Op-Ed: Salmon farming in B.C. – that was then, this is now

Many local entrepreneurs along B.C.'s coast showed interest in salmon farming in the 1980s.

By Ian Roberts

This year marks my twentieth anniversary since my first trip to Klemtu. I was invited, representing Marine Harvest, to discuss expansion of their salmon farming business that the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation invested into during the 1980s. In 1998, I began working alongside elder Eric Robinson to build what is now a very successful and year-round salmon aquaculture venture that provides 60 jobs to a village of 400.

Many local entrepreneurs along B.C.’s coast showed interest in salmon farming in the 1980s. It made sense – growing fish (by farming or ranching) was a logical response to supplying a growing global market for seafood, to supplement the supply gap that oceans could no longer naturally produce, and for year-round jobs in remote communities with little economic opportunity and a decades-long downturn in the commercial fishery.

North Islanders also realized the potential of salmon farming. In the late 80s, applications for investigation into salmon farm permits were submitted by numerous locals, including fisherman Billy Proctor and the Musgamagw Tribal Council. Local businesses provided services for initial siting criteria, like tourism operator Bill MacKay, and commercial fisherman James Walkus soon began employing boats and people to supply services to nearby farms.

In the years that followed, many salmon farm leases owned by locals were sold on to companies that brought expert knowledge and vital capital investment from countries with decades of salmon growing experience. The past four decades has seen much evolution of the businesses: from dodgy wooden pen frames to steel cages, and from guessing with feed scoops to precise fish feeding accuracy using computer delivery systems with underwater cameras.

But this same period has also seen an evolution in opposition to salmon farming. Well-funded anti-salmon farming campaigns in the early 2000s brought media-savvy criticism to the industry. Some criticism was deserved, and much exaggerated. But everyone can agree that criticism has helped push B.C. salmon farming quicker down the path of sustainability. That path is never ending, but with our sector leading the world with third-party product and operational certifications, our B.C. aquaculture industry is jogging far ahead of most other regions around the globe.

Today, some of the same people who took part in the development of salmon farming on the North Island now state their opposition to the business. While I respect their right to change their minds, I do wonder what forces have pushed that change. In my 25 years salmon farming on this coast I have only witnessed continued improvements that include high-tech investments, staff development, environmental monitoring and management, third-party audits, and fish husbandry.

However, Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples has clearly evolved since salmon farming began. Unlike 30+ years ago, business activities that may impact the rights of Indigenous peoples must include consultation between Crown and First Nations governments, and where appropriate accommodation provided for shared activities. Where title is proven, First Nations have exclusive rights. Salmon farmers are in full support of this new government to government relationship and are ready to work with all governments regarding its business.

Today, there are over two dozen social, economic and business agreements between B.C. salmon farming companies and First Nations, and about 80% of the salmon harvested is from territories with agreement. In this new era, B.C. salmon farmers will not apply for new farms in First Nation territories without equitable partnership. And in areas without agreement, salmon farmers are committed to work with all governments to find negotiated solutions.

Salmon farming looked different 30 years ago, and the way we look at salmon farming is different today. With collaboration and understanding, we can all look to a future that provides for North Island families, grows healthy food, and helps conserve our ocean.

– Op-Ed submitted by Ian Roberts, salmon farmer and Director of Public Affairs with Marine Harvest Canada.

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