Salmon Feedlots: This Was Not a Mistake

The United Fisherman’s and Allied Workers Union UFAWU published a newspaper called The Fisherman. This publication chronicled the arrival of salmon feedlots onto the BC coast. Writers like Geoff Meggs extensively quote politicians and bureaucrats, policy documents and public consultation. It is a record of how government brought this industry in swiftly with no public consultation, in full expectation that it would take the place of the wild fisheries, do away with the common fishery resource, and require heavy foreign investment. They knew it existed outside the Constitution of Canada, because they could not figure out who owns the salmon inside the pens. The government gave the salmon farmers eggs from public hatcheries, even as those stocks were dwindling. They granted foreshore leases at a rate of one per day. They saw the conflicts with aboriginal title to fish, but plowed ahead regardless. They refused to assess environmental impact and they knew it would not make jobs.

The Social Credit government started this, but the industry continued to grow seamlessly when the NDP came into power. It made no difference, everyone stuck to the plan which openly stating “The days of common property fishing are over.”

This was a cruel ambition that would affect hundreds of thousands of people throughout rural British Columbia on the coast and on the Fraser River watershed.

I was living in a quietly prospering coastal community off the grid, beyond the highway systems, no phones, no ferry. We were self-sufficient. Salmon feedlots came at us out of the blue. They were an invasion. I have been operating on the premise that salmon feedlots must have been an honest mistake, an attempt to benefit places like Echo Bay. But the record below contained in The Fisherman demonstrates otherwise. In this blog all text contained within quotation marks comes from The Fisherman, everything within brackets [ ] are my additions. The bold text is my voice.

Today, there are less than 10 people left in Echo Bay, the school is closed, the fishermen moved away, the salmon-eating whales were driven out, sportfishing has been largely abandoned and there are 27 Norwegian feedlots. After reading the material below all I can see is that this was no mistake everything went to plan.

The Fisherman

April 19, 1984 — “More than 200 biologists, civil servant, fish market and hopeful entrepreneurs gathered in a penthouse ball room high above Vancouver last month to see the Science Council of Canada unveil a discussion paper designed to lay the groundwork for a Canadian aquaculture industrial development plan.”

We must act now or lose a commercial employment opportunity, task force member David Saxby told the gathering. Science Council representative, Ann Levi, urged all present to submit their [illegible] quickly because we want to get this industry launched as soon as possible.

The days of common property fishing are over.”

It was noted that Mowi [Norway’s dominant farmed salmon producer in 1984] “… was built on the strong financial backing it received from Norsk Hyrdo, the country’s major utility.”

“… the [Science Council] task force estimating that only one person-year of employment is generated for every 20 tonnes of production, it is clear that salmon farming of 30,000 tonnes of salmon would employ only a fraction of those now employed in the industry.

“… some aquaculturalists see ‘traditional dependence on conventional fisheries’ as an obstacle to their plans for growth and development.”

A major requirement is legislation to establish property rights in fish produced …”

Report to the B.C. Science Council by Envirocon, “... aquaculture operations will never be a major employer…

Encouraged by the lack of restrictions on the industry here, Norwegians began to invest heavily in Sunshine Coast salmon farming. Not only could they develop lager farms here with less interference by the government, but they could use their Canadian investments to reduce their taxes in Norway.” Bright Seas, Pioneer Spirits

Right from the start, government was informed that this new industry was not going to make jobs, would require strong offshore investment and existed outside the Constitution of Canada and thus “property rights” for this industry would require new legislation. They openly discussed shutting down fishermen, replacing them with foreign – “owned” farm salmon. And below they recognized aboriginal title as a problem.

March 15, 1985High levels of foreign investment, heavy automation, costly government support, commitment to ocean ranching and privatization of the Salmonid Enhancement Program may all be necessary to build a B.C. aquaculture industry says the Science Council of Canada.

The report calls for:private ownership of the fisheries resource, a decisive move away from wild stock fisheries and creation of a highly-automated, highly concentrated harvesting and processing sector.”

The Science Council tackles the fundamental issue of ownership of the fisheries resource head on, stating that the basic problem is ‘common property of the resource.’”

