Category Archives: Oceans

Aboriginal title claim threatens renewal of BC salmon farm tenures

Members of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation filing a claim of Aboriginal title at the BC Supreme Court (submitted)

A First Nation’s claim of Aboriginal title, filed today at the BC Supreme Court in Vancouver, threatens the future of some open net pen Atlantic salmon farms. Lawyer Jack Woodward, who filed the claim on behalf of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation of Kingcome Inlet, warned the NDP government it should not be renewing salmon farm tenures in their territory “in the face of this competing claim of ownership of the territory,” according to a media release on the case.

The claim takes aim at ten salmon farms operated by Marine Harvest and Cermaq within Dzawada’enuxw territory. Each of these aquaculture sites requires a provincially-granted “Licence of Occupation” in order to operate, most of which expire on June 20. The claim also affects some forest tenures, mostly inactive, held by Western Forest Products and Interfor.

“The fish farming industry is infringing on our way of life, by breaking the natural circle of life that has sustained us since time immemorial,” said Hereditary Chief Hawil’kwo’lal (Joe Willie).  “This cannot continue.”

The Dzawada’enuxw case adds to the mounting pressure from First Nations and environmental groups on Premier John Horgan not to renew these tenures, along with others throughout the Broughton Archipelago, later this month. The industry faces a number of serious challenges – from sea lice outbreaks and new research into the potential impact of piscine reovirus on Atlantic and Pacific salmon, to calls from high-profile groups like the Pacific Salmon Foundation and prominent BC chefs to end ocean-based salmon farming. But it may be a small nation from remote Kingcome Inlet – nestled among the coast mountains, 80 km northeast of Port Hardy – that poses the greatest threat to the industry’s future.

With Monday’s filing, the Dzawada’enuxw become one of only a handful of BC-based First Nations to launch Aboriginal title claims in the wake of the Supreme Court of Canada’s historic 2014 verdict in the Tsilhqot’in case, which firmly established title on unceded Indigenous territories. Woodward also represented the Tsilhqot’in in their title claim.

“The Dzawada’enuxw people have lived in our territories since time immemorial. We have never ceded these territories to anyone, and have remained living within our ancestral lands throughout time and will continue to for generations to come,” said Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Elected Chief & Traditional Leader Okwilagame (Willie Moon).

Establishing title in the eyes of the court requires demonstrating that a nation occupied its territory pre-1846 – the date of the Oregon Treaty between Britain and the United Sates which drew the current Canada-US border in the West – and that it is still there today. On both counts, the Dzawada’enuxw appear to have strong case.


Caught on camera: More blood water from Tofino farmed salmon processing plant


A live camera this morning captured more blood water spilling from the outfall pipe of a farmed salmon processing plant in downtown Tofino. The footage, obtained by investigative diver and filmmaker Tavish Campbell, was posted to facebook with realtime commentary from Campbell and independent biologist and salmon farm critic Alexandra Morton.

The blood water comes from the processing of a fresh batch of farmed salmon harvested from a nearby farm owned by Creative Salmon. A similar discharge was recorded in the summer by Campbell, along with another at Brown’s Bay processing plant north of Campbell River. Tests of those discharges by the Atlantic Veterinary College came back positive for Piscine reovirus, which is know to cause the disease Heart and Skeletal Muscular Inflammation (HSMI) in both farmed and wild salmon. The recent release of that footage caused a firestorm and prompted promises from the provincial and federal governments to review the matter.

Says Morton:

[quote]The blood pipe looks like a fire hose of blood, pumping the virus directly into migration corridors. The risk to wild salmon is just astronomical.[/quote]

The discharge poured directly into Clayoquot Sound, a world-renowned tourism destination and UNESCO biosphere reserve.

Both Morton and Campbell comment on the situation in the above video, which includes graphic footage of the bloody discharge and marine life eating from it. “This current is dispersing infected blood water into critical wild salmon migration routes. It is pure insanity,” says Campbell.

Morton and Campbell are “calling on DFO and the B.C. Government to stop promoting open-net pen salmon farming and a moratorium on new open net-pen fish farms in B.C. with an immediate transition to closed containment farms on land, away from wild salmon migration routes,” according to a press release on the video from conservation group Pacific Wild.


Deadly Norwegian disease found in BC’s farmed salmon is a game-changer


Deadly Norwegian disease found in BC's farmed salmon

The discovery of Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI) in BC’s farmed salmon has been couched in cautious and evasive terms by the industry and government. HSMI “might” have been found. It’s “yet another piece in the complex puzzle of salmon health on the Pacific Coast,” noted the former Minister of Fisheries, Hunter Tootoo.

Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, also downplayed the significance of the announcement:

[quote]The findings announced by the SSHI [Strategic Salmon Health Initiative] regarding a potential diagnosis of Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation in fish from one Atlantic salmon farm in B.C. are important. However, there is no consensus amongst the scientific community about the finding as the fish sampled in this farm showed no clinical signs of the disease.[/quote]

But the finding of HSMI is extremely significant. Understanding why requires some additional information.

