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A Washington State farm owned by Cooke Aquaculture was the site of a recent incident in which up to 305,000 Atlantic salmon escaped through ripped nets.Beau Garreau

British Columbia's new NDP government campaigned on a promise to transition the province's fish-farming industry away from open-sea pens to land-based sites, but First Nations are pushing for more aggressive action. They want the province to revoke the licences of unwanted salmon farms operating in their territorial waters.

B.C.'s aquaculture industry was once again in the spotlight last week after thousands of Atlantic salmon may have escaped a Washington State fish farm near the border.

On the weekend, Governor Jay Inslee said his state will stop permitting any new net pens after the incident.

Read more: Atlantic salmon escape U.S. fish farm near B.C. waters

Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, said he told B.C. Premier John Horgan in a meeting with other Indigenous leaders Friday afternoon that his government must make changes to the industry if it is serious about honouring its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"When you consider the UN declaration in relationship to fish farms, I think of free prior and informed consent, I think about the comments and sections on maintaining cultural traditions and food security and the territorial authority [of First Nations]," he said late on Friday.

"I want to put this in front of them and say 'if you're going to respect the declaration how can you not affect change to this industry and our territory.'"

Mr. Chamberlin, Chief Councillor of the Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation, said he will meet again with the Premier early this week to talk about the issue ahead of a government-sponsored conference with First Nations leaders in Vancouver Sept. 6. "We have never welcomed them in our territory – we have a very clear message about what we want to see," he said.

Before the May election, NDP candidate Claire Trevena told Indigenous constituents in her northern Vancouver Island riding that, if it formed government, her party would remove fish farms from their waters and move these operations inland.

On Friday, a government spokesperson said B.C. is committed to working with the aquaculture industry to move to closed containment where possible. "We look forward to working in partnership with First Nations to determine a way forward," the government's statement said.

B.C. and Washington State each have the largest fish-farm industries in Canada and the United States. B.C. produced about 93,000 tonnes of farmed salmon worth $470-million in 2015, according to statistics compiled by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. There are currently 126 licensed fish-farm sites operating in B.C., with a small cluster on the central coast that the rest in southern coastal waters, according to a list published by the DFO. In Washington State, the industry produces about 7,700 tonnes of Atlantic salmon each year, according to the state.

While salmon farms have operated for decades in these two jurisdictions, they still remain controversial in a region where wild salmon reigns supreme. Alaska has banned commercial fin-fish aquaculture. Several counties in Washington State, such as Whatcom County, have moved to limit commercial fin-fish aquaculture.

In B.C., opponents of the industry have repeatedly warned that open-water fish farms pose a risk to wild Pacific salmon, and the industry came under scrutiny during a federal public inquiry launched in the wake of the devastating collapse of salmon stocks along the Fraser River during the 2009 season. The head of the commission, retired judge Bruce Cohen, was unable to find a "smoking gun" to explain what happened, but he did urge the federal government to take steps to limit the impact of fish farms. Each farm must have both a provincial and federal licence.

Late last week, First Nations activists began occupying a Marine Harvest farm off of Swanson Island, near Alert Bay on the northeastern side of Vancouver Island after a video appeared to show diseased fish swimming in pens. They say they haven't given permission for the farm to operate on their traditional territory and will remain on the farm until the province cancels the company's permit.

"We are not moving, they need to come and take a look at this farm and start taking these fish out," said protester Chief Ernest Alfred of the Namgis First Nation.

The protesters had visited other farms along the coast earlier this month, posting underwater footage of their trip online that they say shows large amounts wild herring illegally trapped inside the pens with the salmon.

Ian Roberts, head spokesperson for Marine Harvest Canada, said late Friday afternoon that the company has reached out to the Namgis and is waiting to hear back. "While this unscheduled visit was a surprise to us, we will allow them to remain on site to observe our operations as long as they remain respectful and peaceful, and not harass our staff or harm our fish," he said in an e-mail. Marine Harvest Canada has formal co-operation and business agreements with more than 20 First Nation bands and Indigenous businesses, he added.

With reports from The Canadian Press and the Associated Press

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