Photo: Nelson Bennett
Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, in Richmond on Monday for a community grant announcement, spoke about salmon farming licenses.
Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray must decide soon whether any of the 79 federal licenses for open-net salmon farms in British Columbia expiring in June will be renewed, and she’s doomed if she does and damned if she doesn’t.
If it renews its permits, it will face the wrath of coastal First Nations and environmental groups who want them gone.
But if it doesn’t renew licenses for salmon farms in the Port Hardy area, a First Nations group, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, now says it will assert its Aboriginal rights and issue the licenses.
“We have now received a mandate from our hereditary chiefs to send a message to the government saying ‘we will manage the fisheries in our area,'” Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw elected councilor Leslie Walkus said during a a press conference in Ottawa at the end of March.
“We will embark on the path of creating the framework of co-jurisdiction which involves the transfer of power to local First Nations management authorities.
In other words, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw envision taking control of the fisheries in their territory, whether wild or farmed.
Which raises a very thorny political question: can they do this?
Legally, the answer is no – the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has ultimate jurisdiction over marine waters.
But First Nations have challenged DFO before, and in some cases won key legal precedents over Aboriginal rights to fish, not just for food, but also for trade.
When the Trudeau government adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), it created an expectation among First Nations that they would have more say over the resources of their traditional territories.
While First Nations who oppose fish farms may cite UNDRIP as saying they have the right to say no to the industry, First Nations who support the industry also cite UNDRIP as supporting their right to say no. yes to salmon farming.
“We fully respect the rights of nations that do not want this sector within their communities,” said Dallas Smith, spokesperson for the First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS) coalition, when he and other members of the coalition traveled to Ottawa to lobby for the renewal of federal salmon farming licenses on March 30.
“But UNDRIP is a two-way street,” Smith said. “We can no longer talk about self-determination of indigenous peoples and continue to use terms such as ‘consultation’ and ‘the minister will decide’”.
“The First Nations Fish Stewardship Coalition (FNFFS) has united around a common concern that their rights to make economic decisions for their territories are being ignored,” the coalition said. “These nations are calling on the federal government to immediately reissue salmon farming licenses in their territories.”
The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw recently entered into a memorandum of understanding to assert control over the fisheries in their territory, including fish farms. Walkus said the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw will work with other First Nations on the memorandum of understanding to begin taking over responsibilities for fisheries, including aquaculture.
“We do this with the support of local MPs, local regional districts, mayors and also the support of our neighboring nations,” Walkus said.
The majority of BC First Nations oppose salmon net farms and want them closed. The Trudeau government is moving in that direction, with plans to “transition” away from open-net fish farms starting around 2025.
But some First Nations support the industry, have built their own economies around it, and would suffer serious economic impacts if the industry were shut down.
“The fish industry has lifted our community out of poverty,” said Isiah Robinson, Chief of the Kitasoo Xai’xais.
The FNFFS recently released a socio-economic impact study that estimates the major economic benefits of salmon farming for First Nations at $50 million. This includes 276 full-time jobs, benefit payments and contracts with Indigenous-owned businesses, which also provide employment to First Nations.
In total, when indirect and induced economic activity is taken into account, this represents $83.3 million in economic activity and 707 jobs earning $36.6 million in wages per year, the FNFFS study estimates.
Murray’s mandate from the premier is to develop a transition plan to phase out open-net salmon farms in British Columbia by 2025. But all 79 federal licenses expire in June.
“We want to talk about science,” Smith told BIV News. “We want to talk about transition. And we need a renewal of the existing licenses so that we can have this discussion.
At an event in Richmond on Monday, BIV News asked Murray to comment on federal licensing. She declined to say whether or not they will be renewed.
“The ministry is working on a transition plan,” she said. “We understand of course that this will have impacts.
“My vision is truly for British Columbia to become the destination of choice for capital in responsible and sustainable fish farming. There are many opportunities for land-based finfish aquaculture. There are several successful companies doing this now.
There is indeed investment capital in land-based aquaculture, but it’s mostly going to the United States, not BC – as expected.
The aquaculture industry has always said that even if land-based aquaculture becomes viable, it is unlikely to develop in British Columbia, but rather near major fish markets – places like the United States or the Japan.
“I would love to see where these successful businesses are,” Smith said. “Everyone keeps telling me this is the way to go, but I can’t seem to find anyone to do it or who is willing to invest in it, just with the challenges that coastal communities have around electricity – being able to power facilities like that – or the ability to bring things to market from land-based facilities.
Atlantic Sapphire has built a US$300 million land-based system in Florida, Whole Oceans plans to invest US$250 million in a land-based system that would produce 5,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon annually in Maine, and West Coast Salmon plans to build an Atlantic salmon production plant in Reno, Nevada.
The Whole Oceans and West Coast Salmon projects plan to use recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) developed by PR Aqua of Nanaimo.
So there is a domestically developed technology that can be used, provided investors are convinced that BC is the place to invest hundreds of millions in the nascent land-based fish farming industry.
“I would like the capital to come to British Columbia,” Murray said. “So I will work with provincial and municipal governments to make sure that we are a place where capital wants to come – that we reduce overlap or any complexity between federal, provincial and municipal regulations.
“So I’m already working on creating a concierge service to make it easier and more convenient for this investment to come to BC”