Salmon aquaculture operations have brought us out of a dark era of depression, poverty, and suicides, say First Nation leaders in a series of poignant videos.

Let us keep our salmon farms say First Nation leaders

Salmon aquaculture operations have brought us out of a dark era of depression, poverty, and suicides, say First Nation leaders in a series of poignant videos.

By Fabian Dawson

First Nation leaders from British Columbia’s coastal communities are demanding that they be allowed to operate salmon farms in their traditional territories, saying the marine aquaculture operations have brought them out of a dark era of depression, poverty, and suicides.

In a series of poignant videos as Ottawa decides on the future of 79 salmon farming licenses that are set to expire this month, the leaders want to be involved in the decision-making process that has so far favored the science-deficit anti-marine aquaculture lobby.

British Columbia’s indigenous and non-Indigenous coastal communities will lose more than 4,700 jobs and $1.2 billion in economic activity annually if the Federal Government does not renew the 79 salmon farming licences immediately, according to an independent economic analysis.

Eighty per cent of these salmon farms operate in agreements with the First Nations in whose territories the fish are grown and harvested in.

“They came and took our children and they put them in residential schools and then they took our food away and (put it) under their management (so) we can only have what they are only going to allow us to have,” said Chief John Smith of the Tlowitsis First Nation.

“Now (that) we have something that we can call our own with the fish farms they shouldn’t take that away too…it just never ends…they just keep taking things away, said Chief Smith, whose community has submitted a joint application with Grieg Seafood BC Ltd. for a new ocean site to raise another 4,400 tonnes of salmon.

“We are growing food why are you trying to get rid of it,” he asks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the video that features him together with Dallas Smith, spokesperson for the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS).

The traditional territories of the Tlowitsis span the coastal area of Northern Vancouver Island, Johnstone Strait, and adjacent mainland inlets. The Tlowitsis Nation is currently establishing a new village known as Nenagwas on 635 acres just a few minutes south of Campbell River. Nenagwas means “a place to come home to.”

“While we have been able to acquire some land for a new home base, infrastructure costs money and to have that kind of infrastructure over time, we need some long-term sustainable investment,” said Dallas Smith.

“We need to be able to sit down and have this discussion as uncomfortable as it maybe for some people…we’ll accept nothing less than having that fulsome debate as decisions continue to get made in our territory, he said.

“Otherwise, as we build more and more capacity, we are simply going to quit asking and we are going to start telling people how things are going to work in our territory because First Nations have wild salmon in our DNA and so we wouldn’t do anything that will be against wild salmon.

“In fact, we want to see the technological relationship we have with Grieg Seafood advance to a point where we can work on wild salmon restoration while still providing sustainable protein for the rest of the world…we think that balance is there and we are working harder and harder to tell that story now,” he said.

In his video vignette, Isaiah Robinson, General Manager of the Kitasoo Development Corporation, based in British Columbia’s remote central coast, talks about a dark era that plagued his community prior to the partnership with salmon farmer, Mowi Canada West in 1998.

“The thing that has not been said is that in the dark era in the early 90’s we had tons of suicides because there was just nothing to do in this remote community…I would like to emphasize that we haven’t had a suicide in those 20 plus years since the partnership with Mowi,” said Robinson, who is also a health councilor for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation.

Robinson said the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Development Corporation has done a phenomenal job and the community now has a 100 percent employment rate adding “that’s not been supported by the government at all other than asking us to rely on social assistance.”

“Mowi and the other aquaculture companies are saving us from an era of sadness and darkness which you know, I as a councilor don’t want to ever deal with again.”

Roxanne Robinson, Kitasoo Xai’xais Matriarch & Former Chief Councillor echoed the sentiments saying she is worried what would happen to her community if the salmon farm licences aren’t renewed.

“I think that if our people were forced to leave here due to lack of work, it would be a very trying, difficult time. A lot of sadness and hurt would come back to our community when our previous leaders have worked hard and dedicated a lot of time to ensure that our people were in a good place,” she said.

Hasheukumiss, Richard George, son of Tyee Hawiih of the Ahousaht First Nation said the community’s protocol agreement with fish farmer, Cermaq, covers a wide range of topics including environmental stewardship, employment, benefit sharing arrangements, and wild salmon projects.

“Cermaq has done more for wild salmon conservation and restoration in our territory than the Federal or Provincial Governments combined,” he said.

Chief Terry Walkus of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nation said it’s not right that the government is only listening to those who don’t want salmon farming in their territories.

“I don’t have any issues with the people who don’t like salmon farming in their territories (and) that’s their business and we don’t get involved and we don’t tell them to accept salmon farming so they should not be doing that with us either,” he said.

“It is our right, it is our territory and if we as a nation felt that salmon farming had a negative effect within our territories, we would stop it…we have been fighting so long, so hard to govern our own traditional territory…we should be the ones deciding who gets licensed in our territory, he said.

“We don’t want the government to take any more stuff away from our people…we need these licences renewed in our territory so do the other nations who are part of the coalition,” he added.

Walkus was referring to the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS), which recently released an analysis that showed the direct economic benefits from salmon farming 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.

Seventeen First Nations have a variety of agreements and business arrangements with finfish aquaculture companies in BC with the longest going back over two decades. These 17 Nations make up much of the south coast of British Columbia, with supply lines in the Fraser Valley, processing plants on the Lower Mainland, and transport contracts across BC, the coalition said.

The coalition has also said transitioning to land-based salmon farming is not an option for aquaculture-dependent coastal indigenous communities in British Columbia.

After several court decisions and a range of scientific studies that found open-net salmon farming in B.C. and neighbouring waters pose no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon, the government is set to make its decision on the licence renewals this week.

(Image shows Dallas Smith, spokesperson for the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship)