by Alexandra Morton
Marine Harvest has paused restocking their Midsummer farm after a stand off between their packer and First Nations and now the occupiers are digging in. As the weather deteriorates they are making preparations as winter is coming. Communities are rallying around them. Other nations are noticing. Many are talking about individual “chiefs” who have sold out and given these companies access to BC waters for personal gain, with no consultation with the people.
The provincial government of BC can see this is getting serious, but they don’t have a plan. They are stuttering, unable to fully grasp the scope of what they are going to have to do. They are going to have to tell the Norwegians to move out of the territories of the nations want them out, or they are going to sit there and let this escalate. If so a lot of questions will erupt to the surface. The province is the landlord, they are renting First Nation territory to these Norwegian-run companies in violation of First Nation rights. The NDP put these farms here in the first place.
No government to date has dared control the Norwegian appetite for the BC coast. It feels like there is more to this arrangement than we can see. Why risk tourism and fishing which are more than twice as big as fish farms in terms of the economy and jobs? It doesn't make sense.
For the moment, the BC NDP are taking refuge in the media line that they need federal money to transition the industry to closed tanks, but these words are falling flat. Both the feds and industry are ignoring them. Marine Harvest, leader of the pack, was offered this deal a few years ago and made it clear they have no intention of getting into a tank. It’s far more profitable to dump in the ocean. The salmon farming industry makes such a miserly contribution to the BC economy, that the NDP are either not doing the math, or there is a piece of this equation hidden from view.
Why is the federal Minister of Fisheries, Dominic LeBlanc, fighting to make Norwegian viruses legal in BC waters? And when is someone in the BC Ministry of Agriculture going notice that the - who found what when is not adding up in defense of the federal minister’s highly compromised position. Farm salmon disease is a word game, bafflegab, a true mad-hatters tea party in the Ministry of Agriculture. How hard they fall depends on when they decide to save themselves instead of the Norwegians.
Marine Harvest, proactive as ever, tried to suppress this uprising, but they were not given a chance to spill their trade beads on to the table. “You are renters,” says traditional leader Willie Moon, “we are kicking you out and keeping the deposit.”
The fuel behind this explosion of energy to expel salmon farms is the coast-wide lack of food fish. There are so few wild salmon that they cannot be harvested to feed the hundreds of families who depend on them as a highly nourishing resource. Taking food away from people is always dangerous.
Fraser River nations took the unprecedented step of organizing a rally in Vancouver in support of these coastal nations who were in meetings with the provincial cabinet putting fish farms on the table. These nations also have no food fish. Despite DFO’s interference, I have tested Fraser River salmon and the highly contagious piscine reovirus is in the Fraser salmon now. While some argue that the virus is from BC, the science simply does not support their position. Viruses have fingerprints and these trace back to Norway.
Marine Harvest miscalculated the mood and decided to restock a farm in the middle of all, this ignoring the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw, as they have always done for decades. As the Norwegian registered Viktoria Viking pulled into the Midsummer Island farm near the Kwikwasut’inux Haxa’mis village of Gwa-yas-dums, two young women, Sherry Moon and Karissa Glendale, strode down the pen walkway in a stunning display of fearlessness. They stood on the narrow walkway between the 57 m ship and the pen and did not flinch as the boat swung large black pipes over their heads preparing to pour Atlantic salmon into their territorial waters. Five hereditary chiefs moved in protectively around the women ignoring the glare of the Norwegian crew and shrieks of the ship’s whistle.
They made the decision to give the new NDP government a chance to demonstrate respect and paused, held the ship at bay, tipped the balance and stepped back to bear witness in disgust as the pipe was lowered and the injection began. Among the industrial salmon pumped into their waters, silver wisps of wild herring tumbled from the ship’s hold into the pen. These valuable fish had been sucked up at the smolt farm with the Atlantic salmon and transported to this site. How is this legal? The Viktoria Viking is not displaying any licence to fish or transport herring. This region has remained closed to herring fishing for three decades, because the population is so fragile and despite this protection they have failed to rebound. Hereditary chief George Quocksister Jr. has now boarded every salmon farm between Campbell River and Port Hardy and shot underwater footage. This industry is a herring fishery. They are hold herring in nets and nearly every farm. No one in BC is allowed to possess herring without a licence and yet thousands spewed from the hold of a vessel whose homeport is Roervik, Norway. So many things are not right here. What is the deal?
