Aquaculture-dependent First Nations decry Ottawa’s lack of understanding on what transitioning open-net salmon farming to growing fish on land means to remote Indigenous coastal communities.

Land-based salmon farming not for us: First Nations coalition

Aquaculture-dependent First Nations decry Ottawa’s lack of understanding on what transitioning open-net salmon farming to growing fish on land means to remote Indigenous coastal communities.

By Fabian Dawson

Moving to land-based salmon farming is not an option for aquaculture-dependent coastal indigenous communities in British Columbia, says a coalition of First Nations leaders.

The coalition is also concerned that Ottawa “lacks understanding” of what it will mean for these Indigenous communities, if it bows to the demands by anti-fish farming activists and forces the transition to grow salmon in land-based tanks.

“This very lack of understanding would lead to the loss of farms in our territories and the benefits that come with them. Many of our people would return to poverty, and as leaders, we cannot let that happen,” said the BC coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS).

“Some Nations in this coalition have completed feasibility studies on land-based salmon farming in their territories for many years, and they came to the same result: it is not possible, and if it was, they would have moved to land-based salmon farming years ago,” FNFFS said.

Dallas Smith, of the Tlowitsis First Nation, said the coalition is not opposed to the whole transition process but wants it done with traditional knowledge and with an understanding of the economic impact to indigenous coastal communities.

“There are many new technologies that are already being implemented to make salmon farming more environmentally friendly and we want to work on a BC-made solution that will result in a sustainable and secure future for all of us,” he told SeaWestNews.

Smith, who was part of a delegation to Ottawa last week to urge the federal government to renew 79 expiring open-net salmon farming licences in BC, said most land-based operations tend to be closer to major markets and will do nothing for indigenous coastal communities.

“We have been watching and studying these operations and we have not seen anyone doing it successfully,” he said.

“Further the activists who are pushing for this just don’t want to address all the social and environmental impacts related to land-based fish farming and instead use salmon farmers as a convenient scapegoat to pursue their agenda.”

“We have seen this resource dwindling over generations and there are many issues related to this like climate change and habitat loss…just replacing salmon farms with land-based tanks won’t bring back wild stocks…this issue needs a holistic approach with full participation of all First Nations,” he said.

Smith hoped the coalition’s visit to Ottawa last week would lead to the government renewing the salmon farming licences because it will help in the transition process and see more innovative technologies being introduced in BC.

The 79 licences which are set to expire June 30, have been in limbo after the government decided to phase out salmon farms in BC’s Discovery Islands as part of a wider pre-election promise to develop a plan by 2025 to transition all open net salmon farms on the west coast.

The coalition’s survey showed that direct economic benefits to First Nations in coastal BC exceed $50 million annually through more than 276 full time jobs, benefit payments, and contracts with indigenous-owned companies.

In total, when indirect and induced economic activity is factored in, First Nation interests in BC’s farmed salmon sector on and off reserves are estimated to generate $83.3 million in economic activity, $47.8 million in GDP, and 707 jobs earning $36.6 million in wages per year.

Despite operating in an era of uncertainty, salmon farmers are moving ahead with plans to help define the future of the industry in BC.

Grieg Seafood BC Ltd. is nearing completion of its Gold River Hatchery project on Vancouver Island, where the new facility will be able to hold smolts for an additional two months, reducing their time in the ocean by about the same.

It also plans to install a form of semi-closed containment system (SCCS) at its marine aquaculture operations off the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Another leading salmon farmer Cermaq Canada began testing its version of SCCS at its Millar site in Clayoquot Sound in late 2020.

Other innovations being looked at include the ‘Egg’ closed-containment system, which involves growing salmon in semi-submerged tanks in the ocean, to prevent escapes and pathogen transfers from wild fish to farmed fish. BC salmon farmers are also developing other new land-based systems that will allow them to raise juvenile farmed salmon to larger, more robust sizes before transferring them to ocean-based grow-out systems.

The Trudeau Liberals in a pre-election pledge, to primarily secure votes from the anti-fish farming lobby, said it will come up with a plan to transition open-net aquaculture operations in BC by 2025.

The future of salmon farming in BC could involve a range of technologies including hybrid grow-out operations, closed and semi-closed containment systems in the ocean together with an area-based management approach, said Terry Beech, the former Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries.

The State of Salmon Aquaculture Technologies study to guide the transition process has warned that land-based recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) technology requires the use of large amounts of land, water, and power, and thus has a significant environmental footprint, in particular greenhouse gas emissions.

Global fisheries, aquaculture and climate scientists have labelled the activism around moving all BC salmon farms to land based operations as unrealistic, reckless, and destructive because growing the global supply of salmon on land would require the same amount of energy per year needed to power a city of 1.2 million people and contribute to higher CO2 emissions.

Raising land based Atlantic salmon also costs 12 times more than ocean farming, they said.

Moving the current production of Atlantic salmon to land based tanks on Vancouver Island will result in an increase 22,881,000 kgs of Greenhouse Gas (GhG) emissions, a recent study said. That is equivalent to the energy needed per year to power a population of 52,200 or a city the size of North Vancouver.

  In B.C. alone, there are many failed attempts to grow either Pacific or Atlantic salmon in land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) over the past 20 years. 

Tim Kennedy, president, and chief executive officer of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA) said almost all the salmon (97 per cent) produced in Canada is farmed. This allows us to ensure we are sustainably meeting the growing demand for Canadian salmon, while taking pressure off wild stocks.

“But salmon farming has been a convenient target for activists who wrongly blame farms for declines of wild salmon stocks – a long-standing and well-funded campaign of misinformation that has unfortunately given rise to political decisions trumping science,” he said.

“Over-fishing and loss of habitat over the last hundred years, as well as climate change, are the real threats to wild salmon but are harder problems to solve and unfortunately, salmon farming has become a convenient scapegoat,” said Dr. Tony Farrell, one of Canada’s leading fish health scientists, a member of the Royal Society of Canada and Canada Research Chair (Emeritus) at the University of British Columbia.

IMAGE – Dallas Smith (centre in traditional attire) with members and supporters of the BC coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (Twitter pix)