The ‘Namgis First Nation continues to peacefully protest Marine Harvest’s fish farm on Swanson Island, off the east coast of Vancouver Island.
The protest has been ongoing since Aug. 25, when a small group from the ‘Namgis First Nation occupied the Swanson Island farm, stating the farm is stationed there illegally.
“This fish farm is on the unceded territory of the ‘Namgis First Nation,” said ‘Namgis Chief Don Svanvik. “The Namgis have never been consulted about, or consented, to having this open net pen fish farm in our territory.”
A group of activists and First Nations members have also staged a three hour sit-in at the B.C. agriculture minister’s Lana Popham’s office in Saanich on Sept. 28 in solidarity with the occupation at Swanson Island.
“We have had an agreement with the ‘Namgis for them to provide observation and monitor the harvest,” said Ian Roberts, Director of Public Affairs at Marine Harvest Canada. “We had to put the harvest on hold for a few weeks because of safety concerns on the site. We are very pleased that we have this agreement with observation, and we hope this leads to further conversation that leads to solutions in the future.”
On Sept. 20, Marine Harvest Canada and the ‘Namgis First Nation agreed for one of the band’s members to observe harvest of market-ready fish at the Swanson Island salmon farm.
“I joined an observer at the site to witness our salmon harvest,” stated Roberts. “As ‘Namgis leadership has expressed particular concern for small wild fish that may reside in our net pens, I was happy to be given the opportunity to show how our incidental catch separators attached to our harvest equipment work to release wild fish immediately back into the ocean.”
Svanvik confirmed while this “action is based in our title and rights, we have grave concerns about the environmental impacts of open net pen fish farms. Our province and our country needs to look at and understand the independent science, and the science from around the world, that shows us that open net pen fish farms are very harmful to wild fish. Why is it that wherever there are fish farms the wild stocks decline?”
Marine Harvest denies fish farms are harmful to wild salmon. “We’ve had salmon farms for 20 years and have been very approachable about our impacts and approaches to impacts,” said Roberts.
He also noted that as of Sept. 18, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which helps consumers choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean, now recommends Atlantic salmon raised in British Columbia as a “good alternative”.
The Seafood Watch Report highlighted the initial results from the Pacific Salmon Foundation’s Strategic Salmon Health Initiative and other research, noting there is currently no evidence that shows any impact from salmon farms to wild salmon.
It specifically states: “although a level of concern is warranted, there is currently no evidence that there is any impact from salmon farms to wild salmon. Importantly, there is also no evidence that there is no impact.”
“We are not afraid of the truth,” said Svanvik. “Let’s have the truth, lay it on the table, and if it turns out fish farms aren’t doing anything and something else is, let’s find out what that is. There is just so much evidence pointing towards fish farms being a significant contributing factor towards the drastic decline in our fish stocks.”
However, the ‘Namgis don’t oppose fish farming entirely. They own and operate Kuterra, a land-based fish farm.
“We have demonstrated you can do that,” said Svanvik. “Our land-based fish farm is on a very small scale but we have learned many things in these past few years about how to make it work and we have shared our experiences with other land-based fish farms that are starting up around the world.”
Svanvik noted moving fish farms on land would be an expense for the industry, but he thinks it’s the only option. “We have invested a lot of money into that, we have demonstrated serious commitment to getting open net pen fish farms out of the oceans.”
Marine Harvest currently uses land-based aquaculture technology for the first year of their fisheries life cycle. “It has its benefits, but it’s not to the point yet where it provides fish to the market at a price less than it costs to grow them,” said Roberts.
He added there “is no need to have a whole scale move from ocean to land – both land-based and ocean-based farms provide a very responsible way to grow fish, and we know both systems very well and have invested improvements into both systems.”
Roberts said he hopes engagement “leads to further conversation to provide solutions to this strained relationship”, but this is also a rights and title issue, and “these are serious conversations that First Nations need to be having with the Canadian government.”
“I’m optimistic that something good will happen if we can let the truth come to the surface; that will be a very good day,” said Svanvik.