Was he listening? Canada's Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands behind Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship spokesman Dallas Smith, but appears not to be behind the Coalition's vision of sovereignty, at least when it comes to fish farming. The right of the Laich-kwil-tach Nations to decide whether farming was a fit for their marine plans "was once again taken away from them by a government located 5,000 kms away from their territories", said Smith.

Dismay as Canadian government refuses to reinstate BC salmon farm licences

Decision ignores sovereign authority of First Nations, says pro-farming coalition


The Canadian government has been accused of ignoring the sovereign authority of First Nations after last night announcing that it wouldn’t allow the re-opening of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands region of British Columbia.

Salmon farmers and a coalition of First Nations that support fish farming have condemned the decision by federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray.

The decision to close 19 farms in the area was taken by former fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan in December 2020, despite nine government science reports confirming salmon farms pose minimal risk to wild Pacific salmon in the Discovery Islands.

In April 2022, the federal court ruled that Jordan had breached procedural fairness and set aside her decision, and both salmon producers and pro-farming First Nations had hoped Murray would reinstate farm licences.

Migratory route

But in a statement yesterday, Murray’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said that after “extensive consultations with First Nations, industry and others, and after closely considering the submissions received”, the minister had decided not to reinstate 15 licences for Atlantic salmon farms, although a licence for a small chinook salmon farm was renewed.

The Discovery Islands area is a key migratory route for wild Pacific Salmon, where narrow passages bring migrating juvenile salmon into close contact with salmon farms, said DFO.

It added that “recent science indicates that there is uncertainty with respect to the risks posed by Atlantic salmon aquaculture farms to wild Pacific salmon in the Discovery Islands area, as well as to the cumulative effect of any farm-related impacts on this iconic species”.

DFO did not specify what science it was referring to.

A cautionary approach

The Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship said it was extremely disappointed by Murray for not respecting the sovereign authority of the Laich-kwil-tach First Nations - the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai – who wanted to operate sites in conjunction with salmon producers Mowi Canada West, Cermaq Canada, and Grieg Seafood BC.

This was about the sovereignty of the Laich-kwil-tach Nations and their right to decide for themselves whether salmon farming, or any other resource, is the right fit for their marine plans. Unfortunately, the decision was once again taken away from them by a government located 5,000 kms away from their territories

Dalls Smith

“The Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai First Nations sent a thoughtful proposal to DFO in November to re-issue some licences in their core territories. They put forward a cautionary approach to explore how and if finfish farming could be part of their Nations’ overall vision to manage their marine space. This decision to deny all licences in their territories has sent the Nations back to the drawing board in that regard,” said Coalition spokesman Dallas Smith.

“First Nations from the coast are trying to find their feet when it comes to reclaiming what was taken away from them by the federal government. Whether it’s creating Marine Protected Areas or deciding whether they want to host fish farms, coastal Nations are trying to take back their inherent rights to manage their traditional waters.

“This was not about protecting the sector or the companies operating in it – this was about the sovereignty of the Laich-kwil-tach Nations and their right to decide for themselves whether salmon farming, or any other resource, is the right fit for their marine plans. Unfortunately, the decision was once again taken away from them by a government located 5,000 kms away from their territories.”

Activists put first

The BC Salmon Farmers’ Association, which represents producers, said in a press release that anti-salmon farming campaigners were given an early signal about Murray’s decision, before impacted First Nations or the salmon industry.

"The Federal government continues to demonstrate a lack of care for rural coastal communities and continues to put the interests of activists above the people who grow Canada’s food. It is unacceptable that activist groups had advance notice, before licence holders and community leaders,” said BCSFA chief executive Brian Kingzett.

Travelling towards transition

Yesterday’s decision comes as Canada’s Liberal-led federal government continues work on a plan to transition the salmon farming industry in BC from traditional open-net pens to methods that reduce or remove interaction with wild fish.

The plan is expected to be finalised later this year.

This week the BCSFA highlighted a consultants’ report commissioned by BC’s government which concluded that moving the province’s 90,000 tonnes of annual open-net pen farmed salmon production into on-land recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facilities would cost at least Canadian $1.8 billion (£1.115 bn) and that returns on investment would be far too low to attract the capital required.

It also concluded that on-land farms would most likely be sited closed to end markets, and not in the remote areas where net pens are used.

DFO has said its transition plan “will provide a vision to continue to provide economic opportunities for communities that rely on salmon aquaculture”.

“The decision to not issue salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area is devastating for all coastal communities who rely on the aquaculture sector. Local communities have been hurting since the decision to remove the farms was announced in 2020, and thanks to this wilfully uninformed decision, these communities will continue to experience negative socio-economic impacts of an outcome that was based on politics rather than science.”

Reckless decision-making

The December 2020 decision to close the Discovery Islands farms shut down 24% of the salmon farming sector in BC, putting 1,500 hundred jobs at risk, and resulting in the euthanasia of more than 10 million healthy salmon, said the BCSFA.

“This decision will also significantly reduce the sector’s ability to attract required investments for clean technology and innovations to evolve the sector. This means we cannot support the Federal Government's commitment to transforming the sector as we continue to experience uncertainty and reckless decision-making by Ottawa,” said Kingzett.

Mowi considers legal options

Mowi Canada West operated the majority of farms closed by Jordan. It said it had hoped yesterday’s announcement by Murray would “correct the flawed previous decision and begin the path to recovery and certainty”.

“We are very disappointed that Minister Murray has decided not to issue any salmon aquaculture licences in the Laich-kwil-tach territory,” said Mowi Canada West managing director Dr Diane Morrison.

“This decision, along with previous decisions, continues to raise serious questions about Canada’s commitment to First Nations reconciliation, its food producers, and the health of coastal communities. Our company, along with the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai First Nations had provided the Minister a very reasonable path forward that would help Canada achieve its stated vision for sustainable aquaculture and advance its Blue Economy Strategy. She has regrettably chosen not to accept this opportunity.”

Mowi is now reviewing the decision and is considering its legal options.