First Nations warn they will renew salmon licences regardless of Canadian government’s decision

A group of First Nations have warned that, if the Canadian government refuses to renew salmon farming licences, they will assert their aboriginal rights and issue the licences themselves.

Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray is set to decide shortly whether to renew 79 federal licences for open-net salmon farms in British Columbia that are due to expire in June.

The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, a First Nations group, has claimed that they have “received a mandate from our hereditary chiefs” to tell the Canadian government that they will now be “managing the fisheries in our area.”

“We’ll be going down the road of creating the co-jurisdictional framework that involves the transfer of power to local First Nations management authorities,” the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw told a press conference in Ottawa.

Do they have the legal authority?
There is a legal debate over whether First Nations have the authority to take control of fisheries in their territory. Technically, the federal Department of Fisheries and Ocean (DFO) has the ultimate power over waters. However, First Nations have previously defied the Canadian government in the past but have won some legal cases protecting their aboriginal rights to fish in their territories.

Read also: DFO responds to intention of First Nations to take control over traditional waters in salmon fishing row

The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw group of First Nations recently agreed a memorandum of understanding to assert control over fishing in their territory, including salmon farms.

Leslie Walkusm, an elected councillor of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw, said that they will seek to work with other First Nations on the memorandum to begin assuming responsibilities for fisheries. “We do so with the support of the local MLAs, the local regional districts, the mayors and also the support of our neighbouring nations,” Walkus said.

The Canadian government’s plan
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has committed to transitioning away from open-net fish farms starting around 2025. A recently released report by First Nations found outlined how British Columbia communities would lose 4,700 jobs and, as much as, $1.2 billion in economic activity per year if all 79 farming licences are not renewed. The primary economic benefits from salmon farming to First Nations in coastal BC are $50 million.

The Canadian government has, so far, closed around a quarter of the salmon farms in British Columbia, refusing to renew licences for 19 sites in the Discovery Islands.

The Discovery Islands was previously identified by the Cohen Commission of causing a bottleneck for wild salmon migration routes, resulting in a recommendation that the fish farms in the area should be removed unless the fisheries minister could be satisfied that they posed no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon.

The ministry’s own scientists did find that the farms posed no more than a minimal risk but, despite that advice, the Trudeau government ordered the closure of the farms anyway.