Salmon Escape Raises Concerns

By Lloyd Dolha

The Kwicksutainuk Ah-kwa-mish First Nation of Alert Bay is “appalled and bitterly disgusted” at the recent reported escape of 40,000 farmed Atlantic salmon from the Port Elizabeth fish farm in the Broughton Archipelago on October 25th. “It’s safe to assume that the chances of recovering a significant portion of this massive escape is slim to none at this point,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin.

Clare Backman of Marine Harvest Canada (MHC) reported a tear in the net pen discovered during the removal of dead fish from a “natural fish kill.” Initial estimates of a few dozen fish escaping quickly rose to 40,000 fish. The emergency response to recapture the escaped salmon did not actually begin until 24 hours after the discovery. “There are serious questions of disease, overstocking of net-pens, adequacy of emergency response plans and follow-up investigation and reporting,” said Chief Chamberlin. “Even though Marine Harvest has agreed to let the Musgamagw-Tsawataineuk tribal council staff question Marine Harvest staff, we remain skeptical and anticipate a party-line being towed to safeguard employment.”

The First Nation and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) wants Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Minister Gail Shea to get on with developing new fish farm regulations with First Nations as the federal department is set to assume regulatory authority over the aquaculture industry in the province’s coastal waters in February 2010. To do this, DFO needs to actively engage First Nations immediately to develop the new court-ordered fish farm regulations.

On February 9, 2009, the BC Supreme Court ruled that the B.C. provincial government does not have the authority to regulate salmon farming. In Morton v. British Columbia (Agriculture and Lands), Justice Christopher Hinkson of the B.C. Supreme Court found that provincial legislation fell outside the constitutional jurisdiction of the province and confirmed that the DFO has constitutional authority over management of fisheries, including fish farms. The court ruled that the management of farmed fish did not create a private fishery beyond the reach of federal jurisdiction. In a review of the case for the Environmental Law Centre, staff counsel Jason Unger wrote that “the court illustrated a clear distinction between the private property jurisdiction of the province to license the trading of private goods, including fish, and the federal jurisdiction to deal with the management and preservation of fish.” Hinckson suspended his ruling to allow the province and federal government to facilitate the transfer of authority; the deadline is now four months away.

Senior officials from the provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Lands and the federal DFO will meet with the First Nations Fisheries Council and the First Nations Aquaculture Working Group immediately to discuss proposed changes in jurisdiction and ensure that First Nations participate fully in the discussions. The proposed developmental framework features engagement of First Nations that currently have fish farms actively operating in their traditional territorial waters. “The deafening silence from Minister Shea, at a time when leadership is most needed, is very upsetting,” said UBCIC president Grand Chief Stewart Phillip. “First Nations are organized, mandated, and ready to address this extremely time-sensitive issue. It appears Minister Shea is not.”

In British Columbia, there are five major corporations holding a total of 131 licenses, with each license representing one farm. Periods of inactivity are required for the farms, so at any given time there are 80-85 active farms. Norwegian companies hold 92% of all salmon farms in BC. Marine Harvest is the largest with 75 farms. The escape of 40,000 Atlantic salmon indicates an urgent need for closed containment technology on fish farms as recommended by the provincial Special Legislative Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture and the final reports of the Pacific Salmon Forum. That four-year study said that wild salmon and farmed salmon can coexist; however, it recommended limits on salmon farming, including a cap on production in the Broughton Archipelago at current limits of 18,500 tonnes per year. It also recommended creating a new agency to coordinate salmon research and urged the province to lead a pilot program to see if salmon farming can be economically viable using closed containment systems.

New Democrat Fisheries and Oceans critic Peter Stoffer and Western Fisheries critic Peter Julian demanded the Harper government take immediate action to protect wild salmon stocks from the industry. They want a summit of BC coastal communities, First Nations, and stakeholders to discuss the issue. “By delaying action, the Conservatives are creating a regulatory black hole and are essentially leaving the industry to self-regulate,” said Stoffer. Opposition environmental critic Rob Fleming said there are fears the BC Liberals are fast-tracking seven new fish farm licenses before they transfer oversight of the industry to the federal government. “We’ve just passed a summer in which the Fraser River sockeye returns were dramatically lower than expected,” said Fleming. “A significant stock is still in crisis, but the B.C. Liberals are still blithely carrying on as if there is no problem.”

In question period, on October 26th, the opposition asked Agriculture Minister Steve Thompson to commit to not fast-tracking those new licenses. The opposition wants the province to commit to no further expansion of open-net fish farms, and they want the BC Liberals to immediately begin an open, transparent stakeholder consultation process. Chief Chamberlin (First Nations Aquaculture Working Group chairperson) said, “It appears to me there’s federal and provincial collusion to get around the court decision and it’s just not right.” Each of the five major salmon farm groups have applications for expansion that may be granted before authority over aquaculture is transferred to the federal government.

Shortly after the decision in March, the provincial government announced it would not appeal the BC Supreme Court ruling. However, Marine Harvest Canada is appealing the decision citing a lack of clarity in the ruling over ownership of fish raised on a fish farm.