It’s a perilous path for hundreds of millions of young Fraser River salmon, even if they beat the odds, grow to smolt size, and head down the river to salt water.
They’ll emerge into an urban estuary and major shipping port, where bright city and harbor lights will expose them to predators. Jetties, piers and causeways will block their passage and force them out from nurturing eelgrass into deeper, saltier waters before they’ve fully adapted to the traumatic change from fresh water. They’ll encounter, perhaps succumb to, toxins and other chemicals unknown to the world in which millions of generations of their ancestors lived.
Most that survive will turn right and head north on the world’s greatest salmon highway to the open ocean; in a sense, Tacoutche Tesse, the mighty Fraser River, continues in saltwater form through the Georgia, Johnstone, and Queen Charlotte straits and the narrow channels of the Discovery Islands and Broughton Archipelago.
Along the way the little smolts run a series of deadly gauntlets. A phalanx of predators, from seagulls, mergansers, and herons to all manner of fishes and a surging population of harbor seals, waits to pick them off. These hunters have been around as long as salmon have. But another risk factor has emerged in just the last 50 years: scores of open-water farms raising nonnative Atlantic salmon along Vancouver Island and various isles and inlets on the mainland coast.
Now the net pens themselves face their greatest peril. For decades, activists, scientists, and First Nations have denounced these floating feedlots as seedbeds of pollution, infestation, and contagion that ravage wild salmon runs. That message has finally gotten through to the public: In June 2021, more respondents (86%) in a provincewide poll conducted for the Pacific Salmon Foundation by Vancouver’s Insights West tagged “declining salmon stocks” as one of B.C.’s most pressing environmental concerns. The results surprised Steve Mossop, Insights West’s president. “We were in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said, “but people still valued oceans and salmon very highly.”
Even more striking, a plurality of respondents (24%) tagged net pen farming as the leading reason for wild salmon declines, a third again as many as blamed climate change and overfishing, and twice as many as blamed stream habitat destruction. Three-quarters of respondents supported transitioning away from them to land-based closed-containment systems, in which water and waste and whatever pathogens, parasites, and chemicals they contain are captured and processed rather than released into marine waters.
Given such sentiment, perhaps Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party wasn’t just trying to do the right thing when, facing a tough election in 2019, it issued a platform that promised “to better protect fish stocks and marine habitats” through, among other tactics, “Canada’s first-ever Aquaculture Act” and working with B.C. to develop “a responsible plan to transition from open-net-pen salmon farming in coastal waters to closed containment systems by 2025.”
Wild-salmon advocates cheered
A year ago, Trudeau seemed to set this in stone when he repeated the directive — with one omission that would later prove nettlesome — in his mandate letter to the newly appointed minister for fisheries and oceans, Joyce Murray.
Wild-salmon advocates cheered the prospect of seeing the last of the net pens and their effusions. They’d already taken heart from an agreement struck in December 2018 between the industry, provincial government, and three First Nations for the removal of up to 17 farms from the Broughton Archipelago, the dense island cluster at the bottom of the Queen Charlotte Strait.
The archipelago, together with the Discovery Islands (aka “the wild salmon narrows”) just to the south, forms an extended bottleneck whose narrow passages force the exiting young salmon to swim close by the pens, exposing them to whatever viruses, bacteria, and flesh-eating sea lice the packed-in fish stock sheds.
Biologist, fish-farm nemesis and longtime archipelago resident Alexandra Morton said this narrow passage explains why this year’s Fraser River sockeye run, which exited through the bottleneck four years ago, came in far below projections, while Alaska and pen-free B.C. rivers such as the Skeena had bumper runs.
The agreement came only after decades of pressure and lawsuits by three Broughton Archipelago First Nations and their allies, and a months-long occupation of two farms.
“We insisted that two farms be removed first because the return of Ahta River pinks went right by them,” recalled Chief Bob Chamberlin, formerly the elected chief of the three Broughton nations and now chair of the provincewide First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance. “The first year we had a return of 200 pink salmon there. Two years later — the pink life cycle — we got 11,000. We saw returns grow again when we moved other farms to another channel to let the wild fish pass.”
The First Nations and environmentalists cheered again a few months later when then-fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan announced that the farms would have to vacate the Discovery Islands as well. The operators sued, and a court sent the decision back to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (formerly the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and still universally known as “DFO”) for review. Last year Murray announced that DFO would release a final decision on the Discovery Islands fish farms in spring 2023. In the meantime, it’s relicensed farms elsewhere coming up for renewal for only two years instead of the usual six.
Washington net pen ban
Net pen opponents took heart yet again last month when Washington’s lands commissioner, Hilary Franz, announced a ban on net pen fish farms in the state, ending more than three decades of operations in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca by New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture. In 2018, following a massive escape of Atlantic salmon from one of Cooke’s pens, Washington banned open-water ranching of nonnative species, so Cooke switched to native steelhead. Now even those must be gone. “There is no way to safely farm finfish in open-sea net pens without jeopardizing our struggling native salmon,” Franz declared.
