But it does not mean First Nations have veto powers over salmon farming operations in their traditional territories, says Minister Jordan.

Social licence trumps science in Discovery Islands’ salmon farming decision

But it does not mean First Nations have veto powers over salmon farming operations in their traditional territories, says Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans

By Fabian Dawson and Samantha McLeod

The decision to stop salmon farming in the waters off BC’s Discovery Islands is an affront to science and sets the stage for First Nations to have veto powers over the natural resource industry, say those impacted by the blow to aquaculture.

Further, it will do almost nothing to boost the recovery of wild stocks and kill a sustainable, secure and affordable food source that supports the livelihoods of thousands of people in Vancouver Island’s coastal communities, they said.

“I really don’t know what else to read into it,” said Dennis Dugas, Mayor of Port Hardy reacting to the order for salmon farmers to pull out of the waters around Discovery Islands in 18 months.

The decision announced by Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans was made despite nine-peer reviewed scientific studies concluding farmed salmon pose minimal risks to migrating wild stocks in the Discovery Islands, pointed out Dugas.

“I am sure the key players like Mowi, Grieg and Cermaq are all asking themselves why they should keep investing in our area…the scientists have spoken but the government prefers to listen to activists and not to the people who live and work here.

“The government has always promised to make science based decisions when it comes the future of fish farming in BC…this decision is a betrayal of that promise.”

“They said they consulted with all the stakeholders, but they never spoke to us about the Discovery Islands decision despite the North Island mayors writing a letter to Minister Jordan,” said Dugas, whose community was just emerging from a protracted forestry strike when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“If not for the aquaculture industry, I don’t know where we will be…and now they are coming after that as well.”

Despite voluminous evidence by local, national and international scientists, that salmon farms pose a minimal risk to wild stocks, anti-fish farm activists working with some First Nations in BC want them ousted from the seas to grow fish on land.

This activist-agenda hides the fact that growing fish on land will increase greenhouse gas emissions, drive the industry away from remote coastal communities to bigger markets in the US and put enormous pressure on land and freshwater resources.

Dr. Jim Powell, the former CEO of the BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences (BC CAHS) agreed that the decision was an affront to DFO scientists, especially to those who worked on Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) process that coordinated the Cohen Commission peer review and science advice on salmon farming in the Discovery Islands.

“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. 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?” asked the veteran fisheries expert of 40 years, who is now an independent consultant.

“Sustainable aquaculture provides a good food product and helps in the conservation efforts for wild fish,” said Dr. Powell, reiterating his message that salmon conversation in BC is about all salmon; farmed and wild, not farmed or wild.​

The BC Salmon Farmers Association (BSCFA) which recently unveiled plans to invest $1.4 billion in innovation, new technology and infrastructure through 2050 and create almost 10,000 new jobs , said the decision puts the industry at risk across Canada.

“This decision has significant implications and puts salmon farming in B.C. and across Canada at risk,” BCSFA said in a statement.

“This comes at a bad time, during a pandemic when local food supply and good local jobs have never been more important.”

Stewart Muir, executive director of Resource Works, a natural resource industry think-tank, said there is nothing to suggest this decision is a judgment on aquaculture practice or wild salmon safety.

“Properly regulated salmon farming is still a safe, desirable and low-carbon industry to be encouraged. Numerous First Nations business relationships in salmon farming remain in place on the Canadian west coast today,” he said.

“They say the decision is purely to resolve past mistakes and that may be true. Creating hardship and uncertainty for the hundreds of Island residents including First Nations now losing their livelihoods, announced eight days before Christmas during the worst recession in a century, will appear out of touch. Let’s hope it does not destroy the very people who were trusting government to look out for them.”

Minister Jordan in a post announcement interview with SeaWestNews agreed that science took a back seat to social licence when she made her decision on the Discovery Islands.

But she stressed that it did not mean that First Nations will essentially have veto powers over salmon farming operations in their traditional territories.

“Absolutely not….we are going to have a bigger conversation around aquaculture. You know I think Canada can be a global leader in aquaculture, I think that this is an extremely important industry, not only to British Columbia but to the world,” she said.

“You know, science plays an extremely important role in all of our decision making but it is not the only thing we use when we are making decisions.

“In the case of the Discovery Islands, as I said, we heard loud and clear from the seven First Nations that are impacted. This was something they were not in support of. We have to make sure we take these kinds of things into consideration as we make our decisions and as I said, this one was a very tough decision to make.

“The Discovery Islands sites were singled out by the Cohen Commission nearly a decade ago and they have been on a different track ever since…, that is one of the reasons that those licences were only renewed on a yearly basis as opposed to for like a number of years for other farms,” said Jordan.

“I want to continue to work with industry to find the right path forward, to make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure aquaculture continues to be an extremely vital part of the British Columbia’s economy.”

Salmon farming in BC

Farmed salmon is BC’s top seafood and agri-food export with a total economic output of $1.6 billion.

Salmon farming currently supports nearly 6,500 full time jobs that pay 30% higher than BC’s median income.

Many of these jobs are in rural coastal Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities on North Vancouver Island.

Salmon farmers produce 87,000 tonnes of farmed salmon annually, this creates 353 million healthy, locally produced, carbon friendly meals.

Since the pandemic salmon donations to local and regional food banks alone have exceeded 112,000lbs (equal to over 500,000 meals).

(Image courtesy of Government of Canada shows Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in Parliament)