In British Columbia the debate about salmon farming is a heated one, and that debate is mainly held between two contenders: activists and those working in the industry. Meanwhile, the provincial and federal governments stand by and base their decisions regarding the industry on whomever seems to win the debate in the public’s eye, which is usually the activists.
Until recently, we First Nations have been left out of this conversation. Considering every single fish farm (raising Atlantic, Pacific and non-salmonid species) is located in the traditional territory of a Nation, this exclusion should be alarming or laughable – instead it’s been the norm for decades, and for most industries operating on traditional territories, not just fish farming.
First Nations are finally speaking out and standing up for our inherent right to manage our territories, and whatever is happening within those territories, including our waterways. For coastal Nations, the ocean has always been the backbone of our culture, history, and way of life. For over 10,000 years we have learned to harvest, hunt, and farm from the sea. Aquaculture and mariculture are not new to us, no matter how recent the modern methods of salmon farming are compared to traditional terrestrial agriculture. Our historical stewardship over aquaculture and mariculture ensured that we never took more than we need from the sea. Once that stewardship was taken away from us by the federal government, many species were over hunted and over harvested, which is where we are today.
As the world gathers in Montreal this month for the United Nations’ biodiversity conference, COP15, all eyes are on Indigenous-led conservation efforts to lead biodiversity recovery and protection. This is what some of our First Nations have been trying to do when it comes to wild salmon and ocean protection, while creating sustainable development and economic diversity for our coastal, often remote, communities through salmon farming.
Those Nations who want to pursue fish farming in our waters should be able and trusted to do so. We have been the stewards of our lands and waters for millennia. We are experts, not sellouts, and we would not put thousands of years of stewardship at risk for short-term monetary gain, despite some activists claiming otherwise.
When the government works with those activists and their eco-colonialist misinformation rather than us Rightsholder First Nations, they are setting us back regarding reconciliation, self-determination, conservation, and the survival of wild salmon, which is the lifeblood of coastal Indigenous peoples.
This isn’t a debate about salmon farming, and whether it is good or bad – it’s about our sovereign right to make decisions for what happens in our territories, and salmon farming is a small drop in the bucket of the overall holistic approach we will take to managing our marine spaces. It is a part of the whole. We will be weaving Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge with western science, advancing technologies, and the oversight of our Guardian Watchmen to help lead aquaculture in Canada, all while benefitting our communities via own-source revenue.
We believe we can help protect wild Pacific salmon in our waters by offering the world an alternative to that dwindling resource, and by putting dollars gained from salmon farming back into wild salmon enhancement and watershed rehabilitation.
It is all woven together, and how First Nations choose to weave our futures should be decided in our own coastal communities, not 5,000 kilometres away in Ottawa.
It is known that when Indigenous Peoples lead the way conservation rates are usually much higher – so let us lead.
Dallas Smith is the spokesperson for the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship – Tlowitsis Nation