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Spawning salmon make their way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Chase, B.C. on Oct. 14, 2014.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

A coalition of First Nations chiefs is calling on the Prime Minister to step in so the Department of Fisheries and Oceans does not backtrack on a Liberal pledge, made during the 2019 federal election, to close salmon farms off the B.C. coast by 2025.

They say that commercial salmon farms pose a danger to the health of wild salmon, including by passing on sea lice that can attach to fish swimming to the ocean from the lakes and streams where they were born.

“I urge the Prime Minister to look in on the new DFO Minister Diane Lebouthillier and ensure that she has the support of the Prime Minister, of his office, of his cabinet to do what’s right for First Nations in British Columbia,” Chief Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, said at a press conference in Parliament.

A reduction in the wild population is affecting the food security of Indigenous communities in the province, Mr. Chamberlain said, as well as the wild creatures that rely on the fish to survive. Most First Nations in B.C. support phasing out the remaining farms, he added.

Chief Arnie Lampreau of Shackan First Nation said his community has had to spend $500,000 to import salmon from Alaska owing to the stark reduction in the province’s wild salmon population.

“Without the fish runs that used to run consistently every year, now we are depending on one run every four years,” he said. “In 2019, 2021, 2022, 2023, we bought salmon in order to provide sustenance for our people because it’s the main staple that our people depend on.”

Mr. Lampreau said his people, along with other First Nations in the B.C. Interior, were in “dire straits” because of the reduction in wild salmon numbers.

A mandate letter to the former fisheries minister Joyce Murray from Mr. Trudeau in late 2021 instructed her to work with the B.C. government and Indigenous communities “on a responsible plan to transition from open-net pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”

Brian Kingzett, executive director of the BC. Salmon Farmers Association, said there is no current mandate to remove salmon farms, and that they are heavily regulated by the federal government. He said wild-caught fish cannot meet current human demand, with fish consumption growing at twice the global population growth rate.

“Cumulative peer-reviewed and federal government science has been clear: Salmon farms do not pose more than minimal risk to wild Pacific salmon, and we have repeatedly stated that we will continue to innovate to further reduce potential risk,” he said.

Fifty-seven salmon farms remain on the Pacific coast. In February, Ms. Murray did not renew licences for 15 open-net Atlantic salmon farms in B.C.’s Discovery Islands. The decision is being challenged in the courts. The fish-farm industry denies that their fish threaten the wild population.

Tim Kennedy, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, said many First Nations believe salmon farming is sustainable, adding that the industry “employs over 5,000 people in British Columbia, a good portion of whom are Indigenous.”

“Canada has the longest coastline in the world. We are the fourth largest producer of salmon of which 97 per cent of salmon harvested is from modern, sustainable, science-backed, in-ocean salmon farms,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Chamberlin said First Nations who favour closing the farms have drawn up a fair transition plan to phase out most by 2025. The proposal would give more time for the closure of open-net farms that are not located directly on the migratory routes of wild salmon, to allow existing stocks to reach maturity.

The proposed transition plan was discussed at a productive meeting with Ms. Lebouthillier and her key staff this week, he said. The chiefs are meeting the Prime Minister’s staff on Wednesday to discuss a path to closing the farms.

Jacques Shore, legal counsel to the Canadian Coastal Research Society, which is supporting efforts to protect wild salmon, said the government should exercise the “precautionary principle” and press ahead with its plan to move the farms out of the water.

“We expect the government of Canada to meet its obligation, so a promise made is a promise delivered on an issue as significant as this one,” said Mr. Shore, a partner at Gowling WLG.

Mr. Chamberlin said that come the next election, expected in 2025, salmon farms will be an issue in many B.C. ridings if there is not progress on closing them before then.

“If there is a backtracking, if there is going to be no further safeguards for wild salmon, of course this will take on a great focus of First Nations,” he said.

Dallas Smith, spokesperson for the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, which supports retaining commercial salmon farms, accused the chiefs of the B.C. First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance of “pitting First Nations against First Nations, all while spouting misinformation about salmon farming in our territories and attempting to erase the sovereign rights and title of over a dozen coastal nations in B.C. to suit an activist-driven agenda based on activist science.”

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