At stake are staggering profits for those who wind up in control.” “Fishermen can be shut down to enhance wild stocks while aquaculture takes up the slack.

But the council warns that serious problems, including aboriginal title to fish, stand in the way of full development. It urges the consultation with Indian people to avoid claims that ‘future settlements may be jeopardized.’”

Fisheries minister John Fraser has committed the federal government to support aquaculture rather than the existing fishing industry in joint federal provincial fisheries development programs.

“…tax dollars should be funneled in through investment Canada, the council says.”

“…salmon farmers ‘feel the tide turning in their favor in the wake of the Fraser pledge to encourage the Federal Business Development Bank into the swim.

Employment graph BC Stats
In this graph you can see salmon feedlots have never been big employers in BC compared against the common property fisheries.

Aug. 16, 1985 “… in Victoria the Social Credit government has embraced fish farming with open arms and is encouraging farms as fast as they can be set up. A financial package for potential farmers which would allow them to borrow up to $300,000 from the bank under a government loan guarantee is being considered.”

As well there has been a hurried restructuring of the government agencies in charge of fish farming and the appointment of Jim Fralick as provincial aquaculture co-ordinator.

Both governments are unclear about the jurisdiction question since there is no law to indicate who should cover the area…Perhaps one insight comes from Ibec’s Scott, who said the province told him he didn’t need any federal permit to proceed.” “That type of attitude is prevalent in the province among one individual.” Hunter responds [George Hunter, DFO].”

When questioned on the rapid rise in the number of fish farms and the foreign corporations involved, Hunter replied, ‘ Of course the industry is determined by the political structure it grows in and the kind of political structure we have right now encourages this type of development.

That was a fascinating comment.

Aug. 16, 1985DFO, which has had its budget slashed by more than $100 million, is transferring already scarce resources and staff to this new industry. With the number of farms tripling this year and as many more waiting approval, even DFO admits more resources will be needed for fish farming.”

There was no consultation at all with the traditional users of the resource before fish farming was allowed. More recently the DFO allowed a foreign corporation to import Atlantic salmon eggs to B.C. without a discussion with the rest of the industry.

More than one million chinook eggs will find their way out of public hatcheries in 1985 to private farms. Is this the same DFO which is cutting back chinook fishing for the fleet and screaming about conservation problems.

The public was not asked if they wanted a foreign-invested industry to displace the commercial fishery that populated and fueled towns the length of the coast and on top of that, eggs the public had paid for, were going to go to this industry, not to the public fishery, even as that fishery was declining. Ifthe days of common property fishing are overI suppose taking the fish away from the public was not a surprising move.

Dec. 12, 1986 In 10 years the industry is likely to be mostly foreign-owned companies offering relatively few employment opportunities to the people of B.C. confidential memo, DFO aquaculture co-ordinator George Hunter who reportedly left DFO and took a job with a fish farm company shortly after this comment.

Amid prediction that diseases would be imported, there was evidence this was already underway. I lived among the Ibec feedlots and disease outbreak discussed below. Immediately furunculosis struck the local enhancement facility hard, but DFO assured me repeatedly it was just a coincidence.

April 18, 1986The Rockefeller-owned Ibec arm operation near Port McNeill has already imported eggs from a Scottish hatchery which provided eggs now blamed for a disastrous disease outbreak in Norway. …Rob Bell Irving cited correspondence from veterinary inspector Paul Midtlyng disclosing that eggs certified as disease-free at the Scottish hatchery were responsible for an outbreak of furunculosis which threatened the stock at 28 [Norwegian] fish farms.Bell-Irving’s point was that BC received eggs from the same hatchery.

While Canadians were supporting enhancement of public fish with their tax dollars believing they were increasing their public fishery, government was giving those eggs away to the private fishery they were trying so hard to create to replace the public fishery.

May 21, 1986 In 1985, the department [DFO] supplied 3.8 million chinook eggs to the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association. DFO sold the eggs for one cent each, Hunter said, but the association resold the eggs to its members for seven cents each for coho and 12 cents each for chinook.” “We give the industry a kick start and when its up and running we get out of the business [Hunter].”

