Members of the Coaltion of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship at the launch of the organisation in March last year. The BC Salmon Farmers' Association is backing the rights of Nations to play a central role in transition.

First Nations must lead transition, say BC salmon farmers

Group highlights importance of Indigenous rights in federal government process


Salmon farmers in British Columbia have published six fundamental principles that they want included in the Canadian government’s “transition” plan for the sector in the province.

These include a demand that the government fully recognises and supports Indigenous rights to self-determination and the rights of First Nations to make informed decisions on matters that impact their territories.

Seventeen First Nations currently have agreements to allow salmon farming in their territories, and say the power to decide if and how salmon farming continues in BC should belong to them, and not ministers in Ottawa.

The principles are included in a new report, BC Salmon Aquaculture Transition: Then & Now, published by the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association (BCSFA), which looks at the way the industry has improved over the years.

The report also contains responses to suggestions included in a framework for discussion about the transition plan, published by the government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) last summer.

Working together with First Nations who are interested in aquaculture is essential to our future on the west coast

Mowi Canada West managing director Diane Morrison

“Working together with First Nations who are interested in aquaculture is essential to our future on the west coast,” said Diane Morrison, board chair of the BCSFA and managing director of salmon farmer Mowi Canada West. “These principles will ensure we transition in a way that progressively minimises interactions with wild salmon and be led by the First Nations in whose territories we operate.”

Tripartite agreement

The principles proposed by the BCSFA include that the transition plan must:

  • ensure continued opportunity for capacity building within Nations and equitable economic opportunities.
  • include a governance model based upon tripartite agreement (First Nations, federal, and provincial governments) – and provide a robust role in governance and oversight for Indigenous rights holders in whose territories the salmon farms operate.
  • support the creation of an attractive business environment that signals Canada is committed to advancing growth in sustainable salmon farming in coastal BC.
  • support investment into innovative practices and technology.
  • provide clear communication processes and outlets, including engagement opportunities, that will help to foster a better understanding of the industry and create trust and transparency with First Nations and the broader Canadian public.

The BCSFA said that by working through these principles, the transition plan has the potential to create a level of business certainty required for the long-term stability of the BC salmon farming sector and allow the sector to play a greater role in the ongoing process of reconciliation in BC, community vitality, and the restoration of wild salmon.

'Transition is not new'

“Transition is not new to our sector,” said the BCSFA’s recently appointed executive director Brian Kingzett. “Like all farmers, we have been transitioning for decades to adapt to changing conditions. We have been investing in and implementing cutting-edge technologies and innovations to improve our processes, and progressively minimise interactions with the surrounding marine environment, including wild salmon.”

In addressing Indigenous reconciliation, the BCSFA’s report acknowledges that when salmon farming was established in BC, provincial and federal governments permitted salmon farming companies to choose sites without adequate government consultation with the First Nations in whose territory the farms were operating.

“Not all First Nations had input into siting locations or the environmental performance of farms in their territory – and many received no economic benefit from their operation,” stated the BCSFA.

It added that many Nations and salmon farming companies are on a journey of reconciliation, and the sector’s evolution to higher environmental standards had been aided by partnership agreements forged between salmon farmers and BC First Nations over the past 20 years.

Indigenous guardians

“In many of these agreements, the level of environmental performance stipulated by the First Nation partner exceeds that required by Federal regulation. Often, Indigenous guardians monitor farm sites and independent biologists ensure that the production is done according to sustainable principles established by First Nations and companies,” wrote the BCSFA.

“The agreements between BC salmon farmers and BC First Nations demonstrate the role that partnerships can play in achieving meaningful reconciliation. Seventeen First Nations now hold beneficial partnership agreements with BC salmon farmers. Each of these agreements is founded upon the recognition of First Nations’ rights, including the right to exercise jurisdiction over the land, resources, and waters within their territories – rights that form the very core of the reconciliation process.”

An important intervention

The rights of First Nations to decide what happens in their territorial waters has led to salmon farms being closed in some areas where Nations oppose the practice, but also played a crucial role in ensuring the renewal of licences for 79 farms in June last year.

Federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray had stalled a decision on the renewals for so long that farmers feared she was preparing to shut them down.

This led to the formation of the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS) by Nations who benefited from fish farming in their territories and insisted that licences were renewed.

Murray renewed the farm licences just days before they were due to expire, albeit only for two years. The minister has also taken a more pragmatic approach to what transition might look like, confirming in one interview that it wouldn't necessarily mean farms being removed from the water and into land-based facilities.