First Nations leaders question validity of DFO fish farm risk assessment

First Nations leaders are expressing doubt about the validity of a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) risk assessment of fish farms in the Discovery Islands area of B.C. that concluded they pose a minimal risk to wild salmon. 

‘I don’t know where they’re getting their science from but that's off the mark,’ says Homalco chief

Aquatic science biologist Shawn Stenhouse writes down results during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C., in 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

First Nations leaders are expressing doubt about the validity of a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) risk assessment of fish farms in the Discovery Islands area of B.C. that concluded they pose a minimal risk to wild salmon. 

In tandem with that announcement, the department said it will be consulting with seven First Nations in the region before making a decision about lease renewals. 

Darren Blaney is the chief of the Homalco First Nation, one of the First Nations DFO said it will be consulting. He said he's skeptical about what will be up for discussion given DFO's conclusion about the risks open-net farms pose to juvenile sockeye as they pass by on their outmigration. 

"I think that's totally off the mark. I don't know where they're getting their science from but that's off the mark," he said. 

"We're just consulting our way to the extinction of our salmon stocks." 

Homalco Chief Darren Blaney said his community used to have sockeye every year but now they only get it maybe once every four years. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

DFO had until Sept. 30 to come up with a risk classification in order to meet a recommendation from the Cohen commission into declining Fraser River salmon stocks that tasked DFO with investigating the impacts fish farms might be having on the health of migrating sockeye. 

If DFO had found the farms posed anything more than a minimal risk, the Cohen commission recommendation advised that DFO should get the farms out of the water. 

DFO director of aquaculture Jay Parsons clarified that by saying that fish farms pose a minimal risk to the sockeye, "it does not mean no risk."

"What it does mean is that the combination of the likelihood of the pathogen being transferred and infecting Fraser River salmon and the consequence to those Fraser River salmon is minimal or low impact. It means that while there may be some level of impact, it is a low or minimal impact."

He said the fish farm risk assessments were inclusive of outside experts and went through a peer-review process. 

"The process is open, it's transparent. It's very robust in terms of the type of advice we provide and make available, not only to aquatic resources managers but also to the broad public," said Parsons. 

Questions about sea lice persist

In a joint news release, a pair of Assembly of First Nations regional chiefs said they were disappointed and "extremely frustrated" with the DFO's conclusion about risk factors. 

"Nations have been blowing the whistle on the effects of open-net pen fish farming on wild salmon for well more than a decade," wrote AFN Regional Chief for B.C. Terry Teegee.

Teegee and N.B./P.E.I. Regional Chief Roger Augustine took issue with how DFO came to its conclusion about risk and what was excluded from the nine risk assessments it undertook: sea lice. 

A juvenile sockeye salmon with sea lice. (Alexandra Morton)

They say evidence was submitted to DFO from a variety of sources indicating that sea lice is harming wild salmon. 

DFO staff said sea lice were not part of their nine assessments but that they already have an "extensive" body of knowledge about the parasite. They also highlighted the mitigation measures already in place. 

"Our current management regime, which we recently updated in February 2020, has thresholds for treatment and actions for sea lice levels on the farm site that we believe addresses any risk, if implemented properly, from the farms infecting the wild fish," said Andrew Thomson, DFO's Pacific regional director of fisheries management.

Bob Chamberlin, former vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and current chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, said he had "zero faith" that DFO would come to any conclusion that wouldn't support the continuation of the aquaculture industry.

"To me it's a sham," he said. 

Bob Chamberlin says he thinks DFO is in a conflict of interest because of its dual mandate that involves managing aquaculture and wild fisheries. (Nic Amaya/CBC)

He said it will be a challenge for First Nations to refute DFO's conclusion of a minimal risk. 

"Quite clearly the minister has got science, or their version of science, in their pocket that she's willing to bet the department's position on. And so really what can anyone do to move them from that?"

He said First Nations up and down the Fraser River should be included in any consultations about licence renewal. 

DFO has committed to having a plan in place by 2025 to transition away from open-net pen fish farms.