Virus causes disease

HSMI is related to piscine reovirus (PRV) as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is related to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Salmon don’t get HSMI unless they have PRV. Just as HIV is asymptomatic, PRV is also asymptomatic — which explains why it is not technically called a “disease”. In its early stages, HSMI may also exhibit no “clinical signs of disease”. But it can be fatal.

HSMI is the symptomatic stage of PRV. As the degree of PRV infection increases, heart muscles are damaged, organs are impaired and muscles are compromised. Eventually fish are so debilitated by a weakened heart, malfunctioning organs and inflamed muscles that they are unable to swim.

HSMI is now the third largest cause of mortality for salmon farming in Norway. But this is the industry’s problem. The real environmental concern is the spread of PRV and HSMI to wild salmon.

A BC-raised farmed Atlantic salmon with signs of HSMI (Alexandra Morton)
A BC-raised farmed Atlantic salmon with signs of HSMI (Alexandra Morton)

Virus can spread quickly

PRV is extremely infectious. First identified in Norway in 1999, it spread quickly to 417 farms, and in 2010 was identified by Norwegian scientists as the cause of HSMI. On July 9, 2010, the scientific journal, PLOS One, published “Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation of Farmed Salmon is Associated with Infection with Novel Reovirus” (Gustavo Palacios, W. Ian Lipkin, et al.), linking HSMI with this “novel” piscine reovirus. PRV eventually spread to BC, probably by infected eggs imported to salmon farms from Norway.

As early as 2008 reports from BC’s veterinarian pathology lab showed “congestion and hemorrhage in the stratum compactum of the heart” in farmed salmon, symptoms consistent with HSMI. Estimates are that most farmed salmon in BC now have PRV — not a serious problem if their fish don’t die of HSMI.

Wild salmon at risk

But the situation is very different for wild salmon. The PRV imported from Norway is now thought to be spreading to BC’s wild fish. As early as 2011, Dr. Kristi Miller found PRV in Fraser River sockeye. A year later, 13 of 15 Cultus Lake cutthroat trout were found with PRV. Norwegian scientists are of the opinion that HSMI may never be discovered in wild salmon because the fish would be too debilitated by the disease to survive predators and the challenging conditions of oceans and rivers.

The combination of PRV’s ubiquitous presence in salmon farms, its extreme virulence, and the fatal symptoms of HSMI could have devastating consequences for wild salmon populations.


130 scientists slam Lelu Island LNG report; last chance for public comment

Juvenile salmon at Flora Bank, where a controversial LNG terminal is proposed (Tavish Campbell)
Juvenile salmon at Flora Bank, where a controversial LNG terminal is proposed (Tavish Campbell)

Over 130 scientists are slamming the draft environmental report into a proposed LNG terminal on Lelu Island over salmon habitat and other key issues. The concerns – expressed in a letter yesterday calling on the Trudeau Government to disregard the draft report on the project – come near the end of the public comment window, which closes Friday.

Report “scientifically flawed”

The letter, signed by such respected salmon experts as SFU’s Dr. Jonathan Moore, BCIT’s Dr. Marvin Rosenau, and retired senior DFO manager Otto Langer, calls the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s draft report on the project “scientifically flawed” and based on “inadequate” information. Said Langer, “The CEAA report is less than scientific, full of speculation and wishful thinking.”

The report took a tough stand on the project’s carbon footprint, warning of “significant adverse environmental effects” to the climate, but critics say it fell short on recognizing the damage the Petronas-led project would inflict on vital salmon habitat in the Skeena Estuary.

“You couldn’t find a worse location to develop in terms of risks to fish. The CEAA report does not acknowledge that this LNG proposal is located on critical habitat of Canada’s second largest wild salmon watershed”, said Charmaine Carr-Harris of the Skeena Fisheries Commission.

5 big mistakes

The scientists’ letter lists five key mistakes made by CEAA with its report:

  • Misrepresentation of the importance of the project area to fish populations, especially salmon
  • Inadequate consideration of multiple project impacts and their cumulative effects
  • Unsubstantiated reliance on mitigation
  • Assuming lack of information equates to lack of risks
  • Disregard for science that was not funded by the proponent

On the last two points, the scientists highlight fundamental flaws in the review process and its scientific methodology, noting:

[quote]CEAA’s draft report is not a balanced consideration of the best-available science. On the contrary, CEAA relied upon conclusions presented in proponent-funded studies which have not been subjected to independent peer-review and disregarded a large and growing body of relevant independent scientific research, much of it peer-reviewed and published…The CEAA draft report for the Pacific Northwest LNG project is a symbol of what is wrong with environmental decision-making in Canada.[/quote]

Citizens can add their voice

The window for public comment on CEAA’s draft report remains open until Friday end of day (see instructions for submission here). After that, the review panel will weigh the feedback it has received and produce a final report sometime in the coming months. It will then fall to the Trudeau government to decide whether or not it wishes to issue an environmental certificate for the project, over these serious climate and salmon concerns.


