Dozens of Indigenous leaders and protestors rallied outside the Vancouver Convention Centre today urging the province to dismantle salmon farms along the B.C. coast.
The calls came as environmentalists and members of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw and the Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwamis First Nations occupy two Marine Harvest Canada salmon farms in their territorial waters off the north end of Vancouver Island.
They say the salmon farms pose a threat to wild fish populations.
Chief Willie Moon was among the many leaders who spoke at the rally. He says frustrations have mounted as repeated calls directed at the provincial and federal governments to revoke fish farm licensing in traditional Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw territory have gone unheard.
"We've demonstrated peacefully for over 30 years, and we're occupying now," he said. "It's unlimited as to what we will do to get those fish farms out of our territory."
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"This fish farm industry is posing a real danger to bringing our wild salmon to extinction, and it must be stopped."
Documents addressed to province
The World Salmon Alliance has issued a document signed by Indigenous leaders from more than half of B.C.'s First Nations, calling on the provincial government to dismantle open-pen fish farming in favour of land-based, closed containment farms.
The document also calls on the government to embrace recommendations made in the Cohen Commission, which was mandated to look into the state of salmon stocks in B.C.'s Fraser River.
"The vast majority of First Nations in British Columbia are absolutely opposed to open pen fish farms," said Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs vice-president Bob Chamberlin.
Chamberlin says he will present the document to premier John Horgan at the B.C. Cabinet and First Nations Leaders' Gathering, a two-day summit being held in Vancouver.
"What you're witnessing with the occupation with the fish farms is what happens when the previous governments have turned a deaf ear, when they relied upon consultation and accommodation that never met the needs of our people," said Chamberlin.
Protestors cause disruptions
Ian Roberts, spokesperson for Marine Harvest Canada, says the occupations, which began as peaceful, have since become disruptive.
Yesterday, occupation members attempted to blockade a packing ship from entering the farm. Roberts says they put themselves in danger of being struck by the large ship.
"We're becoming more concerned about safety," said Roberts. "Getting in between a dock and a large boat is very, very dangerous. We were able to continue our business, but we had to have an RCMP presence there to have the campers remain at a safe distance away from the large vessel docking."
Roberts reiterated Marine Harvest Canada's willingness to work with First Nations, and allow a representative to observe their operations regularly.
Province hopes for balanced solution
B.C.'s Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham was one of the many government officials present at this week's leadership summit. Popham says she's spoken with numerous Indigenous leaders regarding open-pen fish farming in territorial waters.
In an emailed statement, she told CBC News that ensuring the safety of wild salmon populations is a priority for the provincial government. However, she also noted the economic benefits of fish farming to small towns along the province's coast should not be overlooked.
"This is an issue that won't be solved overnight, but one that will require having everyone at the table to determine solutions going forward," said Popham.