A group of First Nations from British Columbia is calling on the Trudeau government to make good on its commitment to phase out open-net salmon farms by 2025.
Chiefs from across the province are in Ottawa for meetings with federal officials, including Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier.
Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, said they told the minister that most B.C. First Nations want the transition.
“The message we carry is that this is a very clear opportunity for the federal government to take meaningful actions for reconciliation with First Nations literally across the province of British Columbia and in doing so enacting a safeguard for food security,” Chamberlain said at a press conference.
Open-net fish farms off B.C.’s coast are a long-running subject of debate, with opponents saying the farms are linked to the transfer of disease to wild salmon, while supporters say thousands of jobs are threatened if the operations are phased out.
Shackan Indian Band Chief Arnie Lampreau is also with the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance.
With depleting stocks, Lampreau said his First Nation has been forced to buy salmon from Alaska.
“Without the fish runs that used to run consistently every year, now we are depending on one run every four years,” he said.
But Chamberlin acknowledged support for the plan isn’t unanimous among First Nations people in the province, where about a dozen communities are involved in the salmon farming industry.
The B.C. Salmon Farming industry says any debate about the future of salmon farms must include the perspectives of Indigenous people who operate fish farms on their territories.
Isaiah Robinson is a councillor with the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation and he is also with the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship which supports open-net farms.
He acknowledged salmon stocks are being depleted but the fish farms are not the main reason for this.
“It is not salmon farms that are causing this problem,” Robinson said. “There is no supporting evidence to that. It is purely climate change that is the largest issue right now that is causing the overall major decline in salmon stocks and at this point, we have more salmon in the Pacific Ocean than there was 100 years ago and they’re just not in our waters – they’re in Alaska, they’re in other waters right now.”
Robinson said his organization is in support of a transition plan but it has to be done in a way that takes into account the big economic impacts.
“This is a billion-dollar industry. This is the largest agricultural industry in British Columbia and it supports a large part of our economy. For example, my own community that’s been a part of this and pioneered it, this is 51 per cent of my economy and for it to be uprooted would completely destroy where I live,” Robinson said.
In an emailed statement, Lebouthillier’s office said the government is committed to a responsible transition plan for open-net aquaculture and continues to work on a plan that protects Pacific salmon while providing support for workers and their communities.