LNG plants do kill salmon, Russian scientists warn BC

A BC sockeye salmon spawning (Stan Probocsz/Watershed Watch)
A BC sockeye salmon spawning (Stan Probocsz/Watershed Watch)

The red flags keep popping up for BC’s vaunted LNG plans. Last week, Shell became the latest company to put its final investment decision for a proposed plant in Kitimat on hold due to the collapse of the global export market. This week, a draft federal environmental report on Petronas’ proposed Lelu Island project – while not going far enough, critics charge – confirms it would carry “significant adverse environmental effects”, including climate issues. Now, a group of Russian scientists is kicking off a tour of northern BC to warn British Columbians about the very real impacts these projects can have on wild salmon.

None of this has fazed LNG’s biggest cheerleader, Christy Clark, who maintains her Liberal government is “sticking to its guns” on LNG. One can only hope such statements don’t prove literal, with the plethora of aboriginal resistance camps and a growing citizen movement to block her plans. Our premier may not heed these warnings, but British Columbians who care about preserving our already beleaguered salmon runs would do well to.

LNG plant likely connected declining salmon run

Three Russian scientists and a noted conservationist speak from direct experience when they caution us about the effects these plants can have on wild salmon. The group hails from Sakhalin Island, which, according to a media release on a talk they’re giving today, is “the only place in the world that has an existing LNG facility operating in a wild salmon estuary.”

The project, built in 2009 by Shell but now operated by Russian energy giant Gazprom, has coincided with a “severe decline” of what was once the third largest pink salmon run in the world, in Avina Bay. They’ve studied the situation extensively and are here to report on their findings – namely that the collapse can be attributed to activities associated with the plant, including dredging, light, and noise pollution. They see the potential for a repeat of these unfortunate circumstances if the Trudeau government approves Petronas’ project, which sits amidst vital estuary habitat for Skeena River salmon.

Russian project similar to Lelu Island

Sakhalin Island and Lelu Island have two things in common – wild salmon and LNG. My Canadian colleagues invited me, along with three Russian scientists, to share our experience of the environmental impacts of the Sakhalin II LNG project, which has been in operation for 10 years on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean”, said Dimitry Lisitsyn, member of the Russian delegation and Director of Sakhalin Environment Watch.

[quote]We have a chance to help the people of the Skeena watershed protect one of the most famous and rich wild salmon sanctuaries in the world. With the dramatic decline of our wild salmon, I really hope this will not be replicated in the Skeena estuary. [/quote]

These concerns echo those raised by independent scientists, local First Nations and conservation groups since details of the project emerged several years ago. A report paid for by the proponent, which dismissed concerns about impacts on wild salmon, has come under heavy criticism as junk science.

The Russian scientists, at the invitation of First Nations and conservation groups in the Skeena region, will present their concerns and science to a number of communities across the north and in Vancouver over the next week.

Federal review needs to address salmon

Meanwhile, conservation groups and First Nations have voiced concerns with the recently published draft environmental report from the federal review panel for ignoring salmon issues, though it did tackle the carbon footprint of the project and impacts on other marine life, particularly harbour porpoises. Opponents of the project are pressing for the final report to include these salmon concerns – a plea which should be buoyed by the Russian scientists’ visit.


Much to be learned from girls’ soccer and fish farm sponsorship debacle

Fourteen-year-old Freyja Reed talks to reporters (Alexandra Morton/Facebook)
Fourteen-year-old Freyja Reed talks to reporters (Alexandra Morton/Facebook)

Freyja Reed’s October 29th dismissal from the U-15 Riptide girl’s soccer team in the Comox Valley was the culmination of complexities arising from the arrival of a new sponsor for the league, Marine Harvest Canada, BC’s largest operator of net-pen salmon farms. So began Freyja’s principled refusal to refrain from making critical comments about the ecological damage caused by salmon farming. The resulting controversy received repeated local and national media coverage, becoming a public relations disaster for Marine Harvest.

This was not what Marine Harvest intended. Ian Roberts, its spokesperson, said his corporation’s contributions to community groups “have not, and will not, and will never, direct a recipient’s right to voice their opinions or their ability to speak freely,” adding that “the disagreement with one member’s family is an internal matter between the club and the family.”

A social justice issue

Sean Arbour, the chair of the Riptide Steering Committee said that Freyja’s criticism had created a “bad spot” for the players and parents, that required her dismissal, noting:

[quote]At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids.[/quote]

If only the issue were so simple. The controversy is now about social justice, with other overtones that invite exploration — exactly what Marine Harvest was trying to avoid by sponsoring the eight Tier-2 teams of the league.

