Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray gets first-hand knowledge about salmon farming operations from BC First Nations, as activists ratchet up their fake propaganda campaigns.

First Nations school minister about salmon farming in BC

Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray gets first-hand knowledge about salmon farming operations from BC First Nations, as activists ratchet up their fake propaganda campaigns.

By Fabian Dawson

Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray has been holding a series of meetings with First Nation leaders on Vancouver Island to get first-hand knowledge about salmon farming operations in their traditional territories.

Her visits come at a turbulent time for BC salmon farmers as the government works towards a transition of open-net finfish aquaculture on Canada’s west coast at the behest of  anti-salmon farming activists.

Just prior to the visit, the activists ratcheted up their fake propaganda campaigns claiming that earlier closures of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands and the Broughton Archipelago off Vancouver Island have resulted in lower sea lice numbers in the area.

Professional biologists said long-term scientific studies show the closure of salmon farms located in the Discovery Islands did not result in a change of sea lice levels on juvenile wild salmon, leaving broader environmental influences, like warming waters, as the key drivers of sea lice trends.

Farm-raised salmon are free of sea lice when they are entered into the ocean, but during the migration season adult wild salmon may pass sea lice to farm-raised salmon and vice versa.

Sea lice are naturally occurring parasites found on many species of marine fish, they pose no risk to humans. 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.

The activists and their followers, who subscribe to a ‘no activity, no risk’ mantra have refused to believe that sea lice numbers are under control in BC nor any science that counters their claims.

Instead, they are calling for the firing of Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officials and scientists, whose peer-reviewed studies show salmon farming pose a minimal risk to wild stocks.

Among the indigenous leaders Murray met with over the last few days were Dallas Smith from the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS), Chief Chris Roberts of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation and Chief Ronnie Chickite  of the We Wai Kai First Nation.

“We hope this visit will encourage Minister Murray to listen to our Nations’ distinct and sovereign voices and understand the importance of finfish aquaculture to our coastal and often remote communities,” said Smith.

“Through the tours led by our Nations, we expect the Minister to acknowledge our longstanding traditional knowledge and stewardship of our waters while seeing the beauty of our ancestral territories that we have called home for thousands of years,” he said.

In addition to touring aquaculture facilities and the newly Indigenous-led BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences (BC CAHS), Minister Murray will be sitting down with hereditary and elected Chiefs from across Vancouver Island and the Central Coast to hear our visions for, and expectations of, the transition of finfish aquaculture in our territories, said FNFFS in a statement.

Earlier this year the government acknowledged First Nations’ rights to define their relationships with the aquaculture industry, when it announced an engagement framework with stakeholders as part of the transition process expected to be finalized in the Spring of 2023.

Several First Nations have already demanded that they be allowed to operate salmon farms in their traditional territories, saying the open-net marine aquaculture operations have brought them out of a dark era of depression, poverty, and suicides.

“This transition engagement process between DFO, the Province of B.C., and our Nations has a short timeline that we consider inadequate. We will be addressing that to the Minister, in addition to other concerns we have with this process,” said Smith.

The FNFFS said among the key issues raised with the minister is the reissuance of salmon farm licences in the territories of the Laich-kwil-tach and Klahoose First Nations referred to as the Discovery Islands.

Former federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan decided in Dec. 2020 to phase out 19 salmon farms in BC’s Discovery Islands, despite nine-peer reviewed scientific studies that showed the marine operations had virtually no impact on wild stocks migrating through the area.

Jordan also ignored her deputy minister’s recommendation for a more coordinated approach to the closures, which was primarily pushed for by anti-fish farm activists, who had threatened the Trudeau Liberals that they would withhold their votes for the party.

The Federal Court last April ordered the government to set aside its decision to phase out the Discovery Islands salmon farms after reaffirming an earlier ruling that “salmon aquaculture in B.C. poses no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon.”

“Regarding finfish aquaculture facilities in the Discovery Islands, and in response to the April 22, 2022 Federal Court decision, DFO will conduct consultations with First Nations communities and current licence holders in the Discovery Islands on the future of salmon aquaculture licences in this area,” the government said in a statement.

Since then 79 other salmon farm licences in BC have been renewed for a period of two years pending the transition process.

Lately, anti-salmon farming activists have been claiming the removal of some salmon farms from the Broughton Archipelago and Discovery Islands have had an immediate positive impact in the form of low sea lice levels on migrating wild juvenile salmon. 

However, recently published 2022 research data based on long-term monitoring of wild juvenile salmon along the coast of B.C. is providing researchers with a different picture.

The data shows that no study location (whether near to or far from a salmon farm) has demonstrated consistent levels of sea lice prevalence or abundance over eight years of annual sampling.

In addition, between 70% and 95% of wild juvenile salmon sampled had only two or less sea lice of any life stage, whether sampled near to or far from a salmon farm. DFO mandates that if these counts show an average of three motile lice per fish, companies are required to take remedial action to reduce the prevalence.

“The long-term data suggests that regardless of farm status, sea lice infestation rates on wild juvenile salmon fluctuate annually,” says Lance Stewardson of Mainstream Biological Consulting.

“In the Discovery Islands area, for example, in years 2021 and 2022 – when salmon farms were closed – the infestation on juvenile pink and chum salmon was within the range of the infestation witnessed between 2017 and 2020 when farms were operational. In the Broughton Archipelago, where some salmon farms have been closed in 2021-2022, the spring of 2022 was witness to the highest sea lice infestation we’ve encountered since 2016.”

Jennifer Russell at Pacificus Biological Services Ltd. adds: “Committing to long-term study is the most effective way to achieve reliable results. Collecting data from before, during, and after operations is the best way to achieve answers. Examining a particular issue in this way is more reliable than opportunistic data collection.”

The research done in partnership with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation involved annual wild fish monitoring at 119 locations in five regions where Mowi Canada West farms salmon, using capture and sampling protocols adapted from DFO.

Submitted image shows (L to R) Dallas Smith from the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS), Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray,  Chief Chris Roberts of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation and Chief Ronnie Chickite of the We Wai Kai First Nation at their meeting last week.