British Columbia

B.C. First Nations occupy a second salmon farm as company raises safety concerns

Members of two British Columbia First Nations say they have occupied a salmon farm on a small island on the province's coast, the second such protest to be held in the past week.

Marine Harvest says protests are creating unsafe conditions at farms

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)

Members of two British Columbia First Nations say they have occupied a salmon farm on a small island on the province's coast, the second such protest to be held in the past week.

Chief Willie Moon, also known as Okwilagame, said about 16 members of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw and the Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwamis arrived at the Wicklow Point salmon farm on Thursday afternoon.

He said about five protesters plan to stay until the provincial and federal governments revoke permits for the facility on Broughton Island, about 50 kilometres east of Port Hardy.

No agreement

Moon said his community has opposed the industry since it was first introduced and has never signed an agreement with any company operating in its traditional territories. The province has disregarded the First Nation's opposition when issuing permits, he said.

"They just go ahead and do it. For me, that's a slap in the face," he said. "How can the governments of Canada and B.C. say they want to do reconciliation with First Nations when yet there's still destruction in our waters, on our lands, in our territory?"

The protest began as members of the 'Namgis First Nation and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society continued their occupation of a salmon farm on nearby Swanson Island, which started last week.

Both farms are owned by Marine Harvest Canada and spokesman Ian Roberts said Thursday the company is very concerned about what is now "a very unsafe situation" and has asked the groups to leave.

He said the company is responsible for the safety of everyone who enters its private workplace. Visitors have included young children and elderly people, all have refused to wear life-jackets and both locations have limited access to emergency services, he said.

Roberts said encampments include propane tanks and electrical cables, which pose a fire risk, and the company's safety concerns are increased when activists are sleeping overnight on floating structures.

Safety concerns 'hogwash'

"We would appreciate hearing the concerns of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw and Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwamis First Nations directly, to find solutions where necessary, and to provide information that show our salmon farms to be operating responsibly and with little environmental impact," he said in a statement.

Moon said the company's comments about safety were "hogwash." There was a three-year-old boy who came to watch the occupation but he wore a life-jacket and has since left, and the youngest person left is a 14-year-old girl who is also wearing a life-jacket, he said.

The only propane tank is a small one on a boat, not on the fish pens, Moon added.

Ernest Alfred, a traditional leader from the 'Namgis, Tlowitsis and Mamalilikulla First Nations who is participating in the Swanson Island occupation, said protesters are completely safe. They have built a shelter on the walkway and have a small Coleman stove, he said.

"They're going to try and use whatever they can to discredit our claims," he said. "I'm not afraid. We're not doing anything wrong. We're exercising our Aboriginal rights here."

He said the chief of the 'Namgis First Nation was set to meet with the company on Friday.

Peaceful protests

The province grants the right for companies to use Crown land, while the federal government issues the licence for the fish.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said individuals have the right to protest but they should not trespass on private property and should respect the biosecurity measures at aquaculture facilities.

"The safety of individuals, including aquaculture facility employees, is paramount. In addition, farmed fish in the net pens should not be disturbed," it said in a statement.

The department said renewing the federal government's relationship with Indigenous people is a "top priority."

The B.C. government said in a statement it respects the right of people to engage in peaceful protests and encourages resolution of issues through discussion wherever possible.

The government has not issued any licences for new fish farms since 2015 while a review of aquaculture policy and licensing is underway. A report is expected in November.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham has said she plans to speak with First Nations leaders about salmon farms at a gathering in Vancouver next week, which Moon said he plans to attend.