The decision to dismiss Freyja from the team was conveniently made by the Riptide Steering Committee, a move that seemed to absolve Marine Harvest of any direct responsibility. But the corporation is implicated, at least indirectly. Such corporate sponsorship is intended to seem altruistic and uncontroversial. But the real objective is to elevate the profile of the corporation as a respectable member of the community — with a subtle but implicit quid pro quo — we will support you, if you support us.

What is Marine Harvest buying?

Leveraging community support for the controversial practice of salmon farming explains why, as the CBC News noted, “the company sponsors more than 100 community organizations on Vancouver Island, including sports for young people.” For its part, Ian Roberts said he believes it’s legitimate for the soccer association to ask parents not to “speak ill” of the club and its policies. (The Reeds were criticizing the practices of the sponsor, not the club.) Furthermore, explained Roberts, Marine Harvest “provides youth an opportunity to not only participate in sports but participate at a reasonable cost” — a “cost” that would seem to be the suppression of critical thinking and the forfeiture of free expression.

The CBC News coverage placed this “cost” under the heading of “corporate opportunism”. And Dr. Margot Young, a University of BC law professor who specializes in gender discrimination in sports, concluded that, “[Freyja] is being muzzled. To say: ‘You give up soccer or you give up free speech’ is outrageous.” Although, as Dr. Young added, free expression under the Charter does not apply to sport teams or corporations.

Bad optics

But the optics for Marine Harvest are terrible when the ambitions of a talented 14-year-old girl are being thwarted because of a corporation already steeped in environmental controversy.

Sports are about fairness, ethics and principles, qualities that Freyja obviously had in abundance before she got entangled with Marine Harvest. Maybe her standards are too high for any of their teams.


Liberal govt issues 4 new salmon farm tenures on eve of BC Day

An existing BC salmon farm (Damien Gillis)
An existing BC salmon farm (Damien Gillis)

It was an unwelcome surprise on the eve of BC Day for critics of open net pen salmon farms: the Liberal government’s quiet doling out of four new tenures to the big three Norwegian aquaculture giants – Marine Harvest, Cermaq and Grieg Seafoods.

While some local First Nations are partners in the deal, others further upstream have openly criticized the move to open new farms in the wake of the largely-ignored Cohen Commission and concerns about the impact of open net pens on wild salmon. A June 1 letter signed by a coalition of 13 Fraser River chiefs implored the BC government to heed Justice Cohen’s findings and refrain from issuing new tenures:

[quote]Given the mounting evidence that fish farms on wild salmon migration routes are a threat to our wild salmon, we are writing you to inform you that the Province of BC must not expand existing farms, offer new licenses of occupation or renew fish farm leases without our consent.[/quote]

Meanwhile, a public petition led by independent salmon biologist Alexandra Morton has garnered over 110,000 signatures calling on Premier Christy Clark not to permit any new farms.

First Nations divided on new farms

Despite the strong opposition to the plan, a July 31 media advisory announced that the BC government is following up the recent issuance of federal aquaculture licences with corresponding tenures under the Land Act for two farms near Hope Island, off northern Vancouver Island, one near Tofino, and another in the Broughton Archipelago’s Clio Channel. The two Hope Island tenures went to Marine Harvest, to be operated in partnership with the local Tlatlasikwala First Nation, while Grieg Seafood BC – which has an impact-benefit agreement with the Tlowitsis First Nation – picked up the Clio Channel site, east of Port McNeil. Finally, Cermaq got a new Clayoquot Sound site near Flores Island, where the company has an impact-benefit agreement with the Ahousaht First Nation.

The government explained its role in sanctioning new farms as follows:

[quote]The B.C. government, in its role as landlord, issues Crown land tenures in the form of leases or licences of occupation that allow businesses to operate on provincial Crown land, including water lots and any related activities on shore to ensure any potential impacts on other leases can be managed. As part of the tenure application review process, other agencies, First Nations, local governments and the public are consulted.[/quote]

And yet, many First Nations up the Fraser River clearly feel that they too should be consulted, as many fish affected by diseases and sea lice in the waters off Vancouver Island ultimately make their way through other territories upstream.

“Wild salmon that we have title and rights to are currently being exposed to untreated farmed salmon effluent throughout their migration routes along coastal British Columbia, ” the chiefs noted in their June letter. “Our fishers have witnessed too many pre-spawn deaths, salmon discolored with open sores, too weak to swim upstream and escaped farmed Atlantic salmon.”

BC missing boat on sustainable alternatives

A Kuterra employee shows off one of its land-raised fish (
A Kuterra employee shows off one of its land-raised fish (

For her part, Morton remains dismayed by the what she sees as the same old pattern or government favouring foreign industry over local voices. “Clearly, there’s nothing people can say anymore to stop this industry – not science, not local industry, not chiefs,” Morton said on the phone from the Broughton Archipelago.

