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B.C. Indigenous coalition opposes Ottawa’s decision to shut down 15 salmon farms

Click to play video: 'Ottawa to shut 15 salmon farms off B.C.’s coast to protect wild fish'
Ottawa to shut 15 salmon farms off B.C.’s coast to protect wild fish
Reaction is pouring in to a federal government decision to shut down 15 open-pen fish farms in the Discovery Islands. While some say this was the correct decision, others are not as pleased. Jasmine Bala reports – Feb 18, 2023

A B.C. Indigenous group has expressed “extreme disappointment” with the federal decision not to renew licences for 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms around Discovery Islands.

The Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship said the decision not to renew the licences for the salmon farms is not “respecting the sovereign authority of the Laich-kwil-tach First Nations (the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai) to decide if, when and how they want to operate aquaculture in their traditional waters.”

“(The) decision, unfortunately, feels beyond procedural unfairness after many months of meetings with the minister, her department, and DFO staff,” said Dallas Smith, a spokesperson for the coalition.

“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.”

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According to the coalition, the proposal described a “careful and staggered plan for the possible re-introduction of some fish farms” in the traditional waters to be led and overseen by the First Nations and their stewardship programs.”

The group is adamant the that these farms would serve as a critical piece to help the communities advance their holistic marine management plans.

“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,” Smith said.

“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 kilometres away.”

The B.C. government made a statement saying it is disappointed that the announcement did not include a support plan for First Nations communities.

“We are disappointed that (Friday’s) announcement does not outline a federal support plan for First Nations, communities and workers that rely on salmon aquaculture for their livelihoods,” said BC Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen.

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Click to play video: 'Reaction to federal government decision to shut down 15 B.C. fish farms'
Reaction to federal government decision to shut down 15 B.C. fish farms

On Friday, Ottawa’s Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray announced the federal government will not renew licences for 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms around B.C.’s Discovery Islands.

Murray said the Discovery Islands area is a key migration route for wild salmon where narrow passages bring migrating juvenile salmon into close contact with the farms.

She said recent science indicates uncertainty over the risks posed by the farms to wild salmon, and the government is committed to developing a responsible plan to transition away from open-net farming in coastal waters.

Open-net fish farms off B.C.’s coast have been a major flashpoint, with environmental groups and some Indigenous nations saying the farms are linked to the transfer of disease to wild salmon, while the industry and some local politicians say thousands of jobs are threatened if operations are phased out.

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Click to play video: 'First Nations call on DFO not to renew Discovery Islands fish farm licences'
First Nations call on DFO not to renew Discovery Islands fish farm licences

Previously, former B.C. premier John Horgan sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last March saying there is widespread concern the federal government is poised to make a decision that could threaten hundreds of jobs and the economies of coastal communities.

Horgan urged the prime minister to assure the salmon farming sector that an appropriate transition program will be implemented and must include First Nations and communities that rely on fish farms economically.

Murray said the decision came after extensive consultations with First Nations, the industry and others, and the department is taking a “highly precautionary” approach to managing salmon farming in the area.

She called First Nations and industry representatives Friday before announcing what she said was a difficult but necessary decision to protect wild salmon from the potential risks posed by farmed fish.

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In the news release, she says there are multiple stressors on wild salmon, including climate change, habitat degradation and both regulated and illegal fishing.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has said an economic analysis concluded the province could lose more than 4,700 jobs and up to $1.2 billion in economic activity annually if salmon farm licences are not renewed.

But B.C.’s First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance says more than 100 First Nations support the federal government’s plan to transition away from open-net salmon farms.

Alliance spokesman Bob Chamberlin said earlier wild salmon runs are suffering and decisions must be made to help stocks rebound.

Click to play video: 'Dead salmon transplanted into creek'
Dead salmon transplanted into creek

— With files from Canadian Press

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