Can There Be a Salmon People Without Wild Salmon?

TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF SNUNEYMUXW FIRST NATION (NANAIMO, BC)—On May 8, 2010, thousands of people flowed across the lawns of BC’s legislature in Victoria to protest open-net salmon farming, which Indigenous communities and others are blaming for catastrophic declines in the wild salmon population.

Calling for wild salmon to take priority over farmed salmon, a contingent led by First Nations set off on April 23 from Sointula, at the north end of Vancouver Island, and walked for two weeks to Victoria.

The Vancouver dailies, the Sun and Province, both put the number at the legislature about 1,000, and the national Globe and Mail estimated 4,000, but Alexander Morton, one of the organizers of the “Get out Migration” march, counted many more.

“The Parliament lawns reportedly hold 20,000 people and looking out over the sea of people less than 1/3 of the lawn was visible,” said Morton.

The plight of the salmon is linked with the health of the First Nations. In 1997, Chief Simon Lucas of the BC Aboriginal Fisheries Commission addressed concerns about the negative impact of salmon farming of wild salmon with the warning: “The issue for us is about home, about how we’re dying. If you affect in any way the clams and the other marine life, you’re going to affect us.”
The Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest were historically referred to as the Salmon People – their communities, stales, and culture thrived in unison with the salmon, which provided sustenance for humans and much of the ecosystem.

But the increasing number of commercial fish farms, which raise salmon in open-net cages in the ocean, pose an great threat to the lifeways of First Nations.

Farmed salmon, which are raised in open net cages in the ocean, have been blamed for causing sea lice and viral epidemics in wild salmon.

“The fish farms operating in our territories are killing wild salmon, the lifeblood of all life that reside in our territories and the lifeblood of our culture,” said Bob Chamberlin, Chief of the Kwicksutaineuk Ah-kwa-mish First Nation (KAFN) on northeastern Vancouver Island, near Alert Bay.

In a February 18 press release, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs stated, “The UBCIC has long-held the opinion that salmon fish farms has proven to have had a lethal and irreversibly toxic impact on indigenous runs of wild salmon. Especially where there is a concentration of fish farms in waters used by juvenile salmon exposed to the high concentrations of sea-lice from these fish farms.”

During the Vancouver Olympics, the UBCIC Executive joined 45 people who participated in a fast lasting more than one day. The fast supported the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council’s (MTTC) opposition to fish farm tenures in the Broughton Archipelago, in northwest Vancouver Island. They fasted for 29 hours, one hour each for the 29 salmon farms operating in the traditional territory of coastal MTTC.

The UBCIC took aim at Norway, home to most of BC’s salmon-farming corporations.

“Norway voted to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was an historical vote and to Indigenous Peoples it is regarded as a solemn commitment to universal human rights,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. “Companies headquartered in countries who voted to adopt the Declaration, such as Norway, should apply the standards of the Declaration in all of their relationships with Indigenous Peoples domestically and internationally.”

“Norwegian-owned salmon farms operating in our traditional territorial waters are killing wild salmon and strangling the lifeblood of our whole culture,” said Chief Chamberlin.

The plight of the salmon has been linked with the poor health of the First Nations. In 1997, Chief Simon Lucas of the BC Aboriginal Fisheries Commission addressed concerns about the negative impact of salmon farming on wild salmon with a warning.

“The issue for us is about home, about how we’re dying,” he said. “If you affect in any way the clams and the other marine life, you’re going to affect us.”

Wyampum woman Elizabeth Woody said that Indigenous peoples have a strong relationship with salmon going back at least 12,000 years. “When the fish ran, people were wealthy,” she wrote.

In The Salmon People: The Story of Canada’s West Coast Salmon Fishing Industry, author Hugh W. McKervill wrote about the integral role salmon play in Indigenous cultures of the North Pacific Coast.

“The people of the North Pacific Coast were and still are ‘The Salmon People,’” he wrote. The capture of first salmon is celebrated as if the salmon were an “honored guest of the rank of a visiting chief.” McKervill said the colonists changed the Indigenous peoples relationship with the salmon.

UBC law professor Douglas C. Harris wrote,

The important point is that Native peoples controlled their fisheries through right of use and exclusion that predated non-Native interference…. The Native’s claim was a moral and ultimately legal claim, based not only on efficient management or material need but also on a sense of right that originated within their cultures.

But the moral and legal claim of the Indigenous peoples was not triumphant.

“After 1894, no part of the Native fishery was exempt under Canadian law from state regulation; in this sense the legal capture of the resource was complete,” Harris wrote.