“It’s a shame because BC is well-placed to be a global leader in closed-containment salmon farming,” she added, referencing the land-based Kuterra project – a partnership involving the ‘Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay. “Even the Norwegian government is starting to invest millions to develop closed-containment, amidst continued challenges to the ocean-based open net pen industry, such as algae blooms, high water temperatures and disease.”

The Broughton Archipelago has seen a return of major sea lice issues and mega-retailer Costco recently stopped buying Chilean farmed salmon due to the high antibiotic levels required to combat grave bacterial diseases there.

Tenures now long-term

To make matters worse, says Morton, these new tenures are long-term – up to nine years each – instead of the old method whereby they had to be renewed by the government on an annual basis. That means these communities and those affected upstream will face the consequences of these approvals for years to come.

Shrimp fishermen turned down $260,000 payoff

Another group negatively impacted by one of the new farms –  the Clio Channel tenure –  is local wild shrimp fishermen.  Ten of  them were each recently offered a $20,000 payoff by Grieg to go along with the new net pen installation – plus $60,000 to the their collective organization. All of them said, “No,” yet the farm is going ahead regardless.

As Chritopher Pollon explained in his Tyee piece that broke news of the letter:

[quote]The fishermen are opposed to the farms because the two proposed sites occupy some of the best harvesting grounds in the region for wild side-stripe and pink shrimp, which are caught by bottom trawling along a soft-bottomed, underwater prairie unique to the upper reaches of the Channel. It’s also an important harvesting area for spot prawns, an increasingly lucrative “foodie” commodity in B.C. and beyond that are sustainably caught in traps.[/quote]

These shrimp fishermen may not reel in the kind of revenues that a million-fish net pen operation does, but at least they are local businesspeople who supply an in-demand product to BC restaurants and tables, notes Morton.

“What a way to celebrate BC Day,” she quips. “Give away more farms to Norwegian companies who take the money out of our economy and put it in the pockets of their foreign shareholders.”


Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuu-chah-nulth join forces to protect herring

Former Council of the Haida Nation President Guujaaw (left) and Heiltsuk resource management director Kelly Brown at last week's Peace Treaty celebration (Damien Gillis)
Former Council of the Haida Nation President Guujaaw (left) and Heiltsuk resource management director Kelly Brown at last week’s peace treaty celebration in Bella Bella (Damien Gillis)

Three powerful coastal First Nations are banding together to protect Pacific herring – a marine resource integral to all of their cultures. The Nuu-chah-nulth of West Vancouver Island and the Haida today signed onto a declaration by the Heiltsuk Nation of BC’s central coast to defend herring against unsustainable commercial fisheries.

“Today, we have taken the first step in what will be a long and important journey,” said kil tlaats ’gaa Peter Lantin, President of the Haida Nation.

[quote]This declaration is a commitment by our Nations to collaboratively protect herring stocks using our traditional laws. Our success in implementing this declaration will benefit all British Columbians by ensuring the health of the herring, and by extension, every species that depends on them.[/quote]

Council of the Haida Nation President Peter Lantin stood in solidarity with Heitlsuk protestors outside of Canfisco - a key processing plant for commercially caught herring - in March (Dan Pierce)
Council of the Haida Nation President Peter Lantin standing in solidarity with Heitlsuk protestors outside of Canfisco – a key processing plant for commercially caught herring (Dan Pierce)

The signing comes amid the Assembly of First Nations gathering in Ottawa and on the heels of a seminal potlatch in Bella Bella last week during which the Haida and Heiltsuk celebrated a historic Peace Treaty between their two nations. The president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Debra Foxcroft, joined in the festivities too, along with hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, each of whom vowed to work together to protect indigenous title and rights and the environment in the face of intense pressure for industrial development.

“For decades our herring have been overfished and mismanaged by the DFO,” said Foxcroft on signing the herring declaration. “The last two years have been particularly contentious.  Just when it looked like herring in our territories were starting to recover, the Minister decided to open our territories to commercial roe herring fisheries in 2014, contrary to the recommendation of the Minister’s own senior staff in DFO to keep our territories closed until the herring recovered.

“The Minister acted on her own accord, and in doing so forced our Nations to go to court to protect herring in our territories…We seek a new way of doing business with Canada that will properly manage herring as they try to rebuild.”

Declaration follows intense standoff, legal battles

While the Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth were able to halt planned commercial fisheries in their territories this past Spring through the courts, the Heiltsuk had to take to the waters and occupy the local DFO office to protect herring stocks. The result was an intense standoff, documented in these pages, which saw the gillnet fishery scrapped – but only after a stealth seine opening by DFO during which commercial boats scooped up 680 tonnes of herring from Spiller Channel in Area 7.

