Premier John Horgan headed for the remote island community of Alert Bay Tuesday, to meet with aboriginal people protesting the establishment of net-pen salmon farms in their territory north of Vancouver Island.
Horgan flew to Alert Bay at the invitation of Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation. He was accompanied by Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham and Transportation Minister Claire Trevena, the MLA for North Island.
While in opposition, B.C. NDP politicians campaigned against the net-pen industry and led a committee that recommended B.C.’s North Coast be kept off limits to them.
Two net-pen salmon farms near the Discovery Islands have been occupied by the members of the Mugamagw, ’Namgis and Mamalikilulla First Nations since late August. Popham’s constituency office was briefly occupied in late September by a group of young people claiming solidarity with the aboriginal communities.
Jeremy Dunn, spokesman for the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said the industry has 20 agreements with B.C. first nations to operate in coastal waters, and the Broughton Archaepelago region is the only place where aboriginal communities have refused to meet them.
The B.C. government delegation is also meeting with representatives of the Kuterra land-based Atlantic salmon farm. The company announced in March that it had reached “steady state” production of salmon after three and a half years of development of its land-based recirculating water system.
Kuterra is owned by the ’Namgis First Nation at Alert Bay, and lists Tides Canada as its lead funder and advisor. It also receives funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, a federally funded organization chaired by former Blackberry CEO Jim Balsillie.
Kuterra stated in March that the ’Namgis can no longer support the operation financially, and called for new investors to help the land-based industry get established.
Ocean salmon farming has a controversial history in B.C. The industry generated $787 million in value in 2016 and employs about 5,000 people in remote coastal areas, and farmed salmon is the most valuable agricultural export from B.C. But it has been frequently subject to protests and campaigns claiming Atlantic salmon carry parasites and diseases that threaten native Pacific salmon species.
The federal government established the Cohen Commission to study the collapse of the 2009 sockeye run, including the impact of salmon farms. The 2010 run then came in with a record 30 million fish, but Justice Bruce Cohen’s commission reported a general decline in sockeye runs since 1990 from Washington state up the Central Coast. The decline was noted in the Skeena, Nass and up to Yukon’s Klukshu and Alaska’s Alsek Rivers.
Cohen recommended that no additional salmon farms be established around the Discovery Islands until 2020, by which time the industry should demonstrate that the risk of open-pen operations is “minimal.”