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First Nations boat operator fears for future as Canada goes to the polls

Aquaculture boat operator James Walkus, fifth from left, with his family at the launch of the Can$11m Geemia Joye. Photo: James Walkus Fishing Company.
Aquaculture boat operator James Walkus, fifth from left, with his family at the launch of the Can$11m Geemia Joye. Photo: James Walkus Fishing Company.

Thousands of people who work in British Columbia’s salmon farming industry are anxiously awaiting the outcome of today’s federal election, in the knowledge that a Liberal Party majority might mean their jobs will disappear.

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The Liberals have pledged to help British Columbia’s provincial government “transition” open net-pen farming to closed containment by 2025, a policy that could prompt BC’s big operators – Mowi, Cermaq and Grieg – to pull out of the area rather than be forced into spending millions of dollars building on-land fish farms.

Many voters will go to the polls in the belief such an outcome would delight BC’s First Nations, some of which blame salmon farming for a decline in wild salmon numbers.

The Geemia Joye is the latest of Walkus' five aquaculture boats. It was built at the ABD boatyard in North Vancouver and cost Can$11m. Click on image to enlarge. Photo: James Walkus Fishing Company.
The Geemia Joye is the latest of Walkus' five aquaculture boats. It was built at the ABD boatyard in North Vancouver and cost Can$11m. Click on image to enlarge. Photo: James Walkus Fishing Company.

Five aquaculture vessels

But that’s only half the story. While many First Nations members do oppose open net-pen farming there are also a lot who owe their living to it, perhaps the best known being veteran businessman James Walkus.

Walkus, a member of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nation, started as a commercial fisherman 65 years ago and now operates four commercial fishing vessels and five aquaculture boats from Port Hardy.

He began operating aquaculture vessels more than 20 years ago and calculates that he has invested Can$26 million in the boats, which are contracted to Mowi.

Unsurprisingly, he is dismayed by the Liberal stance, and the possibility of the aquaculture business he has built up being destroyed. “It’s very depressing,” he says.

Sell boats to Chile

Will Mowi leave if the Liberals win and follow through with their manifesto pledge? “I don’t know, I really don’t know what would happen,” admits Walkus.

“I don’t think it could be done (moving production into closed containment). That’s just my opinion, I don’t know.”

And if he lost his fish farming customers, what would happen to his boats? His most recent boat, the wellboat Geemia Joye, is just a year old and cost $11m.

“I guess I would have to sell them to Chile,” said Walkus, who knows he is unlikely to get a full return on his investment.

Opponents ‘brainwashed’

Walkus knows many First Nations members oppose net-pen salmon farming, but also that many others rely on the industry for work, including his own staff.

“There are probably a little more than a majority of our First Nations who are opposing it (salmon farming) and it’s not because of their personal thinking, it’s because they’re sort of brainwashed, if you will,” he says.

“The majority of my employees are First Nations. There are over 30 on the payroll, not including the commercial fishing.”

And would their jobs be under threat?

“Yes,” says the businessman, who when asked if he would urge people not to vote Liberal today replies: “That’s for sure, big time.”

The only policy or legislation that can “trump” Aboriginal Rights is one based on conservation.... and, there is no DFO science that shows any link between salmon aquaculture and a “conservation” impact on wild salmon.

Aboriginal Aquaculture Association advisor Daniel Rabu
Daniel Rabu. Photo: LinkedIn.
Daniel Rabu. Photo: LinkedIn.

Walkus is by no means a lone voice among those involved with aquaculture in the First Nations.

Daniel Rabu is aquaculture business technical advisor for the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association, which provides aquaculture information, expertise and experience to First Nations and Aboriginal aquaculture businesses in British Columbia.

In a Facebook comment, Rabu pointed out that the Liberals, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, could be in danger of contradicting their own commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

First Nation farm tenure

Rabu wrote: “What the Liberal leader forgets is that a BC First Nation actually owns a salmon farm tenure which they sublease to Mowi.

“If Justin Trudeau forces them to shut down their economic enterprise (which operates in their own territory), it would be completely contrary to the Government’s commitment to upholding UNDRIP! The only policy or legislation that can “trump” Aboriginal Rights is one based on conservation.... and, there is no DFO science that shows any link between salmon aquaculture and a “conservation” impact on wild salmon (in other words, this is not a conservation issue) therefor there is no legal recourse for the Liberals to force this First Nation to forgo its farmed salmon tenure.

“I wonder if Justin Trudeau’s lawyers have thought of this?? By the way, there is another First Nation that owns a couple salmon aquaculture tenure sites. What about their Rights?”

Chief John Smith: Salmon farming
Chief John Smith: Salmon farming "almost a godsend" for Tlowitsis. Photo: Twitter.

‘A really dumb idea’

Tlowitsis Chief John Smith, whose First Nation operates three fish farms within its territory and is applying for another, told the Campbell River Mirror that the Liberals’ manifesto pledge was “a really dumb idea”.

Salmon farms were “a great economic driver for our Nation”, Smith said. “And we know it creates all kinds of work.”

He added that fish farms account for 30-40% of the Port Hardy area economy.

Healthy fishery

“And they don’t cause any problems,” Smith told the Mirror.

First Nations fishermen in the North Island were still making a living off the commercial fishery in and around the aquaculture industry in the area.

“And some of those farms have been there for 30 years,” Smith said.

For the Tlowitsis, members of the Nation have found good careers in the aquaculture industry. Forcing the industry on land would threaten those jobs.

Moving on-land is unaffordable

“Nobody can afford to do that,” Smith said. “It would take us (the Tlowitsis) out of the industry.”

Smith told the Mirror that the Tlowitsis are confident the fish farms are not detrimental to the environment and produce a quality, profitable product.

The Tlowitsis’ aquaculture ventures, if the fourth farm site is approved, are worth “easily a million dollars a year”, Smith said. “That’s very nice. We don’t get that much from the government even though they have used and abused our territory.

“It’s been fabulous for us. It’s been almost a godsend.”

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