Even with the pressure of the DFO occupation and the backing of other nations like the Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth for province-wide protests, it was ultimately the lack of available fish that forced the gillnet fleet to depart empty-hulled – vindicating First Nations’ and independent scientists’ contention that a commercial fishery is unsustainable at this point.

Fighting for a sustainable alternative

Heiltsuk fisherman Jordan Wilson reels some unique "spawn on bough" roe (Ian McAllister)
Heiltsuk fisherman Jordan Wilson reels some unique “spawn on bough” roe (Ian McAllister)

The Heiltsuk and other coastal nations employ a sustainable fishery in which herring lay their prized roe on kelp and hemlock boughs, swimming free to spawn another day. By contrast, the commercial seine and gillnet fisheries capture and kill millions of herring just to harvest roe from a small percentage of mature female fish. “Our nation has a proven Aboriginal right to fish and harvest spawn-on-kelp and it is our responsibility to ensure this fishery remains sustainable,” explained Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation.

“This Declaration provides guidance on effective legal and policy frameworks that will ensure that we, as stewards of our lands and waters, continue to protect our resources for future generations.”

The Heiltsuk are currently in negotiations with DFO for a co-management agreement that could help to ease tensions in advance of next year’s herring season.


Federal court ruling threatens bottom line for salmon farms


Federal court ruling threatens salmon farming industry's bottom line

On May 6th, Justice Donald J. Rennie of the Federal Court ruled against Marine Harvest Canada and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, confirming that the transfer of young salmon infected with piscine reovirus into ocean net-pens was illegal. This victory by Alexandra Morton and her Ecojustice lawyers was dismissed by aquaculture giant Marine Harvest as having merely administrative effects that will not impair “the company’s day to day business” or impede “the ongoing transfer of farm-raised salmon between facilities in B.C.” But Justice Rennie’s ruling could have major implications for both salmon farming and wild salmon.

First, the ruling confirms that the Minister cannot contravene the legislation in the “Fisheries (General) Regulations” (FGR), which occurred when the salmon farming industry was allowed to transfer diseased salmon into its net-pens. And, second, the Minister cannot legally delegate to the industry the responsibility to decide whether or not putting diseased fish into the ocean is “low risk”.

Industry’s slippery language

In a carefully worded defence, Marine Harvest claimed, “There was no evidence that [it] transferred unhealthy fish” from its Dalrymple hatchery to its Shelter Bay net-pens. But the smolts transferred in March 2013 were known to have piscine reovirus (PRV), a highly infectious virus that scientific research describes as the causative agent of Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI). This heart infection can so weaken fish that they are barely able to swim.

Since PRV only manifests as HSMI about 5 to 9 months after transfer to sea water, Marine Harvest’s smolts were technically asymptomatic and therefore not obviously “unhealthy”. But many were infected with piscine reovirus. If farmed salmon with HSMI are barely able to swim in the protection of net-pens, then infected migrating salmon are likely to sink to the bottom of the ocean or be eaten by predators, essentially eliminating any evidence of HSMI in wild salmon.

New, fast-growing virus

Alexandra Morton (center-right) celebrates a big court victory with her ecojustice lawyers

Piscine reovirus is a relatively new virus first recognized in Atlantic salmon farms in Norway in 1999, then identified by research in 2010 as the causative agent for HSMI, a conclusion confirmed in Justice Rennie’s ruling. PRV is now ubiquitous in Norwegian salmon farms with HSMI a major cause of death — unfortunately, about 14% of Norway’s wild salmon are now infected with HSMI. A scientific paper published in 2013 reports that the genetic sequence of PRV found in BC matches the strain found in northern Norway in 2007, suggesting that PRV came to BC in Atlantic salmon eggs. Since the virus was only identified in 2010, no one knew to look for it when the millions of farmed salmon eggs were being imported into BC. Genetic sequences of the virus have now been found in BC’s farmed Atlantic salmon, as well as in some native steelhead, cutthroat trout, chum and other wild species, suggesting the possible spread of PRV from salmon farms to BC’s marine ecology.

This is the eventuality that has haunted Morton since she became concerned that salmon farming could import alien diseases to BC’s wild salmon populations. The virulence of PRV in wild fish and the extent of its HSMI damage have yet to be determined. But the potential for an ecological catastrophe is heightened by the virus’s ability to mutate readily, particularly in the crowded conditions of salmon farms. The lack of a barrier between the farmed stock and migrating wild fish seriously questions the wisdom of growing salmon in ocean net-pens.

Industry given 4 months

In recognition of the far reaching implications of his judgment, Justice Rennie has suspended his ruling for 4 months. Given that most salmon farms are likely infected with piscine reovirus, and the disease may now be endemic in their smolts and eggs, Morton’s court victory presents a formidable challenge for the industry and for those charged with ensuring the safety of wild salmon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: DFO and Marine Harvest have launched an appeal of of the above case. Alexandra Morton and Ecojustice are vowing to battle the appeal in court.

