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A fish farm near Campbell River, B.C.JOHN LEHMANN

The B.C. government's "arbitrary" threat to review long-standing tenures for fish farms is sending a chilling message to investors across the province, a top business leader says.

"The last time I looked, there were over 60,000 leases in the province and they cover every part of British Columbia's economy," Greg D'Avignon, president of the Business Council of B.C., said in an interview. "It calls into question the certainty of tenures, leases and use of Crown lands on everything from agriculture to recreational properties to the natural resource industries both on the water and on the land."

But Premier John Horgan said on Wednesday his government's warning to Marine Harvest Canada should not be taken as a threat to all tenure holders in British Columbia. Marine Harvest, which is embroiled in conflict with Indigenous protesters, has been told it cannot count on renewal of its decades-old tenures.

The Oct. 13 letter to Marine Harvest Canada says the NDP government is committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which includes the requirement that natural resources are developed with the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations.

The company restocked its fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago on Oct. 13 over the objections of the local First Nations – and against the wishes of the provincial government. "Whatever operational decisions you should choose to make, the Province retains all of its rights under the current tenure agreements, including potentially the requirement that you return possession of tenured sites at the end of the current terms," the letter from Agriculture Minister Lana Popham states.

Mr. Horgan said it was unfortunate that the company restocked its pens amid sensitive discussions his government is conducting with the local First Nations communities. But he said the application of UNDRIP is aimed only at new business investment in British Columbia – but not existing ventures.

"Investors should look at UNDRIP going forward, not retrospectively," the Premier told reporters in Victoria. "Having said that, it's known to almost everyone in the universe that open-net fish farming in British Columbia has been controversial for decades." He said his government's review of the company's tenure licences has more to do with concerns about declining wild salmon stocks than with UNDRIP.

However, he said his government has the right to review any tenures involving Crown assets to ensure they are being used in the public interest. And, he added, existing tenure-holders "would want to make sure you have a positive working relationship with Indigenous people."

Mr. Horgan said he does not believe UNDRIP will be an impediment to investment in B.C. "The times they are a'changing … I think sophisticated investors are looking at how they can continue to prosper in British Columbia by having relationships that lead to prosperity for First Nations as well."

Ian Roberts, a spokesperson for Marine Harvest, said the government should not be surprised that the company went ahead and restocked its pens despite the controversy, saying it had been made aware of the company's plans. "We have a living and growing animal that we need to take care of."

The juvenile salmon that were brought in will not be mature before Marine Harvest's current licences expire next June, but he would not say what would happen to those fish if the tenures were cancelled. "What's at risk are millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs."

Mr. Roberts said the tone of Ms. Popham's letter was concerning. "It makes us nervous about our business that has been growing for over 30 years in British Columbia," he said.

Critics say farming Atlantic salmon in marine net pens exposes wild Pacific salmon to disease and crossbreeding.

Last week, the Premier travelled to the region to meet with hereditary chiefs who voiced their opposition to the open-net fish farms in their traditional territories. After his meeting, he acknowledged the protesters' concerns, but made no commitments. He said the protection of wild salmon is a priority, but also noted that the aquaculture industry now generates close to $800-million annually in B.C.

However, the NDP has sided with opponents of these open-net pens in the past, especially in the Broughton Archipelago near the north end of Vancouver Island.

During the B.C. election campaign last spring, Claire Trevena, who is now Minister of Transportation, promised voters: "We will remove fish farms [and] make sure that these territories and the North Island are clear of fish farms."

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