British Columbia

Fish farms lawsuit sought by B.C. natives

Several First Nations from British Columbia's Broughton Archipelago have embarked on a court battle against the federal and provincial governments over fish farms.
Farmed salmon mingle with ocean waters as they are raised in net pens in many areas of B.C.'s West Coast. ((CBC))

Several First Nations from British Columbia's Broughton Archipelago have embarked on a court battle against the federal and provincial governments over fish farms.

The bands were in B.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday, seeking to certify a class-action lawsuit against the provincial and federal governments.

The legal battle comes after decades of inaction, said First Nations spokesman Chief Bob Chamberlin.

Natives in the archipelago, on the west side of the Queen Charlotte Strait on the central coast of B.C., have long worried about the environmental impacts of fish farms.

They fear the effects of the chemicals used on the farms and that the farmed fish will spread disease to the almost 230 different wild salmon stocks native to the region.

"We've pounded our head against the wall for years," Chamberlin said of the frustration in getting both governments to listen to their concerns.

Lawsuit could take years

The court fight could last a decade, but he said the bands weren't getting any action through other avenues.

"I don't think the fish can wait that long. That's why we've chosen the class-action route to get it in front of the courts as quickly as possible."

But even before the class-action certification process began Tuesday, a lawyer for the federal government challenged  the scientific research presented by the First Nations in an attempt to pre-empt any further hearings.

Harry Wruck told Justice Harry Slade that the scientific expert makes "one bald-faced assertion after another."

Scientific experts for the governments say there is no sound evidence that wild salmon stocks are declining in the Broughton Archipelago, Wruck stated.

But that question is the point of the entire case, replied J.J. Camp, the lawyer for the potential defendants.

"This will be about a battle of experts," Camp told the court.

The hearing is expected to last nine days.

There are more than two dozen aquaculture sites in the ocean around the Broughton area and almost 230 different populations of wild salmon swim past the farms on their way to 59 rivers in B.C.

Chamberlin said they're especially concerned about what's being poured into the environment by these farms. A chemical called Slice is used to kill sea lice on the farmed fish, antibiotics are fed to the fish, and then there's the food and feces that also goes into the water shared with wild stock.

A young pink salmon infected with sea lice. ((Courtesy of Alexandra Morton/Science))

"Tonnes and tonnes of it. It's not some innocuous little amount, and that's getting introduced into our environment," Chamberlin said. "It's an off-loading of the responsibilities that these companies have."

Opponents of fish farms have had some success in the courts in their long fight against the industry.

Federal government handed jusrisdiction

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled last year the federal government, not the province, should regulate fish farms because it had constitutional powers over the ocean.

Biologist Alexandra Morton, a longtime opponent of open net aquaculture who took part in the lawsuit, said the federal government is better equipped to regulate farms and protect the surrounding environment.

However, the Department of Fisheries has said sea lice from fish farms are not connected to the low returns of wild salmon in the area.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association said Atlantic salmon exports to the United States, Europe and Japan were valued at $330.9 million for 2009.

But unlike B.C.'s forestry, mining and fishing industries, Chamberlin said fish farming hasn't changed with the times, and continues to pollute B.C.'s waters.

"If they moved to closed containment, they would silence 99 per cent of the critics. Why is it they won't do it," he asked.

Last last year the federal government gave a B.C. Supreme Court judge unlimited powers to find out why the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery collapsed in 2009.