A star-studded expedition to protest the B.C. salmon aquaculture industry has no plans to visit Nuu-chah-nulth territory on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society announced the six-week tour, called Operation Virus Hunter, at a press conference in Vancouver on July 18. On hand were Island-born actor/activist Pamela Anderson, celebrated scientist Dr. David Suzuki, as well as fish farm opponents Alexandra Morton and Sto:lo Chief Ernie Crey.
Morton will travel aboard the Sea Shepherd vessel R/V Martin Sheen, touching down at salmon farms along the route, “to conduct audits for disease and other factors, which will be done in a non-aggressive and non-harassing manner,” according to their July 17 media release.
According to opponents, open net-cage farming (mainly imported Atlantic salmon) spreads salmon-specific viruses and parasites into the environment, which in turn infect wild Pacific salmon.
For Ahousaht First Nation, the salmon aquaculture industry has become an integral part of the community. Cermaq Canada, based in Norway, holds 14 lease sites on Clayoquot Sound, which are farmed in rotation.
“It’s a huge part of the economic picture for the community,” said Ahousaht Tyee Ha’wilth Lewis George. “The agreement was negotiated by Shawn Atleo, and it dates back to my father’s [late Tyee Ha’wilth Earl George] time.”
“They are definitely an important employer,” said Trevor Jones, CEO of the Maaqtusiis Hahoulthee Stewardship Corporation.
“From 25 to 40 per cent of the Cermaq labour force is from Ahousaht, depending on where they are in the production cycle.”
As such, the nation takes it very seriously when anti-aquaculture forces announce that they intend to protest operations on Clayoquot Sound.
“Our view is that Cermaq is one of the partners on the Sound, and there are a lot of other operators that could be impacted if people come in to protest,” he said.
Jones noted that while he was aware of Operation Virus Hunter, he did not know the specific itinerary of the vessel, and could only assume it intended to visit Clayoquot Sound. As such, the R/V Martin Sheen would have been required to follow accepted protocols, he explained.
“They would be required to stand down, come ashore and ask permission,” he explained. “We have a permit system here. You have to make an application and pay your fee. As long as you are here with the right intention, you will be granted a permit.”
That applies to all vessels, big or small, foreign or local, Jones added.
“It’s part of having people recognize territories and follow protocol,” he said. “We instituted the permit system this year, and we’ve had great participation from all sectors.”
“What we’re trying to do is take back responsibility for our lands and water,” George said. “This process started well before my time.”
Speaking to Ha-Shilth-Sa after the media conference, Morton advised that Operation Virus Hunter would not seek to enter Clayoquot Sound.
“That’s not the plan at the moment,” Morton said, adding that she is well aware of Ahousaht’s relationship with Cermaq.
“That’s why we’re not going there. If a First Nation wants to work with the industry and doesn’t want the boat there, then we’re not going to go there. We go where we’re wanted.”
Morton said she came to that decision after talking with activist colleagues who participated in the September 2015 protest at the Cermaq Yaakswiis site in Clayoquot Sound, after which Ahousaht Ha’wiih and elected Chief and Council agreed not to allow the old site to be re-occupied.
“A number of our people were up in arms. We addressed those issues,” George said, noting that he was sidelined by illness at the time of the action.
“I approached some of the people I had worked with, and they were not keen to have us come there,” Morton said.
Speaking to Ha-Shilth-Sa prior to the conference, Chief Crey said his concern is with salmon stocks on the Fraser River, which, as he noted, is the largest salmon-producing river on the planet.
“We have seen the decline, and it is precipitous,” Crey said.
There are many contributing factors, Crey noted: historic overfishing, environmental damage from agriculture and forestry.
“We are also seeing the effects of climate change. But more to the point, we are very concerned about the growing farmed salmon sector,” Crey said.
As Morton observed, while society does need to address climate change, and to restore healthy forests, “I am focused on one of the most fixable things, which is salmon farms. You can remove them.”
Crey said the previous Conservative government progressively gutted Fisheries and Oceans Canada to the point where it became unable to enforce existing fisheries regulations. The salmon farming industry has well-paid and very effective lobbyists in Ottawa to keep it that way, he said.
“Whatever people say about the jobs [salmon farming] creates, the investment it attracts, the proliferation of salmon farming may be playing a significant role in the decline of our salmon runs,” he said. “It is not acceptable to us. We want our aboriginal rights and title in our territories, for the wildlife that we rely on, to be applied.”
Crey said he did not want to create divisions among B.C. First Nations over salmon farming. He acknowledged that Ahousaht First Nation successfully took on the Canadian government to prove the aboriginal right to (commercially) sell fish caught in traditional territories. That landmark decision has benefited all Nations.
As for Ahousaht’s relationship with Cermaq Canada:
“I don’t have any criticism of some communities that are involved in it,” Crey said. “Maybe in time they will learn what they are involved in.
“Anyway, they are small players in a big industry that seems to be mainly located between the Island and the Mainland, toward the northern end of the Island.”