“The dominos are beginning to fall,” according to Stan Proboszcz, senior scientist at B.C.’s Watershed Watch Salmon Society. Morton put it even more bluntly: “I think this industry is in its last days.”
Or is it?
Drew Cherry, editor of the international trade journal IntraFish, took a different view three years ago, following a string of coups by the opposition. Salmon farming was still in its “toddler stage,” wrote Cherry, and it does “occasionally soil its pants.”
But it was fantastically profitable; already the largest publicly traded salmon-farming companies had a total valuation of $38 billion. And the pending global protein gap ensured that it would only become more important. “For those die-hard fighters that still think salmon farming can be stopped, the battle was lost years ago,” Cherry concluded. “Salmon farming is too big to fail.”
And in British Columbia, it has had a powerful friend, protector and enabler — DFO, the fisheries ministry.
B.C.’s largest agricultural export
Notorious as salmon farming is in Washington, the state has been only a dabbler next to British Columbia.
In the 1980s, the province leapt into the industry like a hormone-crazed Chinook encountering a waterfall. By 1988, 101 different salmon-farming companies operated in B.C. By 2011, when a federal commission scrutinized the industry as part of an inquiry into crashing Fraser River sockeye runs, three large Norwegian companies had largely consolidated ownership, holding rights to some 124 “tenures.” One has since been acquired by the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi.
The first B.C. operations raised native coho or Chinook and went bust. The Norwegians switched to less finicky Atlantic salmon, their standard crop worldwide. The outlier was, and is, the Creative Salmon Company, which raises organically certified native Chinook at six tenures near Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast. (“Native” is no solution, notes Morton; pollution and contagion issues remain, and escapees may interbreed with local runs, degrading gene stocks.)
The result of this growth is serious money: about $735 million worth of farmed salmon per year in Canada, according to 2011-15 DFO data, 6% of it from British Columbia. The industry employs only about 1,650 people in the province, but those jobs matter to small, isolated First Nations and other coastal communities, especially those who’ve lost their wild salmon since the farms arrived.
Farmed salmon is B.C.’s largest agricultural export, with Americans buying most of it. Salmon farming was long considered, well, farming and so was regulated by the province, which has jurisdiction over agriculture — and a long history of coddling extractive industries, as its 23 million logged acres attest.
The critics hoped that DFO, which is tasked to protect fish stocks and the marine environment, would regulate it more rigorously. So, with Morton as lead plaintiff, they sued, contending that finfish aquaculture was actually a fishery and should be regulated by the feds, who have exclusive jurisdiction over fisheries. The courts agreed and, in 2009, ordered the fish-farm portfolio transferred to DFO, which never sought the job.
Be careful what you wish for.
DFO is now pulled between two missions: to support and promote aquaculture and to protect wild fish and habitats. “When the feds are in charge, it becomes a national issue,” said Proboszcz, “hence tougher to elicit action and change, because now we’re competing against other national issues.” But Morton has no regrets. “DFO is almost as bad as the province,” she says. “The thing is, DFO has a responsibility to protect wild fish. The province didn’t. We just have to make them do it.”
Transition from “open-net” farming to …
When Trudeau issued his mandate last year, he omitted one key phrase in his party’s platform promise: “closed-containment systems.” DFO was still supposed to “transition from open net pen salmon farming,” but with no specification as to what it would transition to.
That seems to have enabled DFO to inject a hearty dose of strategic ambiguity. In July DFO issued a transition “Framework for Discussion” that posits land-based containment as one of many possible approaches. Other possibilities include stricter standards and enforcement, keeping smolts longer in tanks, “strategic area-based aquaculture planning and management that considers wild fish interactions, migratory routes and timelines,” and “robust monitoring of cultured and wild salmon for pests and pathogens.” Those last two suggest that DFO either tacitly admits it hasn’t been planning strategically and monitoring robustly, or that it intends to continue business as usual.
DFO has also defined 2025, Trudeau’s stated deadline for the transition, as merely the date for coming up with a plan. It will release that plan in spring 2023, “two years ahead of the mandate commitment,” per a DFO spokesperson.
“They’re trying to stealthily massage their commitment into something that allows them to keep the farms going,” charges Aaron Hill, Watershed Watch’s executive director.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association massages it further. It takes DFO’s statements as affirmation — especially a trial “vision” statement that DFO offered as a discussion starter last spring that began, “Advance innovation and growth in sustainable aquaculture in British Columbia ….” As the association’s communications director, Michelle Franze, puts it, “an even greater capacity to contribute to Canada’s Blue Economy … we have been transitioning for decades.”
The industry’s critics are dismayed but not surprised at how the transition has transitioned. They’ve long complained that DFO, in particular its powerful Aquaculture Division, has been captured by the industry. Its staffers are subject to the usual revolving-door temptations: some come to it from the industry, and some work for it after they retire. Industry employees and consultants routinely sit on the steering committees and peer-review panels of its advisory body, the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS).
