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Clock is ticking on salmon farm licences

B.C. First Nation says if fisheries minister won’t renew licences, they will
Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, in Richmond Monday for community grant announcement, addressed salmon farm licences.

Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray must decide soon if any, all or none of the 79 federal licences for open-net salmon farms in B.C. that expire in June will be renewed, and she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

If she does renew licences, she will face the ire of coastal First Nations and environmental groups that want them gone.

But if she doesn’t renew licences for salmon farms in the Port Hardy area, one First Nations group, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, now say that they will assert their aboriginal rights and issue the licences themselves.

“We’ve now received a mandate from our hereditary chiefs to send a message to the government in saying ‘we’ll be managing the fisheries in our area,’” Leslie Walkus, elected councillor of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, said at a press conference in Ottawa at the end of March.

“We’ll be going down the road of creating the co-jurisdictional framework that involves the transfer of power to local First Nations management authorities.”

In other words, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw are planning to assume control of fisheries in their territory, both wild and farmed.

Which raises a very thorny political question: Can they do that?

Legally, the answer is no – the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has ultimate jurisdiction over marine waters.

But First Nations have defied DFO before, and in some cases won key legal precedents with respect to aboriginal rights to fish, not only for food, but for commercial purposes as well.

When the Trudeau government adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), it created an expectation among First Nations that they will have a greater say over resources in their traditional territories.

While First Nations who oppose fish farms can cite UNDRIP, saying they have a right to say no to the industry, First Nations who support the industry likewise are now citing UNDRIP as supporting their right to say yes to salmon farming.

“We fully respect the rights of nations who don’t want this sector within their communities,” Dallas Smith, a spokesman for the First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS) coalition, said when he and other members of the coalition went to Ottawa to press for the renewal of federal salmon farm licences on March 30.

“But UNDRIP is a two-way street,” Smith said. “We can no longer talk about self-determination of indigenous people and still use language like ‘consultation’ and ‘the minister’s going to decide.’”

“The coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS) has united over a shared concern that their rights to make economic decisions for their territories are being ignored,” the coalition says. “These Nations call on the federal government to immediately reissue the salmon farming licences in their territories.”

The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw  recently struck a memorandum of understanding to assert control over fisheries in their territory, including fish farms. Walkus said the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw will work with other First Nations on the MOU to begin assuming responsibilities for fisheries, including aquaculture.

“We do so with the support of the local MLAs, the local regional districts, the mayors and also the support of our neighbouring nations,” Walkus said.

The majority of First Nations in B.C. are opposed to open-net salmon farms and want them shut down. 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 is shut down.

“The fish farm industry has brought 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 primary economic benefits of salmon farming for First Nations at $50 million. This includes 276 full-time jobs, benefit payments, and contracts with Indigenous-owned companies, which also provide jobs for First Nations.

In total, when indirect and induced economic activity is factored in, it 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 prime minister is to develop a transition plan to phase out open-net salmon farms in B.C. by 2025. But the 79 federal licences expire in June.

“We want to talk about science,” Smith told BIV News. “We want to talk about transition. And we need a renewal to the existing licences so we can have that discussion.”

At an event in Richmond Monday, BIV News asked Murray to comment on the federal licences. She declined to say if they will or won’t be renewed.

“The ministry is working on a transition plan,” she said. “We, of course, understand that this will have impacts.

“My vision really is for British Columbia to become the destination of choice for capital into the responsible, sustainable finfish aquaculture sector. There’s a lot of opportunity for on-land finfish aquaculture. There’s several successful companies doing that now.”

There is indeed investment capital flowing into land-based aquaculture, but it’s flowing mostly to the U.S., not B.C. – as predicted.

The aquaculture industry has stated all along that, even if land-based aquaculture becomes viable, it’s not likely to develop in B.C., but rather closer to where the big markets for fish are – places like the U.S. or Japan.

“I’d love to see where these successful companies are,” Smith said. “Everybody keeps telling me this is the way to go, but I can’t seem to find anybody to do it or is willing to invest in it, just with the challenges that coastal communities have around power – being able to power facilities like that – or ability to get things to market from land-based facilities.”

Atlantic Sapphire 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 facility in Reno, Nevada.

Both the Whole Oceans and West Coast Salmon projects plan to use recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) developed by Nanaimo-based PR Aqua.

So there is domestically developed technology that can be used, provided investors can be convinced that B.C. is the place to invest hundreds of millions into the nascent land-based fish farm industry.

“I’d like the capital to come to British Columbia,” Murray said. “So I will be working with the province and municipal governments to make sure that we are a place that capital wants to come – that we reduce overlap or any complexities between federal, provincial and municipal regulation.

“So I’m already working on creating a concierge service to make it simpler and more practical for that investment to come to B.C.”