Sept. 19, 1986 Regarding zoning salmon farms away from wild salmon rivers to protect wild salmon from feedlot diseases. There was no research done despite enormous concern voiced by DFO’s own scientists (see my previous blog “Silenced“) and others about the certainty that exotic disease from Atlantic salmon eggs was a high-risk threat to wild salmon. Not only that, a tiny salmon feedlot no go zone of one-half mile from salmon bearing streams was identified as a big problem for the salmon feedlots.The one-half mile [no farm zone] was pulled out of the air” [George Hunter DFO’s head of aquaculture]. “He said DFO was on the verge of taking the recommendation to the province, where Halsey said the change would have a dramatic effect on fish farming. He said they would consider such a request seriously but would not have to necessarily implement it.”

Despite Conservative party promises of funding for Phase 2 of the Salmonid Enhancement Program, there has been no funding. Millions of salmon eggs are being diverted from public hatcheries to fish farmers yearly… Most major farms are backed by foreign capital.

Farms in Norway are limited to an estimated 70 tons, but already in B.C. some farms can produce 300 tons and plans are on the board for farms which can produce 1,000 tons.

Only those with no interest in protecting the commercial fishery and the thousands of jobs in it would suggest we continue to let the farms grow at this rate.” John Radosevic (UFAWU)

Halsey said the foreign ownership of the farms was not an issue for the provincial government.

Feb 12, 1987Aquaculture egg purchases from the public hatchery system are skyrocketing, warned troller Bob Grant, while commercial catches of the same stocks are being cut. ‘If this continues there will be nothing left of the Salmonid Enhancement Program.”

SEP is being reduced to producing a cheap supply of eggs for salmon farmers.”

“If we’re not careful we won’t have a common property fishery in this country. We will be privatized out of existence” Bill Procopation UFAWU.

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May 22, 1987B.C. fish farmers netted more that 37 million eggs from public hatcheries in 1986.

Since 1980 more than 23 million chinook eggs have gone to the farmers. The greatest number of eggs, however have been coho which totaled more than 40 million during the same period.”

So far in 1987 the farmers have received 494,000 steelhead eggs.

Estimates suggest that there are 5,000 eggs in each chinook on average and 2,500 eggs in each coho. Using these figures, more than 2,800 chinook and 5,000 coho reached the hatcheries, but were used for fish farmers.

In 1988, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between Canada and British Columbia to further benefit the feedlots. It includes a disturbing guarantee to BC wild fish as food for the feedlot salmon, along with public hatchery eggs. Where is all the food coming from that is being shipped in barges to the feedlots weekly from Vancouver? Is it, as this MOU suggests, coming out of BC waters? Who has control of the quotas if it is a “requirement” that DFO consider the feedlot demands? Similarly this MOU required DFO to make salmon eggs available to the industry. After all if the government’s view was that The days of common property fishing are over.why release those eggs into streams, there was no visible commitment to enhance public salmon.

Oct 1988 While the future of SEP grows dimmer, the commitments to aquaculture increase. MOU signed by BC and Ottawa last month guarantees the farmers a feed supply, egg supply, genetic materials and one-stop shopping on licensing through provincial authorities.

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For fisheries policy-makers the appeal of aquaculture does not lie in its ability to produce food. They like the fact that it opens the way to maintain existing fish production while wild stocks fall victim to dams, logging, offshore drilling and a host of other problems.”

This is a very significant statement and gives a person pause. Is this why the “The days of common property fishing are over,” so dams, logging, offshore drilling can go forward more easily? Indeed there are more private power applications, than private fishery applications. Are these two private industries linked through compliant governments?

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Below, government continues working to give the industry ownership of salmon in the ocean making a little progress via a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU.

Sept. 16, 1988It takes a step toward provision of property rights for fish farmers by prohibiting the harvest of fish in an aquaculture facility without consent of the owner.

”… a requirement that DFO consider aquaculture fish meal requirements of the aquaculture industry when developing policies “to optimize the allocation, harvest and utilization of fish stocks and fish offal.