The untold story behind the herring fishery fiasco

The untold story behind the central coast herring fishery fiasco

Herring gillnet boats outside Kitasu Bay just before giving up on this year's fishery (Tavish Campbell)
Herring gillnet boats outside Kitasu Bay before giving up on this year’s fishery (Tavish Campbell/Pacific Wild)

This is the untold story behind one of the most heated standoffs over fish which the BC coast has ever witnessed – the recent clash between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Heiltsuk Nation over the central coast herring fishery. After spending the better part of two weeks amid the conflict in Bella Bella and surrounding areas, I feel the convoluted affair – and its complex ecological, cultural and political implications – merits a deeper analysis.

Falling on deaf ears: Heiltsuk leaders plead their case to gillnet fishermen - to no avail (Tavish Campbell)
Falling on deaf ears: Heiltsuk leaders plead their case to gillnet fishermen – to no avail (Tavish Campbell/Pacific Wild)

On the surface, the reason the gillnet fleet left the central coast this past week, without the herring it had come for, is simple: There weren’t enough fish to sustain a commercial fishery – which is precisely what the local Heiltsuk Nation and independent scientists had been warning DFO all along. But don’t expect the hapless regulator to admit this obvious fact. Instead, it held onto the idea of a gillnet fishery to the bitter end.

Even after the fleet had pulled up stakes, DFO refused to bow to First Nations’ demands and formally close the fishery in Area 7. Only through emails to reporters much later did they finally acknowledge it was closed.

Caught on tape

A radio transmission from one gillnet captain to his counterparts, recorded by Pacific Wild – a conservation organization that has been documenting the central coast fishery – tells the tale. The conversation occurred on the herring grounds outside of Kitasu Bay, where the gillnetters had been granted an opening by DFO but simply couldn’t justify dropping their nets for a lack of fish. Here’s what the captain told his fellow fishermen:

[quote]It’s starting to cost everybody a bunch of money and if there’s no sizeable body of fish anywhere other than Higgins – I mean if you don’t see anything outside there, it ain’t gonna materialize out of nowhere now. You know, if there’s nothing sizeable then maybe we should all put our heads together and decide whether we want to continue this bullshit or pack it in.[/quote]

And that is precisely what they wound up doing soon thereafter (East Higgins – in the Heiltsuk’s declared Area 7 no-go zone would not prove to have the herring necessary for a fishery, despite remaining on the table, according to DFO, right to the end of this saga). But the boats did not leave because DFO told them to – this is an important distinction. As this transmission reflects, they left because there was simply no point carrying on.

> Listen to gilllnet fisherman’s communication – April 1, 2015:

Seiners clear out fishery

Industry voices may counter that there were fish in a few places kept off-limits by DFO and First Nations, but that’s an unfair criticism. For a several week period, all of Area 8 and virtually all of areas 6 and 7 – with a few tiny exemptions ultimately made for traditional Heiltsuk and Kistasoo/Xaixais food fish spots, such as Kitasu Bay – were open for fishing. It is a sad commentary on the state of the herring fishery that its success hinges on a single bay.

The fact of the matter is the seine fleet that took approximately 680 tonnes in an unannounced fishery in Spiller Channel essentially hoovered up what few viable fish there were (herring need to be of a certain size – roughly 20-plus centimetres in length – in order for the roe to be worthwhile). Even the seiners couldn’t achieve their own quota. In the wake of that fishery, nothing was left for the gillnetters, not to mention the Heiltsuk’s traditional fishery, which will likely suffer too.

For years, the Heiltsuk, backed by independent scientists, had been warning DFO about the lack of abundant stocks – to no avail. And when the department opened the sneak fishery in Spiller on March 22, it set off a bitter conflict that led the Heiltsuk to occupy the fisheries office near Bella Bella one week later.

As the days passed, a pattern emerged: DFO assured media they were in “discussions” with the Heiltsuk, but conference call after conference call failed to yield a solution. DFO would not bend and close Area 7.

The “Doctrine of Priority”

Herring spawning along the shoreline of Spiller Inlet (Tavish Campbell) Herring spawning along the shoreline of Spiller Inlet (Tavish Campbell)
Herring spawning (Tavish Campbell/Pacific Wild)

Now, a word about the complex world of herring fisheries. There are multiple types of herring fisheries on the central coast, each with different implications for conservation and informed by a landmark Supreme Court case called the Gladstone Decision of 1996. What that case essentially found is that the Heiltsuk had been engaged in their own commercial herring fishery since before contact and therefore maintain those rights today. It also established a “doctrine of priority” which laid out the order in which fish should be allocated by DFO.

The first priority is conservation, followed by the aboriginal right to food, social and ceremonial fish (FSC), then an aboriginal commercial fishery, and finally, after all those needs have been satisfied – and only if the stocks are healthy enough to justify it – a non-aboriginal commercial fishery.

