fisheries Minister, Bernadette Jordan, to transition away from open-net fish farming by 2025. As reported in this magazine, in a shock decision in December 2020, Ms Jordan announced a shutdown of fish farming in the Discovery Islands. All 19 farms had to be free of fish by 30 June 2022, when their renewed 18-month licences expired, and no new fish could be brought in. She expected 80% of the fish to go by April 2021 in time for the next Fraser River out-migration period.
The decision was difficult, she added, but reflected consultations with seven First Nations: the Homalco, Klahoose, K’ómoks, Kwiakah, Tla’amin, We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum.
Jordan said: “We heard overwhelmingly from First Nations in the area that they do not want these fish farms there. They feel that they should have a say in their territorial waters and I absolutely agree with them.”
Chief Darren Blaney of the Homalco First Nation told broadcaster CBC: “[Wild, local] stocks have been declining over the years. Salmon are pretty resilient. I think if we give them an opportunity, they will start to rebuild.”
The impact would be hard, argued the BC Salmon Farmers Association trade body. Salmon farming in the province, it said, is a CAN $1.6bn (£1.1bn) annual industry that employs 6,500 British Columbians, has participation agreements with 20 First Nations, and generates $89m (£55m) each year in tax revenue.
The majority of the 19 Discovery Islands salmon farms are owned by three companies: Mowi Canada West, Cermaq Canada Ltd. and Grieg Seafoods Ltd. BC salmon farmers said at the time there was no business case for entirely land-based salmon farming.
Plans surged on. “Pacific salmon need our help, with many runs on the verge of collapse,” the DFO said in June 2021, as it launched “the largest, most transformative investment Canada has ever made to save wild salmon”, the $647.1m (£400m) Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative (PSSI). “The decades-long declines are due to a complex combination of climate change, habitat degradation and harvesting impacts, and bold action is needed now to stabilise and rebuild the stocks before it is too late.”
The DFO quickly announced long-term commercial closures and a Licence Retirement Program. It said: “These plans are outlined in the 2021–2022 Salmon Integrated Fisheries Management Plan and will result in closures to nearly 60% of commercial salmon fisheries for the 2021 season.”
“We are pulling the emergency brake to give these salmon populations the best chance at survival,” Ms Jordan added. “The decisions were not easy, as they impact people, communities and livelihoods. But with fewer and fewer returning every year – disappearing before our eyes – we have to act now. Together, we will turn the corner.”
Consequences followed quickly. In January this year, BC’s largest salmon producer, Mowi, announced it would close its 23,000sq ft fish-processing plant in Surrey, which employed around 80 people. Surrey lies outside the Discovery Islands, but Mowi said losing 30% of its production in BC meant the plant was no longer viable.
Rupinder Dadwan, human resources manager at Mowi Canada West, said: “This is what happens when politics overrides science-based evidence. Our federal government doesn’t have to do this – it can choose fairness and engagement over divisiveness and exclusion.”
Suppliers to the fish farming sector formed a new campaigning organisation, the Canadian Aquaculture Suppliers Association (CASA), to lobby against the industry shutdown. “Those who supply our nation’s aquaculture sector directly employ thousands of Canadians, including in communities where jobs are scarce and economic opportunity is limited,” said CASA President Ben James.
“Aquaculture provides Indigenous Canadians with economic opportunities and well-paying jobs, drastically reducing unemployment in many small, coastal communities,” added Richard Harry, Executive Director of the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association, former Chief of the Homalco First Nation and owner of a company that provides net-cleaning services to a salmon farm.
He warned: “Without aquaculture, and specifically farmed salmon, I know many people who will have difficulties in finding work.”
An organisation of First Nations, the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS), demanded they be allowed to farm fish on their own terms – and shouldn’t be stopped from doing so by the federal government. They called on the government to re-issue salmon farming licences in their territories.
“Many Canadians have been led to believe that all BC First Nations are actively opposed to salmon farming, but this is not the reality,” the FNFFS said. “Seventeen First Nations have a variety of relationship agreements with finfish aquaculture companies, with the longest going back over two decades. Altogether, these Nations’ territories make up most of the south coast of British Columbia.
“In total, BC’s farmed salmon sector is estimated to generate $29.2m [£18m] in economic activity within First Nations, $16.7m [£10.3m] in GDP and 247 jobs earning $12.8m [£7.9m] in wages per year. Further benefits are generated outside of First Nations communities, amounting to $54.2m [£33.5m] in economic activity, $31m [£19m] in GDP and $23.8m [14.7m] in wages for 460 workers. Some of these benefits accrue to First Nations members living outside their communities.
“Every First Nation is taking their own approach to these relationships. Some are in favour of industry and others have decided not to have salmon farms in their territories. While it isn’t clear what the federal government’s definition of ‘transitioning’ the sector is, this coalition is firm that it should not mean reducing or taking away salmon farming in their territories.”