“… a requirement that Canada and BC “negotiate annually the quantity of salmon eggs to be made available to the aquaculture industry.

Salmon feedlot leases were handed out against the will of regional governments and First Nations, not to mention the general public, fishermen and residents who wee displaced by the industry.

June 23, 1986 The provincial government, through the Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing, has been approving salmon farm sites in the past three months at the rate of more than one every working day.” “Even though we were forecasting growth in the industry, the ministry cut our budget by 60 percent … we’ve also been reorganized and downgraded from a branch to a section. This has cut down our ability to respond.” [All these applications were being reviewed by 5 people.]

Real estate promoters are actively involved in the boom.”

The president of Saga, Thor Mowinckle, a pioneer of the Norwegian industry, told a Norwegian trade publication, ‘This may be a case of over investment.

Oct. 1986B.C. Indian leaders, angered at the news that more than 700 aquaculture leases have been issued by the province say the “Social Credit government will ‘have hell to pay’ for its handling of the industry.”

This is pre-emption of traditional lands, Nyce [Nisga’a Tribal Council]”

“… an Indian organization had expected to benefit from aquaculture development, one Indian spokesperson said later. Instead, traditional Indian harvesting areas are being lost to foreign investors.”

April 18, 1986 Despite growing fears of coastal communities, Marine Resources Branch [Provincial Ministry of Environment] Gordon Halsey has neither the resources nor the inclination to study the environmental impacts of the new industry, unless the pollution will affect the industry itself. Halsey, the key figure in the provincial government responsible for salmon farm approvals, described himself as ‘an advocate of the industry’ whose job it is to put salmon farmers ‘on firm footing’.”

“…the regional board [Sechelt] moved to delete aquaculture from the permitted land and foreshore uses in the developed area of the coast.

Coast guard representative John Duderman said most applications ‘are scratched out on the back of an envelope” and farmers sometimes seek locations in the direct line of navigation. Yet in more that 100 permits sought in the past year only one is known to have been rejected.

Although the Department of Lands, Parks and Housing consults the public on leases, it is not allowed to consider environmental factors.”

To randomly approve projects without respect for local governments is pure bloody arrogance, “ longtime Sunshine Coast resident Will Bulmer told the seminar, “… I foresee a decline in the local sport fishing industry as well as the commercial fishery.

Will Bulmer was right.

Feb. 12, 1987 On October 31, 1986 Premier Vander Zalm imposed a moratorium on new licenses, but the lands ministry was allowing permits to be issued if there were “prior commitments” including mere verbal ones.

The news of the moratorium sent shock waves through the fish farming industry and stunned prominent civil servants who had no warning of the policy change.Kamloops lawyer, Brian Gillespie was contracted to review and report on the state of the industry in 30 days. He was given no research staff and no budget to bring in expert witnesses. His partner in his law firm was reportedly close to the Social Credit government.

Dec 12, 1986The Gillespie report into the BC salmon farming industry performed the required political job for the Social Credit government by recommending an early end to the moratorium on issuance of salmon farm licences.”

But Gillespie’s other 51 recommendations amount to an indictment of the government’s total negligence in regulating the industry.”

Just seven days later Agriculture and Fisheries Minister John Savage released 200 permits from the freeze, without implementing any of the recommendations – this is a theme that stretches into the present with recommendations from one salmon farm review after the next ignored, including the $26 million Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of the Sockeye Salmon for the Fraser River.

Burdwood small

Only one community group was given protection from the invasion of marine feedlots, friends of the Social Credit government.

June 23, 1986Protests from the “well-healed ”cottage-owners in Howe Sound on Keats Island, many of whom are “well-connected to the Social Credit Party” slowed the gold-rush down with a moratorium on leases in Howe Sound“.

