Canada’s DFO announces new aquaculture engagement process as it defends decision to phase out salmon farms in BC’s Discovery Islands.

BC salmon farms decision attacked by aquaculture stakeholders

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans announces new aquaculture engagement process as it defends decision to phase out salmon farms in BC’s Discovery Islands

By Fabian Dawson

Canada has announced a series of online engagements for a plan to transition from open-net pen aquaculture in British Columbia by 2025, amidst criticism that it did not do enough consultations when deciding to phase out salmon farms in the Discovery Islands.

The virtual roundtable engagement sessions with First Nations in B.C., the aquaculture industry, environmental stakeholders, and other interested parties is to hear their diverse perspectives on this important initiative, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said.

“I look forward to collaborating with Indigenous communities, the Government of British Columbia, industry members, scientists, and other partners to determine the best path forward on a transition plan that meets the needs of our communities, our workers, and our environment,” said Terry Beech, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

Ironically every group mentioned by Beech in his comment have criticized the sudden and unexpected pre-Christmas decision to phase out 19 salmon farms off Discovery Islands in BC, which is   expected to impact 1,500 jobs on Vancouver Island’s coastal communities  .

BC Premier John Horgan has chastised it.

First Nation leaders call it a hollow decision forced upon them.

The salmon farmers were not consulted, neither were the coastal communities of North Vancouver Island.

All are claiming they were not given a fair shake at providing input for the decision.

Responding to the criticism via email to SeaWestNews, DFO insisted that it made “a sincere effort” to talk to everyone involved.

Two weeks ago in his weekly media conference, Premier Horgan blasted the Trudeau government for its unilateral move to phase out the Discovery Islands salmon farms.

“The federal government took action in Discovery without consulting us at all…They told us after the fact,” Horgan told reporters.

Horgan said he is concerned about the impact on an estimated 1,500 jobs in the region impacted by the decision, which have been raised by local mayors and community groups.

Sources in Ottawa told SeaWestNews that Horgan’s characterisation of the situation is not exactly accurate.

“We contacted the provincial government at least four times on this issue asking for their input but there was no response…there are at least four emails to the BC government on this issue,” said the source.

Last week, leaders of two of the seven First Nations impacted by the decision described it as “hollow”, according to the  Campbell River Mirror.

The Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai were among seven First Nations that federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan consulted with, prior to her decision to phase out the Discovery Islands fish farms by 2022.

Chief Chris Roberts of Wei Wai Kum First Nation said they were given inadequate time to have a “pragmatic dialogue” with Jordan and were dissatisfied with the way the process was conducted.

“The First Nations were left with no alternatives, nor were they given the opportunity to arrive at an autonomous decision through the principles of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Instead they were left ‘wearing the decision’ the federal government made for them,” the paper reported.

Former We Wai Kai chief Brian Assu said they were “railroaded” by the federal government’s decision, in a virtual Q & A meeting with MLA Michele Babchuk.

“We literally had 30 minutes between We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum to consult with the minister and out of that, 15 minutes of it basically was telling us that she was going to announce her decision,” said Assu, according to the news report.

“When I say we got railroaded, I really truly mean that… That’s our traditional territory and the (federal) government decided to base their decision on all external parties to us – including other First Nations. It was a mess.”

Both agree with the ultimate result to phase out fish farms in their traditional territories but said the process was filled with “missed opportunities”.

DFO responded by saying, “The First Nations representatives met with Minister Jordan multiple times, in addition to meetings with Parliamentary Secretary Beech and consistent communication with senior Departmental officials. There was a sincere effort to have a robust engagement on this complex issue, given the timeframes involved.”

The BC Salmon Farmers Association, which was not consulted, said the planned  closure of the 19 salmon farms in the Discovery Islands will result in 1,498 people losing their jobs, mostly in the coastal communities of North Vancouver Island.

It estimates the closures will also result in the loss of $379.7 million in economic output for the region, a labour income loss of $84.6 million, and a tax hit for the region amounting to $21 million.

“We got 15 minutes to close down 19 sites on a consultation that we had no participation in, with many nations who don’t even have territorial rights,” said John Paul Fraser, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.

In a letter to Minister Jordan, four mayors in Vancouver Island’s northern region said :

“Your decision has the potential to unravel the viability of North Island Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Yet you made this decision without even speaking to the industry nor locally-elected officials who deeply understand BC’s salmon farming communities and have a direct interest in your action. Our North Island communities deserve more from you than a hasty and confused process taken without consideration of the widespread impacts to local businesses and communities.”

Fisheries scientists are also baffled over the Discovery Islands decision.

Nine peer-reviewed scientific studies, which showed that salmon farms in the area had only minimal impact on migrating wild stocks, were ignored in favour of the demands by the anti-fish farm activists, orchestrated from voter rich urban areas.

“This DFO process concluded that salmon farms have a minimal impact on migratory Sockeye salmon that should have been considered in the decision to close farms,” said Dr. Jim Powell a veteran fisheries expert of 40 years, who is now an independent consultant.

“Further, we need more empirical information like this before the Minister makes a decision that will have life-changing impacts on the people and businesses on Vancouver Island,” he said.

“My question is what next? What if pulling the farms out doesn’t bring salmon back?…are we then going to end all commercial fishing to essentially stop two sources of food supply?”

The “what next” question remains largely unanswered two months after the Discovery Islands’ decision.

Mowi Canada West, Cermaq Canada and Grieg Seafood BC, which risk losing a significant part of their operations as a result of plans to phase out salmon farms, are asking the Federal Court for judicial reviews of the government decision.

Given the chorus of dissatisfaction across the board with the decision, calls for a DFO rethink of the decision and the process leading up to it, is growing.

But DFO told SeaWestNews it has no intention of doing that, at least not yet.

(Image shows Terry Beech, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.)