Harris describes the law as an instrument of cultural domination used by colonial powers to take and justify control of other territories and peoples.

More recently, First Nations have begun attempting to use the law to stop salmon farming.

On 4 February, KAFN filed a class-action lawsuit against the BC government’s regulation of open net-cage salmon farms.

Chief Chamberlin said the lawsuit was a last resort.

“We have been patient and respectful, attending countless meetings while damage continues to be inflicted on the wild salmon by open net-cage salmon farms,” he said. “Wild salmon stocks throughout the entire Broughton are in a sustained and serious decline; some salmon runs may become extinct and never be replaced. The salmon have existed here as long as we have, and it is essential to the survival of our distinct aboriginal culture that plentiful stocks of wild salmon survive.”

Harris said that the KAFN civil suit says much about the status quo.

“The fact that this dispute is being deliberated, argued, and decided in a Canadian court is revealing of the longer ongoing colonial control,” Harris said.

Turning to the BC courts might be interpreted as recognition of colonial jurisdiction, Harris said. With an independent court option closed to First Nations, weighing the survival of wild salmon against Indigenous rights becomes a “strategic decision.”

Among the crowd of wild salmon advocates gathered at Centennial Square behind Victoria City Hall – prior to the final march to the Parliament Buildings – was John Haughen of the Nlaka’pamux Nation.

“It [the courts] is the only tool we have since we’ve been allowed to hire lawyers and use the courts,” he said.

Deata Taylor of the Dzawada’eneuw First Nation on Kingcombe Inlet supports Chief Chamberlin’s lawsuit. She does not, however, recognize the jurisdiction of the BC courts in First Nation territories.

“We should decide whether fish farms should be in our territories,” she said.

For more than a decade, a broad coalition of groups has been advocating a solution. In 1997, the Salmon Aquaculture Review alliance – whose members included First Nations, environmental groups, fishers unions, and legal advocacy groups – called for replacing net-pens with closed containment systems (a system closed of from and non-disruptive of the natural ocean environment).

Not all First Nations eschew salmon farming.

In 1987, Larry Greba of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans started aquaculture work for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation on Klemtu Island in the Broughton archipelago. He noted a late 1980s collapse in commercial salmon fishing that caused the Kitasoo/ Xaixais to turn to salmon farming and partnership with Marine Harvest. The Kitasoo/ Xai’xais retained control over the development of the aquaculture sites, so they could ensure a sustainable operation.

Greba focused on the economic impact for the community.

“The current situation for Kitasoo economically from salmon farming are 60 full time jobs, of which 18 are year round at the farm and 42 are with fish harvesting/ transport and processing for 7-9 months per year at the processing plant in Klemtu,” he wrote in an email. “Total annual wages are about $1.5M to Kitasoo members and when the plant is operating the band has about a 60% employment rate.”

When the plant is not operating, Greba says the employment dropped to about 40%, but he added this was ameliorated by a long, steady processing season that qualified most workers for unemployment benefits.

Even the formerly anti-salmon farming Ahousaht First Nation on eastern Vancouver Island have switched sides and are engaging in salmon farming to create economic opportunities in a sustainable manner.

On May 5 the “Get Out Migration” marchers arrived at Nanaimo’s Maffeo Sutton Park. Chief Doug White of the Snuneymuxw First Nation described the sacred relationship of his people to the salmon, the tradition of the salmon ceremony and the revered salmon petroglyph.

“The Snuneymuxw worldview … is one that has salmon at the center,” White said.

White stated that the 1854 Douglas treaty, signed by British Columbia’s first governor with some First Nations, ceded Indigenous rights to some land but also recognized the way of life of the Snuneymuxw people, including the Snuneymuxw’s relationship to salmon and the right of engagement.

Morton criticized Norway and its multinational aquaculture.

“For 20 years, Norwegians have done this [salmon farming]. It is time to admit it was a mistake.” Salmon farms need to be pulled out of the seas, she said. She called on people to be firm with the government.

“Salmon are dying because of politics.”

People from the Pacific Northwest First Nations have long been the Salmon People. The multitude that turned out in Victoria on May 7 demonstrates, however, that Salmon People comprise a broad swath of society – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

  • Based on article published at The Dominion.
  • Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.

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    1. BartFargo said on July 13th, 2010 at 7:49pm #

      An insightful piece. The monolithic adoption of salmon farming methods, driven by the increasingly standardized food market, is forcing First Nations to adopt a “if you can’t beat em, join em” mentality to maintain something approximating their traditional lifestyles. But with the show of support at the demonstration, hopefully another solution can be worked out.