Because the Constitution of Canada does not allow for private ownership of fish in the ocean, nor privatization of ocean spaces, salmon feedlots in BC have always lurked in a legal grey zone. Eventually, I took Canada, BC and Marine Harvest to BC Supreme court where BC provincial management of salmon feedlots was struck down. Despite this ruling, provincial governments are still in charge of salmon feedlots in eastern Canada, as if eastern and western Canada are two different countries with different laws. Marine Harvest appealed the BC supreme court decision with a specific challenge to the notion that they don’t own their fish. This appeal was not heard and it remains an open question – who does own the salmon in the Norwegian pens in BC, and feedlots in eastern Canada? Rather a fundamental question to the shareholders in this industry. What are the assets of this industry, a heap of nets and aluminum pens? The foreshore leases perhaps?

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Here are the decision documents:
Download Judge Hinkson, re British Columbia (Agriculture and Lands), 02-09 copy 2.pdf (314.9K)
Download Judge Hinkson, re Morton v. British Columbia Supplementary (Agriculture and Lands),01-26 copy.pdf (209.4K)

March 25, 1988According to Michael Coon of the ministry’s aquaculture section, his department is considering a package of regulations for fish farmers including one to establish a property right in their fish.”

Fish farmers want a clear property right to fish inside their pens. Historically fish have been considered wild animals and thus common property. If a property right is declared, the fish can be used as collateral.

But with property rights would have come the question, “Can a fish farmer be sued if he causes pollution?”

And what of the un-extinguished Indian title? B.C. aboriginal groups claim ownership of all marine resources.

Letter to the Editor March 25, 1988 from Kevin O’Neill, Bella Coola

When I learned the minister of fisheries had agreed to permit representatives of the BC Aquaculture Assoc. to harvest wild chinook salmon eggs on the nearby Atnarko River, as well as, several other provincial rivers, in spite of the fact that escapement targets had not been reached on many of these rivers in 1987 I was shocked.

April 16, 1989Salmon farming remains in a legal grey area, effectively undermining the common property fishery.

It seems significant that despite all that went on: getting access to leases, wild fish to make pellets, public salmon eggs, government guaranteed loans, etc., that no one has figured out how to give the salmon feedlot corporations clear ownership their fish “clear property rights to fish inside their pens” did not happen. Perhaps one of the many federal bills being passed into law contains a clause that will finally change Canada’s Constitution in this regard. Or perhaps with ownership came too many problems?

Salmon feedlots were strong-armed onto this coast by the Social Credit government and its supporters, and the NDP railed against it, until they formed government.

April 16, 1987 “NDP Convention Toughens Fisheries Aquaculture policy “The aquaculture industry is like a freight train with failing brakes on a downhill grade.” Resources committee member Arnie Thomlinson

But when the NDP took power in 1991, that freight train really picked up speed, the brakes removed. AndThe days of common property fishing are [indeed almost] over.” The plan laid out by the Science Council in a ballroom in Vancouver is almost complete. Salmon feedlots in BC were no mistake. They are the plan, carefully tended and assisted by government for 28 years.

Now that the threat of exotic viruses has become reality, DFO and the province of BC have fallen silent. If the wild salmon of BC die from these viruses, will some be raising a glass, toasting a job well done? Because as long as you have wild salmon swimming freely past the communities of British Columbia, “common property fishing” will continue and as this has been slated to stop.

What government can’t do, is make people eat farm salmon. Salmon farming in Canada is not profitable at the moment. The big Norwegians are posting losses quarter after quarter in their Canadian feedlots, the value of their product is too low the price is too low

The domination of salmon feedlots over the wild salmon fishery of Canada is clearly the product of a political decision that has been cultivated by several governments. This was done in broad daylight, so Premier Clark and Adrian Dix can only think this is what British Columbians want. In case anyone still thinks this is about jobs, BC Stats suggests as the export value soared the people in the small coastal communities, did not benefit, the number of jobs never changed. This economy is not about us. At stake are staggering profits for those who wind up in control.”

$ vs jobs

If you don’t want wild salmon killed off by salmon feedlot disease I suggest you tell the political leaders in British Columbia right now. Or else they will likely carry on with this plan and “The days of common property fishing are over.”

Alexandra Morton is a registered professional biologist who was living in a remote archipelago studying whales when the fish farmers came to her town. Read other articles by Alexandra, or visit Alexandra's website.