Respect for indigenous people is key to protecting the ocean

As we stood on a salmon farm in the remote Knights Inlet, British Columbia, Canada, eighteen police in tactical gear surrounded us. We watched in horror as thousands of young Atlantic farm salmon poured into the Pacific from the fish farm vessel. Hundreds of the fish sank to the bottom, dead on arrival. 

What was wrong with them and was it contagious to the wild fish around the farm? The men surrounding us looked embarrassed. It was clear our concerns were valid.

We were a small group, with a big goal – to stop the Norwegian companies, Marine Harvest and Cermaq, from restocking their farms, because they never received permission to operate within traditional Musgamagw Dzawada̱’enux̱w territories. They have been here for 30 years. Now, like everywhere salmon farms operate, we have no wild salmon. We were respectful to the workers on the farm, but firm and confident in our reasons for being there.

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We are three women, two indigenous to this land, and one a non-indigenous biologist, drawn to the area in 1984 to study whales. We are part of an uprising to protect wild salmon from salmon farms. Salmon farms, holding over 1.5 million fish per farm, breed and release unnatural levels of parasites, viruses and other disease agents directly into the ocean.

It is clear that respecting the rights of indigenous people can result in life-saving measures for planet earth

The presence of Atlantic salmon farms in Musgamagw territory – the Broughton Archipelago – is a violation of traditional governance, and outright disrespectful of First Nation sovereignty. Their impact on wild fish severs access to traditional foods.

Once an abundant source of high quality protein, there are now no ‘food fish’ to sustain families throughout the winter. Canada has embraced “meaningful consultation” and “nation-to-nation relationships” and these large corporations are out of synch – still maintaining the money-first perspective and forgoing any environmental or social impact. This is why we stepped on their farms, to bring the fight to their doorstep. 

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Hundreds of tiny scales that were knocked off the fish (as they rolled down the pipe into the pens) were collected and sent to a lab. The test results came back positive for piscine reovirus – not a surprising result as 80 per cent of British Columbia farm salmon are infected with this Norwegian salmon blood virus.

Last summer, hereditary Chief George Quocksister Jr. boarded salmon farms uninvited, and by lowering an underwater camera into each pen, captured unprecedented images of the state of health of the fish in the farms. Tumours, open sores, blisters and sea lice were common. The images brought reality home. 

Sick fish don’t last long in the wild, predators are constantly scanning for the slower, weaker fish – and they eat them. Because salmon farms don’t keep predators, there are hundreds of fish per pen in various states of visibly declining health. The result is the unnatural release of virus particles, sea lice and bacteria from each farm. Wild salmon migrating past these farms are breathing it all in. The pathogens come in contact with their gills and from there into the bloodstream. The wild salmon become farm salmon pathogen carriers.

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An underwater wildlife photographer recently filmed farm salmon blood gushing into major British Columbian wild salmon migration routes from the industry’s processing plants. Samples revealed piscine reovirus and Piscirickettsia salmonis – a super-source of farm pathogens – pouring over wild salmon as they head out to sea and return to spawn.

We hold salmon farms responsible for a large part of the decline of wild salmon. Closing down fishing did not reverse the decline and wild salmon are disappearing in logged, as well as pristine unlogged rivers. It is the same story of decline in Norway, Scotland, Ireland and eastern Canada, wherever there are salmon farms. There is no place we can look at and learn how wild and farmed salmon coexist – a global meta-analysis recently reported that wild salmon only thrive where there are no salmon farms. We now understand that the last of the wild salmon runs will live or die depending on whether they swim through the biological waste pouring out of each salmon farm.  

This fight spans two Musgamagw generations, since Canada was first told not to put salmon farms in these ancestral waters 30 years ago. We are frustrated and heartbroken that both the federal and the provincial government have allowed this to go on for so long. 

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We now cannot teach our children to live our traditional way of life. We have not been able to sockeye salmon fish for three years, and for the past two years, there have not been enough Oolichan (a small silvery fish in the smelt family) to make Oolichan grease – a food source and medicine considered essential for good health.  

Salmon farms are taking away our future, our children's future, and our ability to live healthy on the land as our ancestors have for thousands of years. Similar to environmental battles all across our planet, it is clear that respecting the rights of indigenous people can result in life-saving measures for planet earth, and there is no mystery as to why. For people never torn from their homelands, the environment flows seamlessly through rivers, oceans and the human bloodstream. Respecting the ecosystem and the people is one and the same.

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As a proud signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), Canada has the legal tools to remove aquaculture from the ocean, and build a supplementary food chain in closed tanks. As soon as aquaculture builds an effective barrier between the industrial and natural environments, the industry is free to grow, and the wild salmon are free to come home. 

Respect for indigenous people is key to unlocking a healthy future for the British Columbian coast. We are just three women, but we can see that peaceful, determined, front-line, activism is required to effect real change going forward.


- This piece was written as a collaboration between: Cassandra Alexis, Julia Mcintyre-Smith & Alexandra Morton.This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.

 

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