Traditionally, salmon fishing is accompanied by ceremony and strict guidelines that allow a certain number of fish to pass upstream before harvest can begin. Historically, salmon were almost exclusively caught either in the freshwater stream where they were returning to spawn or close to the mouth of that stream as they prepared for their freshwater journey. Catching fish in this way allows people to ensure that enough fish return to the stream to maintain healthy populations.
“Our food is our medicine and what we eat becomes a part of who we are,” says Gisele Martin. “My life source is connected to wild salmon. My culture is connected to wild salmon.”
But on this part of the Pacific Coast, salmon numbers have been dropping for over a century as settlers have logged the forests and overharvested the fish. The majority of commercial fishing happens in the ocean where it is not easy to pair fishing activities with sustainable returns to specific home streams. Still, until about two decades ago, British Columbia’s wild coast was still a stronghold for salmon populations, with tens of millions of fish returning to spawn in the Fraser River and other smaller streams along the coast. Then the fish farms arrived.
“Twenty years ago, I would expect that I would easily get 150 sockeye,” says Ho’miska̱nis, aka Don Svanvik, a hereditary chief and current elected chief of council of the ‘Na̱mg̱is First Nation. “I would can a whole bunch and freeze about 70 of them, 40 of them to be smoked when it cools off, the rest to eat throughout the year. Last year I caught four.”
IN THE 1980s, Canada courted Norwegian corporations to bring industrial-scale fish farms to BC as part of an effort to increase economic activity in the remote region. “We didn’t really have a say in it,” says Svanvik. At the time, First Nations leaders were regularly excluded from resource management decisions. The ‘Na̱mg̱is never signed an agreement with Mowi and began fighting for the company’s removal not long after it arrived.
The Ahousaht First Nation, meanwhile, has embraced the fish farms in their territory. In 2010, it signed an agreement with Cermaq, a Norway-based subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation that claims to be the world’s second-largest salmon farming company. Today, the Ahousaht territory hosts the largest salmon farming venture in Clayoquot Sound with 10 farms, and Ahousaht’s leadership continues to support Cermaq’s presence in the territory.
Ahousaht hereditary chief Hasheukumiss, aka Richard George, says that the financial arrangements between the Ahousaht and Cermaq are private — but confirms that Cermaq pays a fee for their presence in their territory, a common arrangement in the region. He notes that Cermaq also provides support to the Ahousaht in numerous ways: local scholarships, cleanup activities, and community events. Cermaq is also committed through the agreement to employ 50 percent First Nations members for its operations in Ahousaht territory. According to George, this amounts to around 30 full time employees.
Still, support for the farms among community members is mixed.
‘There is nothing you can do to fix the decline of wild salmon if you don’t remove fish farms from their habitat.’
“The hereditary chiefs and Chief of Council work for Cermaq. They protect the company. They are getting rich off of it but Ahousaht is poor,” says Len John, an Ahousaht member who runs a small boat charter and water taxi company. “We, the people, don’t see that money. We have homeless people, elders with homes that are gutted, with no running water.” While declining to comment on the specific arrangement between Cermaq and Ahousaht, Chief George denied that any of the hereditary chiefs profit from the arrangement with Cermaq, stating that “nothing gets pocketed in any personal way. All those funds go into economic development.”
Are fish farms causing the wild salmon to decline? George sees the loss more as a result of poor forest and fishery management than farms. “Are the fish farms to blame? They have a part but are not solely to blame,” he says.
However, a growing consensus of experts disagree with this assessment. Biologist Alexandra Morton, founder of the Raincoast Research Society in the town of Sointula, says “There is nothing you can do to fix the decline of wild salmon if you don’t remove fish farms from their habitat.” Morton has been studying the impacts of fish farms on wild salmon in the region since 1996, around the time salmon farms appeared in Broughton Archipelago. Her research shows a clear correlation between the farms and dropping wild salmon populations.
Morton says the best approximation for a net pen salmon farm is an industrial feedlot for cattle. Most farms in British Columbia use Atlantic salmon, a species not native to the Pacific Northwest. Salmon fry are produced in fish hatcheries on land and then transplanted out to net pens in sheltered marine waters. A typical farm contains numerous pens covering 5 to 10 acres of water and between 500,000 to 1.5 million salmon. Fish are raised in the pens for two years and fed a mixture of ground fish and supplements including crop proteins, food colorings, and drugs before being harvested and shipped globally.
While improved practices have, in some cases, reduced the environmental footprint of aquaculture, fish farms still have a significant ecological impact, particularly when placed in the migratory routes of juvenile wild salmon, as they often are. Feces and chemicals leak from the pens. The sea floor below often becomes a wasteland. Food from the farms can attract juvenile wild salmon into the pens, and there is some evidence that wild salmon can contract diseases from the farmed fish. Some farmed fish escape and can compete with native fish — in 2019, for example, a fire at a BC Mowi facility led to a large-scale escape event involving up to 21,000 fish. (A series of nine assessments commissioned by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, however, found that several viruses and parasites found on fish farms pose only a minimal risk to wild fish. Independent researchers like Morton are skeptical of these findings.)