First Nations Activists Settle in for Lengthy Salmon Farm Occupation

Environmental activists and industry interests clash on farmed salmon
Joseph Keller, Staff Writer

Canadian researcher Alexandra Morton gives a speech to media on board the SV Martin Sheen in Vancouver in August before leaving on an expedition to investigate B.C. salmon farms. (Joseph Keller)

A group of First Nations activists is occupying a salmon farm on Swanson Island, B.C., to protest the environmental impact of the operation and demand the removal of the farmed salmon industry. The occupation is made up of four representatives from local Indigenous communities, and is being actively supported by activist organization Sea Shepherd Conservation Society along with researcher and environmentalist Alexandra Morton.

Representatives of Marine Harvest—the Norwegian company that owns the operation—and the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association say that they will allow the activists to stay on the property, but dispute the premise of the occupation.

“The occupation of the salmon farm is a First Nations initiative. It’s not Sea Shepherd’s, but we’re assisting them with closing the salmon farms that are on their hereditary land,” says Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson. “Our concern is that the farmed salmon are spreading parasites and viruses to wild salmon populations.”

The group of First Nations activists, led by Hereditary Chief Ernest Alfred, began their occupation of the salmon farm on Aug. 24 after a video of sickly fish within the farm was released by Sea Shepherd. Soon after, Alexandra Morton—who had been leading the Sea Shepherd expedition that took the footage—and her crew members put the remainder of their expedition on an indefinite hold to assist the protesters.

“In my view, this is an unstable industry,” says Morton. “They’re trying to get these fish to eat more and more plant matter and it’s causing all kinds of health problems.”

Morton says that she and her crew have been able to provide assistance by giving the occupiers access to the vessel’s internet and communications systems, and providing access to shower facilities on board.

On the first day of the occupation, the RCMP was called. The officers who arrived ensured that the situation was peaceful before leaving without incident. Morton says that the Marine Harvest employees running the farm have been mostly cordial with occupiers, but tensions have been running high.

The farm, which sits on a man made structure just off the coast of the island, is located on traditional unceded First Nations territory, and no agreement exists between Marine Harvest and the First Nations community about the operation of the farm.

Ian Roberts, Director of Public Relations for the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, says that industry representatives have previously offered First Nations communities the opportunity to tour the facility, and that no action will be taken to force the removal of the protesters so long as they don’t interfere with its operation.

“We’re being patient,” says Roberts. “We’re honoring our invitation to our Native neighbors to observe and tour our operations and, while they remain peaceful, we’ll allow them to observe our operations.”

Roberts says that the B.C. Farmed Salmon Association is concerned about protesters not following safety procedures such as wearing life jackets while on the offshore structure.

The farmed salmon industry has been controversial in B.C. and abroad since its beginnings in the 1990s. Morton has been a vocal opponent to the industry for years, writing dozens of research papers pointing out alleged harm caused by salmon farms to the native salmon population and surrounding ecosystems. She says that findings from this most recent expedition supported other research that shows massive increases in sea lice, changes in the migration and feeding habits of native herring, and poor health of both farmed and native salmon as a result of salmon farms.

Further, she says that footage taken inside farmed salmon pens as part of the expedition, which has been released by Sea Shepherd, shows salmon suffering from malnourishment, blisters, blindness, injuries, deformities, and tumors. Morton believes that the farmed salmon industry, as it currently operates, is unsustainable.

“I don’t think the industry is going to survive here indefinitely, but even if it did, in this day and age, as we are standing here on a planet that is increasingly comprised and destabilized, we can not knowingly damage a resource as important as wild salmon,” says Morton.

Roberts says that the industry disputes this research, and that salmon farms do not have a significant impact on wild fish stocks. He argues that by farming rather than fishing, the industry is alleviating pressure on wild salmon.

“We can battle science versus science, but the fact is the B.C. coast has variations of salmon returns,” says Roberts. “We have good years, we have bad years, we have exceptionally good years, and we have exceptional bad years. To pin this to one source would be deflecting from what I think are real issues affecting salmon on the coast.”

Morton says that the occupation could possibly continue for months and that Sea Shepherd will provide support for as long as possible.

“Our sense is that this will have to go on for a long while because I see it as an addiction, an addiction between government and this industry that is strong. I don’t understand it, but it’s clearly something that the government doesn’t want to deal with,” she says.

Roberts says that the B.C. Farmed Salmon Association is confident that the public and the government will continue to see value in the industry.

“I think any government in British Columbia [regardless of party] understands the benefits of salmon aquaculture on the coast for the economic driver [that it] provides for coastal communities,” says Roberts. “Our government and most people understand the need for aquaculture.”

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