DFO ignores the courts

Those who would seek to racialize the issue do so out of ignorance. To suggest that the Heiltsuk occupation of the DFO office and vow to stop the gillnet fishery “by any means necessary” is somehow lawless behaviour is inherently hypocritical. The Heiltsuk position is in fact entirely in line with the laws and jurisprudence of Canada – it is DFO which disrespected these institutions.

The Gladstone Decision is very clear about the allocation of fishing rights. The Heiltsuk, based on the historical record and the Constitution Act have first dibs. That’s not a value judgment – it’s a fact. In applying wrong-headed forecasting models to the fishery and ignoring Heiltsuk rights, DFO pitted aboriginal and non-aboriginal fishermen against each other, then stood back and did nothing to rectify the mess of their own making.

A different kettle of fish

Heiltsuk fisherman Jordan Wilson reels some unique "spawn on bough" roe (Ian McAllister)
Heiltsuk fisherman Jordan Wilson pulls in some unique spawn on hemlock roe (Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild)

There’s also a big difference between the commercial seine and gillnet fisheries and the traditional way the Heiltsuk do their food and commercial fisheries. The non-aboriginal commercial fishery is a “kill fishery”. The target in all cases is the precious roe – not so much the fish itself, which is used for pet food, bait or fish farm feed. Both seiners and gillnets scoop up the whole herring just for the roe. At one time this held immense value in Japanese fish markets for sushi. But today, prices are a fraction of what they once were, as the market is sitting on a huge backlog of frozen roe.

By contrast, the Heiltsuk employ a technique called spawn on kelp (SOK) for their FSC and commercial fisheries. Heiltsuk fishermen and families attach kelp to long lines and buoys and set them amidst the herring spawn. Some of the billions of eggs lain by the small fish deposit on the kelp and are then harvested. Another more boutique method involves tying hemlock boughs off the shoreline into the water, where herring roe also collects (my personal favourite, with the added bouquet of the forest).

The big difference is that with the SOK fishery, the herring aren’t killed, and swim free to spawn another day – making this a more sustainable fishery amidst depleted stocks.

DFO’s fuzzy math

Retired DFO herring scientist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk (Damien Gillis)
Retired DFO herring scientist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk

In a typical healthy year, central coast First Nations would be allocated around 1750 tonnes of herring, with the non-aboriginal commercial fishery receiving something on the same order. But if there aren’t enough fish, then the commercial fishery is supposed to be closed and the Heiltsuk may even see their own allocation pared back for conservation purposes. According to retired DFO herring scientist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk, that’s precisely what should have happened this year.

Tanasichuk explained to me how DFO arbitrarily doubles its herring counts from the previous season, resulting in the over-allocation of fish:

[quote]The forecasting methodology that DFO uses now for central coast herring is actually quite flawed…DFO’s forecasts are likely twice as much as they should be.[/quote]

Numbers set in stone

The Heiltsuk presented Dr. Tanasichuk’s alternate calculations to DFO in a last-ditch meeting with Regional Director General Sue Farlinger this past Tuesday, but to no avail. Another problem with the department’s forecasting is that it’s set in stone once determined in September for the following year’s fishery. There is no mechanism by which to adapt allocations based on in-season soundings and observations from the actual fishery as it’s happening. Typical bureaucratic nonsense.

Dr. Tanisichuk’s alternate modelling predicted just over 14,000 tonnes of herring on the central coast this year (10% of which are available for a fishery) – about half of DFO’s forecasting. And guess what? Based on averaging out in-season soundings, he appears to have been right on the money. But this meant nothing to DFO.

Better call Ottawa

Farlinger flew out to Bella Bella on March 30 for emergency meetings following the Heiltsuk seizure of the DFO office. By most accounts, she did her level best to advance their concerns, securing agreements with the Heiltsuk to improved stock assessments and cultural training for local officers. But as for the big issue over closing Area 7, Farlinger maintained she did not have the authority to make a decision – which only compounded Heiltsuk frustrations with the federal government.

“It is my intention to avoid at all costs a fishery in Area 7,” Farlinger told a gathering of upset Heiltsuk members outside the occupied fisheries office. Yet, she added:

[quote]I’m not in a position to unilaterally say, ‘No fishery will happen in Area 7.'[/quote]

Instead, she told the community that she spent hours on the phone to her higher-ups in Ottawa, who plainly wouldn’t budge.

The incredible, shrinking DFO

In the end, as the gillnetters departed the central coast empty-handed, DFO would prefer that the public remained in the dark about what just happened up in Bella Bella.

And it shouldn’t. Herring are the building block of life on the BC coast. They need time to rebuild.

DFO should learn from this year’s herring fishery fiasco, start listening to scientists and working with the Heiltsuk to ensure a sustainable fishery for the future of herring and the ecosystems and coastal communities that depend on them.