First Nations on Fish Farms 2

🕔Jul 28, 2006

Clouds are gathering over Prince Rupert as a noisy, colourful procession makes its way down Third Avenue.

It’s comprised of about 150 First Nations representatives—most of whom have come over by water taxi today from Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw’Alaams, but also includes representatives of the Gitxsan, Wet’suwet’en, and Nisga’a. It’s rounded out by a contingent of sport fishers, commercial fishers and environmentalists who’ve united under the organizational banner of Friends of Wild Salmon.

Allied Tsimshian Tribes elders, clad in ceremonial regalia, lead the procession to the Coast Hotel, where the government-appointed Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture is to appear on its tour of northern BC communities to hear presentations by locals about aquaculture, and how it should proceed—or not—in BC.

There, amidst speeches and traditional dances, native leaders declare the Skeena watershed a “fish farm free zone”. The group then makes its way to the hearing room, which cannot begin to accommodate the crowd. Dozens of people are forced to stand, sit on the floor or perch on stairs to witness the hearing.

For the next three hours, First Nations’ anger is front and centre. Committee members are lambasted by native elders for not having anticipated local interest in this issue by booking a larger room. Many feel that the committee, which visited the Gitkaatla earlier that day, slighted Lax Kw’Alaams by not holding a hearing in its community.

Several of the day’s scheduled presentations have been supplanted by the impromptu speeches, which uniformly hammer home the message that all First Nations who could be affected by North Coast fish farms deserve to be meaningfully consulted, and that the North Coast should remain fish farm free.

This is the second time in a month that the Allied Tsimshian Tribes have made a splashy entrance.

In late May, the Allied Tsimshian Tribes, acting jointly with the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council from the Broughton Archipelago, sent a delegation to Norway. While there, it crashed the annual general meeting of Pan, the seafood giant which is waiting for BC government approval to launch its north coast fish farm with the Gitkaatla. The group also got an audience with Norwegian King Harald V.

Besides garnering international headlines, the event provoked one shareholder, the Freedom of Expression Foundation, to dump more than $14 million worth of shares in Pan.

“Our intent was to deliver a message: ‘you keep your fish farms in your territories for 20 years and show us it’s safe,’” says Stan Dennis, who speaks for the 2800 members of the nine Allied Tsimshian Tribes.

“That’s yet to be proven,” he adds, citing the fact that Norway has closed off some of its own fjords to fish farms in order to protect wild stocks.

“Our fight is not with the Gitkaatla, it’s with salmon farms generally,” Dennis told Northword Magazine. He cites recently released, peer-reviewed research conducted in BC’s most aquaculture-intensive zone: the Broughton Archipelago.

That research showed that wild pink and chum salmon juveniles suffered high mortality rates due to high concentrations of sea lice, which have been linked to the area’s fish farms.

Dennis and his First Nations counterparts argue that, unlike the Kitasoo, the Gitkaatla are anything but ecologically or economically isolated from their First Nations neighbours. They point out that all the Skeena’s wild salmon begin their lives as juveniles, who will swim past the fish farms which Pan and the Gitkaatla hope to site near the river’s mouth. By exposing these juveniles to the high concentrations of sea lice which typically occur around fish farms, they say, wild salmon stocks will be at risk throughout the entire Skeena River system.

“It will have a drastic effect, in the territories of our First Nations and non-First Nations neighbours,” he says.

Dennis acknowledges that some coastal First Nations are turning to aquaculture to address rampant unemployment, which tops 60 per cent in Lax Kw’Alaams outside of the fishing season.

“There are other things you can look at to turn around unemployment rates,” he says, citing initiatives he expects will offer job dividends to the people of Lax Kw’ Alaams: a summer student program, a construction apprenticeship program delivered in partnership with the BC Institute of Technology, courses offered by Northwest Community College, Prince Rupert’s port development, and potentially a liquefied natural gas facility.

Dennis believes BC should look north for answers, to salmon ranching in Alaska. “Wild stocks are abundant there … and there are no problems with First Nations or sustainability.”

For the Tsimshian and their First Nations counterparts inland, it comes down to this: “Wild salmon sustains us as a people,” says Dennis.

“Salmon has been part of our culture since time immemorial. We are people of the salmon, and we wish to keep it that way…We’re not going to sacrifice a resource for economic benefits.”


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