More than 50 First Nations protestors, including several hereditary chiefs, called for the eviction of multinational-owned fish farms from “unceded” territorial waters in Campbell River on Monday.
“We have zero tolerance for open-net salmon farms,” declared George Quocksister, a hereditary chief of the Laich-Kwil-Tach Nation.
The protest in the Kwanwatsi Big House, a traditional meeting area designed to serve First Nations in the Campbell River area, appeared to signal a growing Indigenous movement against fish farms on the B.C. coast.
Speakers representing several coastal First Nations decried fish farms as either a “poison” or an environmental problem that harmed young wild fish, disrupted natural migration routes and spread disease.
“We have seen salmon dwindling in our rivers for the past 29 years,” said hereditary Chief Willie Moon of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Nation.
The Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw, who live in a remote part of the Broughton Archipelago, boarded two fish farms and gave eviction notices to nearly 30 farms operated by Cermaq and Marine Harvest in their territory two weeks ago.
“This fight is for our children and to make sure they have what we have today,” Moon told the crowd in the cedar-smoke filled long house.
Ernst Alfred, a Namgis and representative of hereditary chiefs in Alert Bay, told the crowd that he joined the protest “to support the chiefs kicking this industry out.”
Alfred said he’s angered by what the industry has done to his people and culture, and First Nations need to join together to protect the lifeblood of the coast — wild salmon.
Like many speakers, Alfred (also known as Kwakwabalas) thanked biologist and fish farm opponent Alex Morton and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for providing a platform for First Nations to meet and discuss their concerns about fish farms and “to help us take back control of our coast.”
Morton and the crew of the R/V Martin Sheen attended the meeting.
Many of the protestors, including Moon and Ernst, plan to visit Comox, Nanaimo, Victoria and Vancouver over the next week to gather more support for what appears to be a growing First Nation-led eviction movement.
Last week, four protestors from the Ahousaht Nation were arrested by the RCMP after they tried to stop a Cermaq/Mitsibushi barge from restocking smolts in a farm that had been previously closed due to disease. No charges have been laid.
Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, dismissed the Campbell River protest as an activity “organized by Alex Morton and Sea Shepherd Society” and “a small group expressing an opinion.” He said the industry had 20 economic agreements with First Nations representing territories with 78 per cent of the farmed salmon production.
But the Musgamagw Dzawda’enuwx haven’t signed any agreement and remain adamant that they want the farms closed and removed from their territory.
Melissa Willie, a spokesperson for the Musgamaqw Dzawda’enuxw, said the nation had received a letter from Cermaq requesting a meeting.
“We are not doing that,” she said. “We want them out.”
She said the nation has received much support from other coastal First Nations.
Asked what the Musgamagw Dzawda’enuxw will do if the multinationals don’t leave their territory within the three month deadline, Willie replied, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Morton fish farm video goes viral
Meanwhile a video taken by Morton when almost 50 Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw boarded a Marine Harvest fish farm near Midsummer Island in the Broughton Archipelago Aug. 23 has gone viral with more 600,000 views.
The five-minute video, shot by Morton with a GoPro camera inserted through the bird nets of the fish farm, shows fish apparently suffering from tumours or extreme emaciation.
The video also shows feedlot fish eating small wild fish. For years commercial fishermen have accused the industry of cannibalizing young wild fish stocks due to their location on migration routes.
Morton told The Tyee that she was shocked by what she saw underwater. “The fish appeared stunned and didn’t flinch when the camera passed by them. There were hundreds of fish barely moving below the surface.”
Morton also described what appears to be skinny farmed fish with their noses towards the net. She says such behaviour fits a classic description of fish with heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI).
The deadly and emerging viral disease was first identified on Norwegian fish farms in 1999. “HSMI-like lesions” have now been detected in farmed fish in Chile.
In Canada, a “potential” case was identified on a farm owned by Cermaq in the Okisollo Channel north of Quadra Island.
Dunn said Morton’s video should not be a cause for concern.
“Looking at one or two salmon on a farm — with a video camera — does not give you the ability to diagnose the health of a fish population,” he said. “It is not abnormal to have poor performers such as the salmon in the video on a farm — that was one fish out of 50,000 in that 30-metre by 30-metre by 30-metre pen.”
In an email response, Gary Marty, senior fish pathologist with the B.C. government, downplayed Morton’s conclusions.
“Alexandra Morton is not a medical professional, and her interpretations are often contrary to how a medical professional would interpret clinical findings,” he wrote.
Marty said the “tumour” that Morton described seeing on one fish “looks more like a swelling than cancer. It is probably fluid accumulation that occurred after an injury.”
Corporate fish farms raising Atlantic salmon have created controversy in Norway, Chile, Scotland and Canada due to pollution, epidemics, escapees and viral disease exchanges that have resulted in steady declines of local wild fish populations.
A 2010 study of the industry’s impact on Norway’s wild salmon concluded “it seems clear that salmon farming is the main threat to the viability of wild salmon due to spread of diseases, escapees, environmental pollution, etc.”
As a result, the embattled Norwegian arm of the industry recently announced it is prepared to invest $100 million in closed containment systems that would end all biological contact with wild fish and other marine creatures.
‘We have to cleanse the world’
Daniel Billy, an 82-year-old commercial fisherman, told the crowd in the Big House about changes he had witnessed over the years.
When he was 16-years-old and fishing the waters outside Phillips Arm on the central coast the ocean was roiling with wild salmon, he said.
That had all changed when he last visited the area four years ago. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even see a ripple in the water.”
Billy, a We Wai Kai from Cape Mudge, told The Tyee that smolts released by a hatchery on the Phillips River to rebuild wild stocks had to swim past a fish farm just a mile from its mouth. The farmed fish ate them, he said. “The hatchery is providing food for the fish farm.”
“We have to try to cleanse the world,” Billy said. “We are polluting everything.”
Neither Morton nor Aboriginal leaders blame fish farms as the sole cause of declines in wild salmon populations. But they do view the industry as a stressor as significant as climate change, poor government management and deforestation.
Story amended Aug. 31 at 8:10 a.m. to correct the year the HSMI viral disease was first identified.