Last May, two biologists who participated in CSAS’s risk assessments for Fraser River sockeye transiting the Discovery Islands denounced the process to a parliamentary committee as “neither unbiased nor independent” and vulnerable to conflicts of interest. CSAS adopted a conflict of interest policy only last year. It lets industry “stakeholders” perform peer reviews and help guide DFO policies “provided they agree to be objective and remain so.”
“Would any government support the tobacco industry having an influential role in tobacco science assessments?” asks Chamberlin.
Sure enough, DFO and CSAS reports tend to exonerate the industry. Salmon Farmers spokesperson Franze said that current science shows “that salmon farming in British Columbia does not adversely impact wild salmon.” She referenced 10 CSAS reviews and those sockeye risk assessments. The latter found only “minimal risk” from nine viruses and bacteria shed from net pens and did consider perhaps the biggest killer of all—sea lice—or cumulative effects.
By contrast, a shelfful of original research in peer-reviewed journals, including Science, Nature, PLOS ONE andThe Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, has documented the net pens’ far-from-minimal effects on wild salmon and marine habitats. For decades, it’s failed to move the political needle.
Another force might, however.
Indigenous people’s rights adopted
In 2016, Canada adopted the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). B.C. has taken the lead in implementing the declaration, with its own British Columbia Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which requires that the province bring its laws into alignment with the UN declaration.
Chamberlin sees these declarations as powerful tools for protecting salmon runs and getting salmon farms out of the waterways. UNDRIP protects indigenous rights to traditional foods and food gathering (including fishing) as keystones of physical and cultural survival — and no food is more central to subsistence and culture than salmon is to B.C.’s First Nations.
Which salmon, however, and which nations? The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association wraps itself in the Indigenous mantle, declaring its “vision for transition” to be “a First Nations-led B.C. salmon farming sector founded upon an inclusive, ecosystem approach to management.” Asked about the First Nations component, Franze pointed to the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, which formed this year to support renewal of fish farm licenses.
The coalition is led by Dallas Smith, whose father, John Smith, is the longtime chief of the Tlowitsis Nation north of the Broughton Archipelago. Tlowitsis hosts net pens operated by the Norwegian firm Grieg.
The coalition’s website argues that “salmon farming is a path to self-determination and reconciliation for many First Nations in coastal B.C. … lifting communities out of dependency and poverty.” Dallas Smith asserts in a video it poses no threat to wild runs: “First Nations have wild salmon in our DNA. And so we wouldn’t do anything that would be against wild salmon.”
“They came and took our children and put them in their schools,” Chief John Smith says in the same video. “Now that the fish farms give us an opportunity to build something for ourselves, they want to take that away too.”
There’s no question many small First Nations need the boost. The annual “handshake money” the firms will pay to locate a farm in Indigenous territory has reportedly grown from less than $100,000 to several million since their licenses came under pressure,
But how many members or supporters this coalition actually has is a slippery question. “Seventeen First Nations have negotiated agreements with one or more producer companies that are operating within their territories,” its homepage proclaims, suggesting support. But Chamberlin says that total includes the three Broughton nations where he was chief, which only signed an agreement to remove the farms there. He says he complained to his “good friend” Dallas Smith, who took them off the list but kept the “17” total. An accompanying map identifies just 12 nations, all in salmon farming areas with agreements. Chamberlin claims actual supporters number just “five or six” nations. The coalition did not respond to email requests for comment.
101 First Nations for wild salmon
By contrast, the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, which Chamberlin chairs, lists 101 First Nations, nearly half the 203 in the province, as signatories to its call for a speedy “phase-out” of net pens per the transition promise.
“I really expected to get 150, but the COVID shutdowns kept me from going to talk to them all,” says Chamberlin. “Not once in two years have we had anybody say, ‘Take our name off’.” The alliance also claims support from three provincewide associations of nations and chiefs. These net pen opponents span the province, including nearly the entire Fraser watershed. Most but not all are far from the salmon farms; nearly all, says Chamberlin, depend on wild salmon.
That they’re weighing in against what fellow nations, in some cases their neighbors, embrace is unusual, says Morton: “First Nations are very reluctant to tell other First Nations what to do.” And they are protective of their autonomy:
“The reality is I have one responsibility, and that’s to the members of the Tlowitsis Nation,” Chief John Smith declares in the video. “That’s my only job. I’m not responsible to anyone else.”
Trouble is, most of the salmon for the rest of the province pass through the waters where his nation and a few others have made their peace with the farms. “Are you going to protect the financial interests of a few or food security and the environment for the many?” asks Chamberlin.
And so the lines, philosophical as well as political, have been drawn. “The battleground is between these chiefs now,” says Morton. “And that’s where it belongs.”
This is the third in a series of stories exploring the Fraser River and the lands, waters and people connected to it. Past articles explored the Fraser River and its feeder rivers. Future installments will dig into killer floodgates and deadly dikes, the vulnerable island refuges at the “Heart of the Fraser” and the international tangle over floodwaters that respect no boundaries. This series first appeared in the Salish Current.