Indigenous communities in BC and Washington State turn to the courts to get their voices heard and their traditional rights to farm salmon respected.

Science vs sovereignty in the fight to farm salmon

Indigenous communities in BC and Washington State turn to the courts to get their voices heard and their traditional rights to farm salmon respected.

By Fabian Dawson

Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, frustrated with “out of touch politicians” pandering to aquaculture opponents, are turning to the courts to get their voices heard and their traditional rights respected.

Two Laich-kwil-tach First Nations, the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai from Northern Vancouver Island are seeking a judicial review of a ministerial decision not to re-issue Atlantic salmon farming licences in their core traditional territory, also known as the Discovery Islands region.

“This court challenge is not about whether we support fish farming or not – it is about our inherent right as title holders to decide how our territory is used, and determine for ourselves if, when, and how fish farms could operate in the future,” said Ronnie Chickite, elected Chief Councillor of the We Wai Kai First Nation.

In Washington State, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe has filed legal challenges over the unilateral and unscientific decision” to shut down fish farms operating in the Puget Sound.

“The decision was political; crafted to placate ill-informed activist groups who refuse to admit the vast array of scientific studies show us that well-regulated aquaculture is not a threat to the environment, or wild salmon,” said Bruce Gryniewski, a spokesperson for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

In both cases, the courts in Canada and the US have already rejected the falsehoods propagated by anti-fish farming activists, saying there is no merit to their claims and that the evidence shows salmon farming poses less than a minimal risk to wild stocks.

However, the activists have pressured the politicians in charge – Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray in Canada and Hilary Franz, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands – to ignore the court rulings and their own scientists or risk losing the votes from the anti-fish farm lobby.

Fish farmers Mowi Canada West, Cermaq and Greig Seafood BC together with Cooke Aquaculture in Washington State have also mounted legal challenges against the bans.

“Our industry’s future appears increasingly dictated by out of touch Ottawa political priorities and this should be a cause for grave concern for all Canadians in terms of economic stability, food security and true climate change action,” said Cermaq in a statement.

“In fact, we are already witnessing salmon now being flown into our markets from distant countries, as the supply from BC rapidly declines, adding additional carbon pressures to an already tenuous climate landscape,” the company said.

“We continue to witness this Minister stubbornly sticking to a polarizing path over a balanced approach that would have delivered affordable food for Canadians, jobs for rural coastal areas, reconciliation in action, sensible and responsible environmental management, climate action and wild salmon conservation.”

Murray has said her decision was “difficult but necessary” stating the federal government is taking a precautionary approach, while Franz keeps parroting the fear-mongering claims by the activists to justify her Washington State ban.

The Discovery Island decision alone will shut down more than 24% of BC’s farmed salmon production and kill the livelihoods of 1,500 people in the near term.

Separately Murray, a prominent advocate to end open-net salmon farming prior to her being appointed Fisheries Minister, is now working on a transition plan for all marine-based salmon farms in BC. A decision on this is expected soon.

Prior to the latest court filings, the BC-based Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship has called for the removal of minister Murray saying she can’t be “trusted” to make a thoughtful and unbiased plan in regard to the future of salmon farming in Canada’s west coast.

Minister Murray’s decision has set a dangerous precedent for the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai Nations for any future decision-making when it comes to marine resource management in their territories, said the coalition.

“It has also set a precedent that’s disconcerting for the other Nations in this Coalition who wish to pursue salmon aquaculture in their waters, as the Minister’s decision was based on an undefined “enhanced precautionary approach” and could have ripple effects on rights, on coastal communities, as well as across Canada,” the coalition said in a statement.

The Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai are particularly incensed with the hypocritical claims by Murray that First Nations would decide what the future of salmon farming in BC would like.

The two First Nations had submitted a proposal in November 2022 to trial finfish operations, beginning with one farm operating for one cycle in their core territory under heavy oversight by their members.

“This staggered approach would have encouraged Indigenous-led detailed research and analysis of the impact of finfish farms in our waters, blending western science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge. It would have also supported commitments to and investments in new technology to reduce or eliminate interactions between farmed and wild salmon in our territory,” said Chris Roberts, elected Chief Councillor of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation.

“After a trial process and further engagement with our members, we would then consider next steps if we could determine for ourselves that impacts of fish farms are minimal or negligible on wild salmon and the environment,” he said.

“Rejecting this proposal is rejecting our right to decide for ourselves, with our own research and knowledge, whether salmon farming was a fit for our communities…It’s a clear lack of recognition of our inherent right to self-determination.”

“Our proposal was entirely ignored.”

In addition to the legal challenges, several other aquaculture dependent First Nations in BC have also demanded 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.

Among the First Nations already asserting traditional rights to farm salmon is the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation (GNN).

“Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nation is firm: we have authority to make decisions across our own traditional territory, as do other Nations,” said GNN Chief Terry Walkus.

The Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation, which has been raising Atlantic salmon in partnership with Mowi Canada West for decades, has independently declared a new Marine Protected Area (MPA) for greater control of its territorial waters.

Last May, the Ahousaht, one of BC’s largest First Nations, renewed a five-year agreement with Cermaq Canada, which provides the salmon farmer a road map on how it will conduct its marine aquaculture operations in the indigenous community’s traditional territory.

(Image shows members of the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship in Ottawa to press politicians to respect their traditional rights to farm fish)