Wild salmon council draws skepticism

B.C. premier, agriculture minister announce panel

The B.C. government’s newly announced wild salmon advisory council has drawn skepticism from groups including the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the Nanwakolas Council, which have suggested that the province is delaying real action on the issue of declining wild salmon stocks.

Stan Proboszcz, science and campaign advisor for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said that wild salmon are in crisis and the province is using its new panel to avoid dealing with the problem.

“We’ve had so many processes and inquiries and investigations,” said Proboszcz, after learning about the government’s plans. “I’m not really sure what a new one, a provincially led one, is going to reveal.”

The 14-member panel was announced on Friday morning by Premier John Horgan and Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.

Proboszcz said it includes strong First Nations representation but is heavily weighted towards fishing interests – both recreational and commercial – and lacks representation from advocates strictly focussed on conservation at a time when wild salmon stocks are in steep decline.

“If your house is on fire, you don’t set up an investigation to figure out why it’s burning,” he said. “You throw water on it.”

The new council comes ahead of the expiration of 20 fish farm licenses in the Broughton Archipelago on June 20.

Horgan said those licences are up to the federal government. But Proboszcz described that as a cop-out.

READ MORE: Salmon farms are Ottawa’s responsibility, John Horgan says

The provincial government is “100 per cent responsible” for permits that allow for the anchoring of fish farm facilities to the sea floor, he said, and he called on the province not to renew those licenses.

“The province could stand strong on this but we’re not seeing that, we’re seeing this deflection,” he said.

He also called on the government to put an end to clearcutting in old-growth forests that are strongholds for wild salmon.

Horgan said the government will develop its wild salmon strategy over the summer as recommendations from the advisory group come in.

But Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council – a coalition of First Nations with territories spanning large sections of northern Vancouver Island and the coastal Mainland – said he’s skeptical about how effective the new advisory council will be.

“I’m a little skeptical just because we’ve had committee after committee,” he said.

A number of fish farms operate in waters within the traditional territories of the Nanwakolas First Nations. Those facilities have drawn the ire of environmentalists and some Indigenous people who oppose the operations, saying that farmed salmon are destroying wild stocks.

The operations need to be sustainable and in line with First Nations values, said Smith, who added that “wild salmon is paramount.”

He said it’s encouraging that Chief Marilyn Slett of Heiltsuk Nation is serving as co-chair of the advisory council, describing her as “action-oriented.”

But he characterized the advisory council as a form of “political appeasement” meant to satisfy the Green Party – which has supported the NDP in a coalition government – by providing a platform to Adam Olsen, a Green Party MLA and member of the council.

“I think this is more about an opportunity to kick the can down the road,” said Smith.

In a statement released by the provincial government, Olsen identified fish farms as one of several threats to wild stocks.

READ MORE: Sea Shepherd, fish farmers poised for face-off

Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, wouldn’t speculate on whether the council would lead to the dismantling of fish farms, but said that aquaculture plays “a key role in protecting wild salmon stocks.”

Hall argued that the industry protects wild stocks by providing an alternative source of fish, and that salmon farmers have invested heavily in the protection of wild stocks.

Regarding the new advisory council, he said it was “good news that the province is taking a holistic look” at the wild salmon issue.

“We hope that this group will speak to the best and brightest scientists out there,” he said, adding that the council should consult with “the breadth of industries that are involved in the oceans” to come up with “fact-based, science-based recommendations.”

Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA Doug Routley is serving as council co-chair with Slett.

Along with Olsen, members of the committee include United Fisheries and Allied Workers’ Union president Joy Thorkelson, First Nations Summit co-chair Ray Harris, Okanagan Nation Alliance fisheries biologist Dawn Machin, Juan de Fuca Electoral Area director Mike Hicks, Heiltsuk commercial fisherman James Lawson and Ward Bond, co-owner of Island Outfitters and a member of the Canada-U.S. Pacific Salmon Foundation board.

Other members include Tasha Sutcliffe, vice-president of Ecotrust Canada, commercial fisherman Cailyn Siider, Martin Paish, who is director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C., Ian Bruce of the Peninsula Streams Society and Thomas Alexis, director of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance.

-With files from Tom Fletcher

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