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Aquatic science biologist Howie Manchester picks a salmon to collect samples from during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Members of the DFO routinely visit farms surrounding British Columbia to make sure that the health of the salmon populations in fish farms is up to standard.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Indigenous chiefs representing B.C. Indigenous communities came to Ottawa on Tuesday to make opposing arguments about whether open-net salmon farms should be able to continue off the coast or be closed and moved to tanks on land.

As the battle over the future of ocean-based salmon farms off the coast of British Columbia intensified, seven chiefs representing more than 50 B.C. First Nations met with ministers and NDP and Conservative politicians to argue for B.C’s remaining salmon farms – representing a multimillion-dollar industry – be closed down to protect wild salmon and their traditional way of life.

They argue that captive fish are passing on diseases and sea lice to wild salmon, and threatening their survival. They say the dwindling wild salmon population is threatening not only Indigenous nations’ traditional way of life, but also killer whales, eagles, grizzly bears, wolves and other wildlife that rely on them for food.

But on Tuesday another group of B.C. chiefs held a rival press conference arguing that salmon farms help create jobs in their communities. They called for Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray to be stripped of her responsibility for deciding the future of salmon farms, and held a series of meetings to make their case with politicians.

Last month, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced it will not renew the licences of fish farms in the Discovery Islands in B.C., thus phasing out the farms. It is now carrying out a consultation on the future of around 80 open-net pen farms off B.C.’s coast.

Chief Darren Blaney of Xwemalkwu First Nation, known as “the people of the fast-running waters,” whose traditional territory includes the Discovery Islands, was among the chiefs arguing to close B.C’s fish farms to protect wild salmon.

He told The Globe and Mail that since 2020 as some fish farms closed, baby wild salmon known as fry look healthy and no longer visibly carry sea lice, which he said spread from the fish farms.

Chief Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, said closing the Discovery Islands fish farms was “a vital first step to protection of the dwindling B.C. salmon stocks.”

He said there is an “intense need” to take every measure possible “to safeguard wild salmon from extinction.”

Mr. Chamberlin said fish farms were spreading sea lice and pathogens to young wild salmon in the oceans “at the most vulnerable time of their life cycle.”

He said the operation of fish farms harm wild salmon and this represents an infringement of Indigenous rights across the province. “Wild salmon is not just a menu choice – it’s who we are as a people,” he said.

A group of chiefs from the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship flew into Ottawa to lobby to preserve fish farms, which they said were important to their communities’ livelihoods.

At a press conference, they said it was not feasible to move salmon farms on land, warning the decision could cost jobs and lead to an increase in the price of salmon in Canada if it is imported from abroad.

They called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to relieve Ms. Murray of her responsibility for fish farms, which they said should be passed to Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations.

“We call on Prime Minister Trudeau to pass the critical file on to a more responsible and unbiased minister to complete,” said Chris Roberts, elected chief councillor of Wei Wai Kum First Nation.

“We are the original environmentalists, not the fancy downtown activists. We have stewarded wild salmon for thousands of years, and our guardians and monitors continue to protect it,” he added.

He said 40 per cent of salmon farms have already been removed from B.C. waters, which has been damaging economically to coastal communities, leading to salmon being flown in from Norway.

Albert Charlie, hereditary chief and councillor of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nations, said moving farms to tanks on land is not feasible in some territories.

“Forcing First Nations to transition to land-based technology that isn’t ready means they will lose the industry completely and their communities will be devastated,” he said.

Tony Allard, chair of Wild Salmon Forever, a B.C.-based conservation group, said the vast majority of First Nations in B.C. support moving feedlots of Atlantic salmon out of Pacific waters.

“We can’t pretend any longer that we can have both wild Pacific salmon and this harmful form of aquaculture in B.C.,” he said.

NDP fisheries critic and B.C. MP Lisa Marie Barron said “open-net fish farms are polluting our marine ecosystems and infringing on Indigenous peoples’ rights to access fisheries.”

The fish farming industry denies the fish farms are causing disease to wild salmon.

“We as a sector, are embracing Indigenous reconciliation, want to see an Indigenous-led transition plan and will only farm in areas where First Nations want to work with the sector and will focus on those relationships,” said Brian Kingzett, executive director of B.C. Salmon Farmers Association

Ms. Murray’s office said in a statement: “Pacific salmon are in serious, long-term decline, with many runs on the verge of collapse, and the government of Canada must do what it can to ensure their survival.”

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