For years Homalco First Nation Chief Darren Blaney has been opposed to fish farming in the Discovery Islands, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, where his community is based.
“As far as I could see the sockeye populations have been going down, since the farms got here,” says Blaney. “And we've been fighting the farms for a long time. And the federal government is not much help. DFO is not much help.”
On Sept. 28, officials with DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) announced on a conference call with the media that based on its scientific assessments, nine pathogens from farmed Atlantic salmon in British Columbia’s Discovery Islands pose a minimal risk to wild salmon.
Part of the DFO announcement, states that “starting immediately” they will consult with First Nations about the aquaculture sites in the Discovery Islands.
“The information exchanged will inform the government’s decision on whether or not to renew aquaculture licences in the area, prior to the December-2020 deadline,” the release states.
“They want to do more consultations. As far as I’m concerned we’ve already done all the consultations, says Blaney. “And now. we’re consulting until the end of the salmon.”
The news comes just ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline set by the 2009 Cohen Commission, a $26 million federal inquiry led by Justice Bruce Cohen who looked into the collapse of the Sockeye stocks in B.C.
The deadline is connected to recommendation No. 19 from the commission.
“On September 30, 2020, the minister of fisheries and oceans should prohibit net-pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands… unless he or she is satisfied that such farms pose at most a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon,” the commission report states, adding that a summary of the decision and reasoning should be published on the DFO website.
“I’m not surprised and I’ve become cynical about DFO. They are the fish farming industry’s lap dog, and they can’t be promoting the industry. And so they can’t be policing it as well,” says Blaney.
Recommendation No. 67 of the Cohen Commission reflects this concern.
“The fish health research priorities of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans should reflect its responsibility for the conservation of wild fish,” it says. “To that end, DFO’s science managers should encourage innovation and new research into novel diseases and other conditions affecting wild fish, beyond the interests of specific “clients” such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or aquaculture management."
“You can look at all the regulations, and then look at the fines levied on fish farming from DFO, you’ll see hardly any,” says Blaney.
Representatives from DFO did not respond to IndigiNew’s request for comment ahead of publication.
Blaney says he’s seen the impact of declining sockeye first hand.
“We don't get sockeye, we used to get sockeye every year. We could count on it every year, getting sockeye. And now we don't get it. Maybe it went to be three years, four years, we get it now and it's become like gold.”
Blaney is specifically concerned about the amount of chemicals used to treat sea lice in the fish farms and how Homalco territory’s distinguishing features are involved.
Homalco means "people of fast running waters," after the turbulent waters of their territory that their people depended on, explains Blaney.
Blaney says that because of the turbulent waters in the Discovery Islands area, lice can travel for miles. “So even if you’re treating at that site, there are farms elsewhere. [Lice] will come in and re-infect your farms.”
According to DFO, sea lice, a parasite, was not tested for when coming up with a response to recommendation No. 19.
According to DFO officials, fish farms affect less than one per cent of the wild salmon stocks.
Blaney is concerned about the impact of fish farms extending to other resources.
“They were trying to set up one farm right next to our clam garden and that clam garden’s over 3,500 years old.
“And our people have relied on that forever.”
Blaney found out about the DFO announcement while he was in a zoom meeting on homelessness and housing.
He received a call from Bob Chamberlin, of Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation.
“He says to me ‘you’re going to get a bunch of calls today,’ he told me the DFO are going to just do business as usual, and denying the impact,” says Blaney.
On Sept. 22, Chamberlin was among First Nation leaders, fishers and non-governmental organizations that called on the federal government to remove fish farms from the Discovery Islands.
“We have yet another dismal return of salmon back to the Fraser River,” Chamberlin told media. “This has been going far too long and when you measure DFO’s actions in terms of looking after wild salmon they are failing.”
“It means we don’t get to pass on the culture of salmon to our kids,” says Blaney. “Having sockeye once every four years, we can’t pass that culture on to our kids."
Despite the Sept. 30 deadline, DFO has not made it clear if fish farms will be able to operate in the Discovery Islands beyond December, when the licenses are up for renewal.
In the meantime, Blaney says he wants fish farms out of the water and closed containment onto land could be a first step.
“They need to get on land, or get into closed containment,” says Blaney. “Closed containment could be a good stop gap measure until they figure out the land [based farming] issues.
For Blaney, it’s important to remember the importance of salmon.
“I think pretty much everybody has a first salmon ceremony,” says Blaney. “That's our governance.”
“It's because of the poverty in the community, the colonization, the impacts of residential schools and the sixties scoop,” he says. “Our people have been economically marginalized. And so we have to overcome those things. And when we have no income, salmon is good to keep...going.”
Odette Auger is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with The Discourse, where this article first appeared.