Wild salmon need urgent protection

MLA Adam Olsen. (BC Green Party)

With every passing day, and each new generation of British Columbians, the power of the wild Pacific salmon is quietly diminishing. Our shifting baseline of what is normal for wild salmon returning to our rivers is slipping from millions to thousands, thousands to hundreds, hundreds to dozens. The future of these economically important, environmentally vital, and culturally essential species is not bright.

The threats to fish stocks are many — habitat and ecosystem degradation, poor management, fish farms and climate change. With expiring tenures and notice of the B.C. government’s new aquaculture policy, all eyes have been on fish farms.

On June 20th, government announced that effective 2022 the province will only grant tenures to fish farm operators who have satisfied Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that their operations will not adversely impact wild salmon stocks, and who have negotiated agreements with the First Nation(s) in whose territory they propose to operate and pollute in.

If government’s goal is to protect wild salmon from fish farms, this is not a strong policy. It is already DFO’s job to “sustainably manage fisheries and aquaculture and work with fishers, coastal and Indigenous communities to enable their continued prosperity from fish and seafood.” Yet our wild salmon stocks are crashing.

In April, the Auditor General of Canada summarized their auditof fish farms and DFO by saying: “We concluded that Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not adequately manage the risks associated with salmon aquaculture consistent with its mandate to protect wild fish.” The official audit cites DFO failings related to pollution, pesticide use, the spread of infectious disease and parasites, the control of escaped fish, and compliance reporting and enforcement.

Likewise, if government’s goal is to support First Nations, this is not strong policy. Post-2022 industry will need to have benefit agreements with the First Nations whose territories they are operating in. That sounds good, but it is has the potential to create a lot of problems.

The province is pretending that salmon do not migrate thousands of kilometres across our province and through numerous territories. My nation, the Tsartlip First Nation, doesn’t have any fish farms in its territory, but the salmon we have traditionally harvested migrate past dozens. We rely on these fish, but have stopped fishing because there are so few salmon.

This new policy is trying to be all things, to all people, but avoids making any tough decisions and looks to Ottawa for B.C. leadership.

As an alternative, we could have given industry the 18 months needed to grow and harvest smolts already in their pens, an additional 60 days to decommission their sites, and then we would have cancelled their provincial tenures. During that transition we could have consulted with the leadership of every First Nation – with the recognition that wild salmon are foundational to First Nations in BC – and coastal community.

We do not have until 2022 to sort this out. Salmon are the lifeblood of the province and B.C. needs to be more involved in decisions concerning this iconic species. We cannot let decimated salmon stocks become the new normal.

Adam Olsen is the BC Green Party MLA for Saanich North and the Islands and spokesperson for agriculture.

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