“These anti-salmon farms activists are playing with our lives and our livelihoods…" - James Walkus, Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nation elder.

Anti-salmon farm activists vilify scientific facts to push fiction

“These activists are playing with our lives and our livelihoods…Unfortunately some of our First Nations brothers and sisters have been influenced by these activists, who really don’t know what they are talking about…they should be listening to us, and the science,” – James Walkus, Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation elder.

By Fabian Dawson

Refusing to believe voluminous scientific evidence that show salmon farms have minimal impact on wild fish, a group of activists have begun ratcheting up their campaign to decimate BC’s ocean aquaculture industry, as the province heads towards a fall election.

Claiming the support of 101 First Nations, the activists held a press conference in North Vancouver yesterday spouting falsehoods about BC’s salmon farmers, cloaking their assertions in treaty rights and threatening to disrupt one of Canada’s most sustainable and secure food sources. No list of the 101 First Nations were provided nor what they had agreed to.

Organised by Bob Chamberlin, a failed federal NDP candidate who now runs a consulting firm, the group’s agenda is to make salmon farming a divisive issue in the upcoming election, which was announced a day earlier by BC Premier John Horgan.

Ironically, Chamberlin seems to have roped in commercial and sports fishing organisations which prefer to blame salmon farmers for dwindling wild stocks, rather than over-fishing and hunting them into extinction.

“They seem to be aligned with business interests that is seeking government funding to build land-based fish farms…some of the names associated with this group are well known political backers,” said a Victoria-based provincial political analyst.

“There is no real science that show fish farms are responsible for the dwindling wild stocks…but the politics of First Nations treaty rights are easier to manipulate during an election campaign than the realities of science,” he told SeaWestNews.

“They have also taken a page from the Trump playbook to erode institutional trust by urging people not to believe government scientific studies and the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans).”

“It is telling that the press conference is held in a voter-rich urban area far from the coastal communities which rely on resource industries like aquaculture…it’s a classic tactic used to split the urban-rural vote,” said the political analyst.

At the press conference yesterday, the activists called on the Federal Government to adopt the 19th recommendation of the 2012 Cohen Commission’s report on declining Fraser River salmon stocks. The recommendation calls for the prohibition of 18 fish farms in the Discovery Islands by Sept. 30, 2020, unless there is proof they pose only a “minimum risk of serious harm to the heath of migrating Fraser River salmon.”

So far eight out of nine peer reviewed scientific studies on pathogen transfer risk between wild and farmed fish in the area have found farmed salmon pose minimal risks to migrating wild stocks in British Columbia. A ninth, expected to have the same conclusion, is due soon.

There was no mention of these scientific papers and their conclusions by the activists at yesterday’s press conference, other than calls not to believe DFO.

Another oft-repeated falsehood on display at the press conference was the claim that there has been a record number of sea lice infestations in BC during the recent salmon outmigration period and that salmon farms are infecting wild salmon with this parasite.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has responded to this false claim saying: “Sea lice in British Columbia during the 2020 outmigration  (March 1 to June 30) have been controlled, with no facilities violating licence conditions.”

Studies have shown that, in B.C. regardless of the presence or absence of salmon farms, there is wide variability in sea lice prevalence in coastal locations. Research over the past decade shows lice levels are significantly linked with ocean conditions and variations in wild hosts.

Again there was no mention of this at yesterday’s press conference as the organisers opted to refer to faulty findings of activist-scientists, derived from so called “unique” modelling methods, to reach an intended conclusion.

One such faulty study, proclaimed recently by the activists, actually demonstrated that the numbers of the naturally occurring sea lice at BC’s fish farms were way below the government permitted thresholds.

“These activists are playing with our lives and our livelihoods,” said James Walkus, an octogenarian elder of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation.

“Unfortunately some of our First Nations brothers and sisters have been influenced by these activists, who really don’t know what they are talking about…they should be listening to us, and the science,” said Walkus, a commercial fisher, who also serves the aquaculture industry with his armada of boats that employs about 50 people in Port Hardy.

“I have been fishing here all my life and the salmon farms have little to do with the declining wild fish,” Walkus told SeaWestNews, adding he sees   aquaculture as a way to reduce the pressures on wild stocks. 

“If the politicians move sea farms onto land many of our First Nation coastal communities will collapse…we need aquaculture more so now with COVID-19…it can be done with no harm to wild fish…it only makes sense that if you eat more farmed fish there will be more wild fish.”

Other First Nations leaders who have spoken out against the activists urging them to recognise that sustainable aquaculture is an economic lifeline for their communities, include Tlowitsis Chief John Smith, Harold Sewid, Clan Chief of the Broughton-based WiumasgumQwe’Qwa’Sot’Enox and Chief Roxanne Robinson of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation.

They have continually urged politicians to abide by the principles United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or UNDRIP, and recognise their partnerships with salmon farming companies, as it creates pathways for shared prosperity between coastal Indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

“The traditional territories are of significant importance to us and we take who we allow to operate in our territory very seriously” said Chief Robinson, after signing a new 10-year agreement with Mowi Canada West for economic development and employment centred around salmon farming and processing in Klemtu.

Shawn Hall, spokesperson, BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) said 20 BC First Nations have partnership agreements for farming salmon in their territories resulting in 80% of all salmon farmed in the province falling under a beneficial partnership with a First Nation.

“Our sector’s foundation is built on good science. Extensive research done in the decade since the Cohen Commission indicates salmon farms are not harming the health of wild salmon populations, contrary to some of the distorted information out there,” he said.

“Salmon farming in BC is critical, playing a key role in our local and sustainable food supply, while supporting about 7,000 full-time, year round jobs near rural and remote Vancouver Island, Central Coast, and Sunshine Coast communities.”

Last week, B.C.’s Agriculture Ministry said that farmed Atlantic salmon was the province’s top international food export in 2019 at $562 million, helping to propel B.C. to a banner year for agriculture.

(Image shows James Walkus at the launch the MS Geemia Joye, an $11 million addition to the James Walkus Fishing Company’s fleet.)