The standoff at the other Marine Harvest farm continues. Marine Harvest asked Ernest Alfred and the others to leave the farm so they could begin harvesting the fish. They complied, moved on the farm on the 9th and occupied the abandoned Marine Harvest land camp above the farm. However, Marine Harvest has not fulfilled their part of the arrangement and harvesting has not begun on the farm. The fish appear in poor health. The packer “Proud Venture” is pumping dead fish out of the bottom of the pens every few days, then going around the corner into Blackfish Sound and pumping the farm water full of rotting fish tissue into the migration route of the Fraser sockeye and all southcoast salmon. The boat then returns to the farm and pumps more dead fish into the hold.
The people occupying the salmon farms are enduring long days of the hiss and rattle of tons of pellets tumbling along the feeder tubes to each pen. It smells like dog food. People’s faces and lips are chapped, their eyes burning from this industrial dust. Many of the fish are lethargic, wasting away emaciated in the corners of the pens, their heads resting on the nets looking out. On windy days the farm undulates, and bucks. I cannot step on a farm as Marine Harvest is suing me for touching a farm with a teaspoon last year to collect a bird dropping, but I am viewing the hours of underwater footage shot by the people on the farms. Blisters, “terminator” fish missing parts of their faces, swollen gills, no tails, gaping sores, missing skin, tumours, deformed spines, jaws that won’t shut, balloon syndrome, volkswagons, and schools of wild herring trapped in this filth. It’s a shop of horrors and the pathogens percolating out of these facilities are perhaps the greatest sustained industrial spill in the history of the BC coast.
I am a scientist. I have measured, written up and published on the details of this spill in scientific journals, but the big machine just runs right over it. Science is not even a speed bump for this industry and it government handlers. At some level I know it’s important to do the science, to gain this understanding, but in reality the only good it has done is to build the resolve that is in me.
Allies are stepping up everywhere. I am onboard a boat with a Sea Shepherd crew. The vessel and crew are highly functional allies on the front lines. Fraser River nations organized a rally at the Vancouver Convention Centre as the chiefs met with the BC government, because they are alarmed at the diseased fish in their river and the collapse of their food fishery. Three hundred people showed up with three days notice on a Thursday.
The elected First Nation leadership of the Broughton are standing firm in a shower of sparks as hereditary and non-indigenous leaders grind gears. One hundred and fifty people showed up when Ernest Alfred took over the remote abandoned buildings above the Marine Harvest farm on Swanson Island, as he shifts into long-term gear and plants a garden, all to ensure the farm removes its fish and never comes back. This movement is taking root, stabilizing and growing.
Equilibrium has been achieved. No farm fish are going in and none are coming out. This is unsustainable for an industry based on the growth of the share price that it requires. We are in the eye of the storm.
A few days later rain was coming down hard on the salmon farm where the standoff with the Viking took place. The door to the tiny plastic house we built on the farm swings open and three young women stepped out. Ignoring the rain they begin singing, a drum lending rhythm to their voices. I could feel my heart warm of gratitude for everyone near and distant holding space in international gale force winds for this to happen.
I know what is happening beneath our feet in the dark of the ocean, the viruses seeping out, the death and suffering. I loathe the nauseating dread this knowledge brings. But standing in this moment everything comes clear.
It is time to be fearless, to step between the living world and an economy that can only thrive on death of life as we know it. There is a madness upon us that cannot tolerate anything that is not corporately owned. Wild salmon threaten salmon farms. The abundant salmon runs in Alaska are considered a “shock” to the farm salmon market. The salmon farmers blame healthy wild salmon for sea lice, they cannot operate among healthy wild salmon runs. The herring that are essential to the BC coast are treated as if they belong to Norway, when in fact the Norwegians don’t even own the farm salmon in the pens as that would be a violation of Canadian law.
Marine Harvest, Cermaq, Grieg – this gig is over, it is time for you gather your things and leave. You have done incalculable damage here, you dishonour your home country, this is now a human rights issue, as well as, devastating abuse of the already dying oceans of our planet. Get out and let us get to work healing what you have done to this part of the world that all of our children will share.
photos by Simon Ager