Coastal First Nations leaders and Vancouver Island politicians gathered at Campbell River’s Tidemark Theatre to present a case for the renewal of salmon farming licences.
Dallas Smith acted as master of ceremonies for the conference in his role as spokesperson for the coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, which is made up of 17 First Nations communities which benefit from aquaculture.
The federal government is currently deciding whether to re-issue salmon farming licences in First Nation territories, many of which are set to expire on June 30, 2022.
It has also committed to phase out open-net pen salmon farming in B.C. by 2025.
In an accompanying report, the coalition said a survey of producer partners and major suppliers to the industry indicates the direct combined primary economic benefits to First Nations in coastal B.C. amounts to $50 million annually in the form of more than 276 full-time jobs, benefit sharing, and contracts with Indigenous-owned companies that provide further employment.
“I applaud the chiefs and leaders who have come here today to start what is going to be a challenging discussion of where aquaculture fits within the visions of First Nations communities,” Smith said to the gathering of more than 50 people. “The communities have decided amongst themselves who wants to partake in this sector and who doesn’t. No one on this stage or no one as part of this coalition, has ever been in a position where they told others what they should do in their territories.”
Hereditary Chief Richard George (Hasheukumiss) of the Ahousaht First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island pre-recorded a speech for the conference discussing some of the ways money from farmed salmon has gone towards aiding wild salmon recovery.
“Partnerships include habitat restoration, and risk mitigation, through an area based management approach,” he said.
George also argued sea lice numbers have gone down thanks to new methods of keeping the pests at bay in farmed fish, and from spreading to wild salmon.
Smith said the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed is the rights of First Nations to make the decision on whether they want to allow open pen salmon farming on their territory.
Richard Harry, the executive director of the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association, agreed.
“You kind of wonder how governments think,” he said. “When they can just arbitrarily make a decision without talking to those First Nations that hold title.”
As a commercial fisherman, Harry lamented the sunset industry he was once a part of and doesn’t want to see another cornerstone industry which economically benefits coastal First Nations go belly up.
Campbell River Mayor Andy Adams said he and other local politicians have been aiding the coalition’s efforts over the last two years.
“We truly believe in not only the economic impact that this is having locally but also worldwide with the food security,” he said. “We believe in the advancements of technology, innovation and science.
“We know that the early days of the industry were not exactly the best for the environment. But that has changed. It’s changed significantly.”
Smith expanded upon Adams’ points on the poor reputation salmon farming has had in the past.
“Not one First Nations in this room, in this coalition, or on this coast wants to take wild salmon for granted,” he said.
“In fact, I’ll go a step farther and saying that is part of the accountability that a lot of communities are looking for from this sector to say, that’s great, we understand the commercial value of doing this. We want to be involved in the oversight. We want to be involved in the tendering, we want to be involved in the governance of it.”
He argued the economic benefits of the industry is a pathway to self determination for First Nations communities.
“We put in too much time, we put in too much energy. And we put too much of ourselves not to be taken seriously at this point.”