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The Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. on Oct. 31, 2018.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Fish farmers in British Columbia are asking the federal government to either extend a deadline that will end the practice of open-net salmon farming, forcing their businesses to close, or to release a transition plan to ensure operators know what their future holds.

Open-net farms, in which salmon are raised in nets or cages that are placed in offshore waters, were due to be phased out by next year, in keeping with a promise Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made during the 2019 election campaign over concerns the farms were hazardous to the health of wild fish stocks.

But last June, Ottawa shelved the release of a draft transition plan toward land-based production. Then last month Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier said her government is “not shutting down any more farms” for now. Environmentalists have been critical about the government’s delay, and the mixed messages have left fish-farm operators unsure about whether their businesses can continue to operate.

Of 85 salmon farms operating along B.C.’s west coast, 66 of them are seeking renewals of licences that expire June 30, industry representatives say.

“It’s a foundation of my community,” said Isaiah Robinson, deputy chief of the Kitasoo Xai’xias Nation and a member of the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship. Shutting down the fish farms “would completely cause major destruction.”

In the early 1970s, his community had an employment rate of 5 per cent, Mr. Robinson said. That’s now at 99 per cent, with more than half of that based on the farm operated by the Kitasoo Development Corporation on behalf of Mowi, a Norwegian company. “This has taken us out of poverty.”

In a statement, Athina Vazeos, a spokesperson for DFO, said consultations wrapped up a month ago, but no decisions have been made about the 66 licences.

Brian Kingzett, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said he would like to see an extension and/or a defined transition plan from the DFO.

His organization has partnered with the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship to compile a 500-page report to bolster their argument that fish farms are a vital employer of Indigenous and rural British Columbians and that the decision to shut the farms down is based on outdated information.

“Some of our communities have noticed knowledge or information gaps regarding modern salmon farming,” said Dallas Smith, a spokesman for the coalition and a member of the Tlowitsis Nation.

For example, the farms have been blamed for enabling the proliferation of sea lice on wild salmon, endangering the Pacific species. But, the report states, there has been significant advances in understanding and managing sea lice and tens of millions of dollars has been poured into research, leading to changed practices.

One recent survey of data compiled from DFO and university researchers, salmon farmers and several non-governmental organizations found that 86 per cent of all sampled salmon had none or just one sea louse.

“This is a new sector, and it is changing rapidly. It is innovating rapidly. And some of the arguments that we see in the press, we see activists using on their social media, are things that have been corrected, both in regulation and innovation and progress,” Mr. Kingzett said.

However, opponents of fish farming in British Columbia say the report, entitled Modern Salmon Farming in B.C.: A Review, lacks credibility.

First Nations chiefs urge Trudeau to step in to phase out salmon farms

Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, said the review is another example of fish farmers marking their own homework.

“To me, it’s just another obfuscation that everything’s okay. We need independent review, we need independent analysis,” he said.

Mr. Chamberlin worries pro-farming reviews such as the recent report could sway the Department of Fisheries and Oceans into granting licence extensions past 2025.

“It’s really troubling to see that a small group of First Nations with the backing of an international company are going to be listened to more than the aboriginal rights and the majority of First Nations in B.C.”

In 2018, Mr. Chamberlin led a group opposing open-net fish farms and won an agreement with the B.C. government and the aquaculture industry to remove 10 of 17 fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago off the north coast of Vancouver Island. They were closed by 2022. Then, on March 7, 2023, the ‘Namgis, Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis and Mamalilikulla First Nations (the Broughton First Nations), decided they wanted the remaining seven farms, of which they retained occupational control, closed as well.

According to the fish farmers’ report, as of February, 2022, the sector directly or indirectly employs 700 Indigenous workers and has provided $42-million to Indigenous communities every year.

“For most of these communities, those benefits cannot be replaced, and the threat of losing them via government closures is a real threat to their social safety,” the report states.

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