First Nations on Fish Farms: Two Perspectives

🕔Jul 28, 2006

It’s been almost two years since the Gitkaatla First Nation inked a deal with Pan Fish, the world’s largest fish-farming company.

For the Gitkaatla, whose community Kitkatla is situated 72 kilometers southeast of Prince Rupert, the $75-million operation represents a sound way to generate as many as 100 much-needed jobs. For Pan, which accounts for at least 20 per cent of the world’s production of farmed salmon and more than half of the salmon farm licenses in Canada, it represents a lucrative opportunity to expand its extensive BC operations.

Both parties are waiting with bated breath for government approval of the agreement, which would establish three new salmon farms near the mouth of the Skeena River in coastal BC.

But for a growing coalition of First Nations, tourism operators, sport anglers, commercial fishers, environmentalists, and municipal governments in the Skeena watershed, it’s seen as a threat to the values already generated by wild salmon—the economic value of which has been conservatively estimated by IBM Business Consulting at almost $110 million annually.

In this two-part article, Northword explores the debate among First Nations by checking in with two of the Gitkaatla’s neighbours: the Kitasoo—who say their experiment with fish farming has so far worked out beautifully—and the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw’Alaams, who are so strongly opposed to new fish farms on the north coast that they’re taking dramatic measures.

h3.The Kitasoo

It’s a sunny day in Klemtu, and salmon harvesting operations are well underway at the fish farm operated by Marine Harvest (a company which was recently acquired by Pan).

Klemtu doesn’t get any drive-by visitors, because it’s located on Swindle Island, about halfway between Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island, and Prince Rupert. The central coast community of about 500 is served by a once-weekly ferry from Port Hardy, or by air from Prince Rupert, Bella Bella or Bella Coola.

But the isolation doesn’t much bother the residents. Most of them are members of the Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation, which has called this place home long before white settlers arrived in BC.

“We’ve always made our living from the sea,” says the band’s chief councillor, Percy Starr. He remembers when band members were able to sustain themselves with wild salmon caught in the Kitasoo’s traditional territory. He also remembers when the China Hat cannery, which was originally constructed in Klemtu in 1925 by JH Todd & Sons, employed many band members.

Those days are gone. Wild sockeye, pink and chum salmon stocks in the region’s streams and rivers have plunged to about 20 per cent of what they once were. As for their capacity to provide a decent living for band members: “Those rivers have been dead [for the purpose of wild salmon fishing] for 50 years,” says Starr.

He attributes this to fishery mismanagement by government.

“They allowed us to take too much,” he says. “We’ve not done it in a sustainable manner. That’s why we’re in the predicament we’re in today… not just with salmon, but with other aquatic resources, like herring.”

In the late 1960s, JH Todd & Sons packed up “lock, stock and barrel.” “We felt completely abandoned, left without anything,” he remembers. “We tried to attract the attention of people we thought had responsibility for us… we tried to use the process, but only a token effort was made to assist us.”

Aquaculture offered a solution. With the help of marine biologist Larry Greba, the band set up an experimental fish farm in 1989.

When the undercapitalized, Kitasoo-controlled venture struggled to stay afloat in volatile market conditions, the band sought outside help. They found it in Nutreco, an aquaculture firm which invested in the farm and resumed production in 1999. The farm’s ownership has since changed hands; today the farm is operated under a partnership between the Kitasoo/Xaixais and Marine Harvest.

“The results have been beautiful,” he reports. “It’s created about 55 jobs. These people are smiling again; they work seven months a year and are off welfare. It brings $1.2 million into this community.”

Starr, who has fished all his life, doesn’t believe fish-farming has negatively impacted his culture. “Our lives have always been connected with the sea. Whether it’s a farmed product or not, it’s still an aquatic resource that we’re comfortable with.”

Nor has the farming operation affected anyone else, according to Starr. “There’s really nothing that we’re threatening except our own local resources,” he says. “And now, with the environmental report, we find out that we’re not much of a threat at all.”

He’s speaking about a recently completed, unpublished review of six years of environmental data, supervised by Greba, who is the band’s fisheries director.

Starr admits that he’s baffled as to why such encouraging reports haven’t been published. And he definitely harbours doubts about less flattering research that has been, such as that which appeared in the June 1 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The authors, which included researchers from Simon Fraser University, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the environmental organization Watershed Watch, found significantly higher levels of mercury contamination in rockfish near fish farms in three coastal First Nations communities. One of these was Klemtu.

Starr and Greba both emphasize that the mercury is not occurring, on average, at levels deemed to be dangerous to human health by Health Canada, and that older, deepwater rockfish could have accumulated mercury over time from other sources besides fish farms.

They also point out that it’s not simply the presence of fish farms, but the number of them in a given geographic area (the Klemtu model has always been based on three farms), and the suitability of that particular area for fish farms.

“There are parts of the coast that should be protected, particularly [those areas] close to major salmon streams,” says Starr. “People should be very careful before they get into it. Make sure you put all the protections in that need to be there.”

He says the Kitasoo ensured that the tenure was in their name, and have the option to shut down the farm within 60 days if they choose. They have made clear to the company that they do not want any escaped farm fish. “The media go crazy whenever that happens,” observes Starr.

As for sea lice, which have rocketed the fish farm controversy up the public agenda when they were linked by researchers to wild salmon mortality in the aquaculture-intensive Broughton Archipelago, Starr is not too concerned. After all, he points out, sea lice are not new.

“If you see more salmon, you see more lice. Less salmon, less lice you’ll see as well. That’s nature.”

According to Starr, no major sockeye, pink or chum salmon spawning streams exist in the vicinity of the farms at Klemtu, which he says produce seven million fish annually and are routinely treated with antibiotics for sea lice. There just isn’t the concern that juvenile wild salmon risk being exposed to high sea-lice concentrations.

“All we see is three lice per fish, at our farm sites as well as [on wild salmon] 40 miles away from the farm,” he says.

Starr points out that the Kitasoo have worked with Marine Harvest to minimize any impacts on the local environment, and community members have made peace with any impacts on local seafood resources that could occur.

“We have every faith that fish farming can co-exist with the status quo, if it’s done properly,” concludes Starr. “We made our own decision, and we’re happy with it.”

For a different perspective on coastal fish farms, from the Allied Tsimshian Tribes, see part two of this article.