Liberals promise end to open net pen fish farming: Pledge condemned by industry, questioned by critics

Mike Youds, October 11, 2019

Lennie John gets cuffed and arrested during a 2015 protest at a Clayoquot Sound fish farm. (Yaakswiis Warriors photo)

A Liberal Party campaign pledge to transition to closed-containment salmon farming on the B.C. coast within five years has drawn swift condemnation from the industry and skepticism from First Nation communities.

 “In British Columbia, we will work with the province to develop a responsible plan to transition from open net pen salmon farming in coastal waters to closed containment systems by 2025,” the platform declares.

Released Sept. 29, halfway through the federal election campaign, the policy goes well beyond the government’s own position on open net pen salmon farming. In June, Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced a “precautionary approach” for aquaculture, stricter measures to monitor and contain fish diseases while working with industry on production technologies including closed containment.

The policy not only flies in the face of the government’s recent initiatives to work with coastal stakeholders, it throws into question the whole purpose of the strategy, said John Paul Fraser of the B.C. Salmon Farming Association.

“B.C. salmon farmers work in deep and respectful relationships with coastal Indigenous communities, with more than 70 per cent of the farmed salmon harvested in B.C. done so in partnership and with impact benefits agreements with local First Nations,” Fraser said in a news release last week. “The Liberal Party’s ill-advised platform commitment puts Indigenous economic opportunity at risk.”

Fraser said the Liberals are pandering to urban voters.

Within the last six months, the Liberal government has engaged stakeholders, including First Nations, in a series of aquaculture strategies, including an independent advisory committee, a move to area-based management and a technological review. At no point was there any mention of shifting to closed containment by 2025, an impossible goal that would drive companies out of the industry, Fraser said.

“We’re just treated like castaways and callously thrown under the bus,” he said.

Wilkinson responded to the platform policy backlash by suggesting a five-year transition is a realistic time frame, one he believes can be met.

No fewer than 100 federal election candidates, NDP and Green as well as Liberal, have made the same commitment according to the lobby group Wildfirst. Wildfirst formed six years ago after the former Harper Conservative government announced an expansion of Atlantic salmon farming on the B.C. coast despite warnings sounded by the Cohen Commission on Fraser River sockeye a year earlier.

Wildfirst’s list of supporters lists well-known Indigenous people, including local leaders Ted Walkus, hereditary chief of Wuikinuxv First Nation and Robert Chamberlin, chief councillor of Kiwikiwasutinuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation, and artist Roy Henry Vickers of Tofino.

Many others along the coast — convinced that marine-based salmon farming exposes wild fish to disease — believe the transition can’t come soon enough. In August, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs backed Namgis First Nation in its call for an end to open net pen farming.

“We don’t have that much time,” said Lennie John, an Ahousaht water taxi operator and a vocal opponent of open net pen farming. “The sooner the better. Our wild stocks don’t have that kind of time with the rate they’re declining.”

John estimated that half the people in Ahousaht now agree with that contention, a major shift in opinions within the last few years.

Among west coast First Nation communities the issue is a divisive one because members rely on fish farming for income in coastal regions where other work is in short supply. There are, however, a growing number of voices speaking out against open net pen practices as an unacceptable risk to wild salmon stocks. Public demonstrations, including a flotilla that boarded a Creative Salmon fish farm and documented fish disease, took place last summer.

Cermaq maintains that sea lice levels at its Clayoquot fish farms have been low after an early harvest and closure of two farms in 2019. The local opposition group Clayoquot Action claims otherwise, pointing to sea lice levels that have risen at farms where the company has been testing its Hydrolicer.

“The Warriors will stand up again,” John said, alluding to the 2015 occupation of a Flores Island fish farm by an Ahousaht group, Yaakswiis Warriors. Four members including John were convicted in 2016 of mischief and intimidation for attempting to block restocking of a Cermaq fish farm.

John said the thousands of jobs cited by industry would not make up for the loss of wild salmon.

“It would be something if they got rid of (open net pens) in five years, but this is the point of no return for wild salmon,” he said, suggesting more stocks will collapse within the next couple of years. “That’s how fast they’re declining. The only reason that nothing’s being done is that certain people’s pockets are being lined.

The industry maintains that closed containment technology has not yet been proven on a commercial scale, though it is on the horizon.

“Technology is currently developing and we certainly anticipate closed containment systems will play a larger role in the future,” Fraser said. “But to forcefully mandate a five-year ‘transition’ is unachievable, especially when there is no business case or transition plan behind it. This is a recipe for industry stagnation and significant unemployment.”

Fraser pointed to progress in the form of a technical working group, engaging all levels of government, First Nations and non-government organizations, to come up with technological innovation.

“In fact, a draft report commissioned by the minister that is being deliberated by the working group concludes that ‘the new technologies discussed in this report, as well as conventional net pen systems, will all play a role in contributing to global production of salmon products,’” he noted.

Fraser said the industry will have to wait until after the election to see if strategies focused on charting the future of salmon farming can be salvaged.

Meanwhile, a transition is already well underway in the Broughton Archipelago, which lies in Kiwikiwasutinuxw Haxwa’mis. Five salmon farms have closed, five more are scheduled for closure in 2022 and seven more by 2024. The move is critical for wild salmon stocks, Premier John Horgan told a conference in September.

Horgan also announced agreements between the Namgis, Mamalilikulla and Kiwikiwasutinuxw Haxwa’mis to adopt an Indigenous monitoring and inspection plan for fish farms in the archipelago.