Then, in a last-minute reprieve, the DFO gave the go-ahead for open-net pen salmon aquaculture to continue for the next two years at 79 farms off the coast of British Columbia. The decision, which came just days before the existing licences expired on 30 June, only represented a stay of execution – the DFO remained committed to its pledge “to transition from open-net pen salmon aquaculture in British Columbia’s coastal waters in a manner that protects wild salmon, the environment and the economy”.
A draft framework would be shared, the FDO said, and a consultation would run until early 2023, with publication of the final transition plan expected next spring. The new Fisheries Minister, Joyce Murray, who replaced Bernadette Jordan after the latter failed to win re-election in 2021, said: “Ottawa’s transition plan for the aquaculture industry will include new technology, while reducing or eliminating interactions with wild Pacific salmon.”
A separate consultation process is under way with First Nations and licence holders for 19 fish farms around the Discovery Islands, where licences are not being renewed.
Ms Murray said: “As the world’s appetite for high-quality fish and seafood continues to grow, we need to find better and innovative ways to farm fish and protect wild Pacific salmon stocks. A well-developed transition plan is the first step to growing a viable and sustainable industry in British Columbia.”
Welcoming the reprieve, Grieg Seafood CEO Andreas Kvame said: “Our industry is in continuous development with new technologies and innovations, and we are committed to improvements that strengthen biological control and reduce interactions with wild salmon.”
CASA reacted: “While the transition period will not be without obstacles, including issues of financial compensation, the association is buoyed by the government’s commitment towards the industry, including salmon farming. There’s a great deal at stake here.”
Following a meeting with the minister in October, the BC Salmon Farmers Association Interim Executive Director Ruth Salmon said: “Salmon farming is continuously evolving, improving and innovating, which can come as a surprise to those outside of the farming community. It was heartening to hear that the minister is seeking to work with us to support the development of the transition framework.
“In order to successfully drive further innovation and technology adoption, there needs to be flexibility to allow for various pathways. The ecosystems in which we operate, as well as the priorities of the Nations in whose territories we operate, are diverse. We need to have a full suite of tools and options available to ensure we are meeting the expectations of the Nations, protecting wild salmon populations, and providing healthy and sustainable meals.”
So, what should happen next?
Ben James, CASA President, says: “The government must offer financial compensation and proper retraining to those who will lose their livelihoods, including the operators of small businesses who supply the industry, due to its decision to not reissue salmon farm licences.
“It is our strong recommendation the federal government places science and common sense ahead of politics. It needs to listen to the industry and its own scientists and researchers over its unrealistic expectation for land-based farming. Our industry is innovative and is leading the way in protecting BC’s wild salmon stocks. This include advancements is semi-closed pen technology, disease detection and treatment.
“Unfortunately, wild salmon stocks in BC are still declining due to continued commercial and recreational overfishing, human encroachment into salmon habitat and climate change. The Liberal government in Ottawa has made salmon farming a politically expedient scapegoat, instead of addressing the real issues behind our declining wild salmon stocks.”
The BC Salmon Farmers Association says: “While we are encouraged to work with all levels of government to clarify what the elements of transition will be, transition is not new to our sector. We have been transitioning for decades through the development of cutting-edge technologies and innovations to continuously reduce our impact on the environment. We are looking for a flexible science-based pathway that supports regional characteristics and First Nations priorities.
“Current science shows that salmon farming in British Columbia doesn’t adversely impact wild salmon, meeting the federal government’s definition of ‘minimal risk’. Nevertheless, we are committed in this transition process to doing even more to minimise risk and protect wild stocks.”
Dallas Smith, spokesperson for the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, tells us: “For the government of Canada to truly recognise the rights, title and self-determination of Indigenous peoples, the transition of finfish farming in British Columbia must be led by the First Nations in whose territories the farms are located.
“First Nations will determine if, when and how salmon farms are operated in their territories. Some Nations are choosing to remove farms from their territories, as is their right. Many others wish to continue to partner with the sector to continue to benefit from the many economic, social and capacity-building opportunities.
“Above all else, wild Pacific salmon are the priority for coastal First Nations, and the transition of salmon farming in our territories must be done with the conservation and protection of wild salmon top of mind. This includes technology that minimises or eliminates risk, full transparency on operations, and increased oversight and monitoring by First Nations.”
But the fish that unites First Nations continues to divide them too. Clayoquot Action, a conservation society in Clayoquot Sound, says: “It is clear that open-net pens are harming wild salmon by spreading deadly pathogens, parasites and pollution. This is why 75% of British Columbians want fish farms removed from ocean waters. As do over 100 First Nations.”
Its Executive Director Dan Lewis says: “The DFO is seeking your input. But its online survey has a predetermined outcome: that fish farms will remain in BC waters – indefinitely! Do not wade into the DFO’s tricksy online survey. There are no in-water fish farm technologies that protect wild salmon. Land-based systems are being built around the world right now, while floating in-water systems require up to five years of further review.
“Wild salmon don’t have time to wait while the salmon farming industry tinkers with experimental technologies. Government must require the industry to get out of the ocean – by 2025 at the latest.”