Relocating fish farms a possible fix for standoff, B.C. minister says

British Columbia's Agriculture Minister says changes are needed to protect wild salmon stocks on the West Coast — and one of those changes may be the relocation of fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago.

Aquaculture company open to discussing 'if there’s a better way of doing business'

Indigenous leaders attempt to block a packing boat from boarding the fish farm near Swanson Island. (Facebook/Swanson Occupation)

British Columbia's Agriculture Minister says changes are needed to protect wild salmon stocks on the West Coast —  changes that may involve the relocation of fish farms from the Broughton Archipelago, where an occupation by Indigenous protesters nears its third month.

Lana Popham, who is also the NDP MLA for Saanich South, was under fire from the Opposition Liberals in the B.C. legislature this week over a letter to Marine Harvest Canada.

Liberal MLA Peter Milobar referred to Popham as the "minister of intimidation," before withdrawing the remark.

Milobar described the letter, which reminded the company the tenure agreements for its operations might not be renewed at the end of their current term, as "coercive." 

In the letter, Popham raised concerns about Marine Harvest's move to restock its Port Elizabeth fish farm earlier this month.

"We certainly don't have any authority to make them stop," Popham said in an interview with On the Island host Gregor Craigie. 

"What the letter was implying was just to give some breathing room for a few weeks while we try to sort out some of this situation," she said.

Salmon swim in an enclosure at the fish farm owned by Marine Harvest Canada on Swanson Island, near Alert Bay B.C. (Sea Sheperd Conservation Society/YouTube)

"They chose not to do that and that's their prerogative, but they understand and First Nations understand and we understand, and I'll say that the federal government understands, that things have to change," Popham said.

"We all understand that the status quo isn't good enough."

Nearly two months ago, protesters from the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw and Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nations began the occupation, which now includes two Marine Harvest fish farms off the north end of Vancouver Island.

Ernest Alfred, a hereditary chief from the 'Namgis, Lawit'sis and Mamalilikala nations, credited Popham and the government for hearing local First Nations concerns. 

"I couldn't be more supportive of our government's new stance on fish farm operations in our territory," he said.

Salmon protection top priority

Popham said the top priority for the government in the region is protecting wild salmon stocks and following the Cohen Commission recommendations to clear salmon migration routes of anything that could endanger the stocks.

She said the government disagrees with Marine Harvest Canada's position that the Broughton Archipelago is not a significant migration route. 

It will be about a month before meetings aimed at resolving the issues around the fish farm occupation can be convened with Marine Harvest, First Nations, the province and federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Popham said. 

"I think that in cooperation, we're going to get to a place where there's going to be agreement, whether it be re-siting some farms or perhaps farms not operating in certain areas where they used to before," Popham said. "But that's a bigger conversation that we're going to have."

First Nations, fish farm talks urged

In the meantime, she said "I have also requested that the First Nations and Marine Harvest sit at the same table so we can see how far apart they are."

Marine Harvest Canada spokesman Ian Roberts said the company is open to discussion. 

"We have been very willing to discuss with the local stakeholders and First Nations about those sites," Roberts said.

"If there's a better way to do business we're always interested, but today they are very, very good sites for growing fish."

With files from CBC Radio One On the Island.