Premier John Horgan said Wednesday the province will review open-net fish farm tenures to ensure wild salmon don’t face “obstacles” along migratory routes.
“We are going to be reviewing tenures, consistent with the Cohen Commission recommendations, to ensure migratory routes for wild salmon are clear of obstacles or any other deterrents,” Horgan said.
“These are important issues for wild salmon, and that’s our focus on this issue.”
The move comes in the wake of a letter his government sent to Marine Harvest Canada last week, effectively putting the fish-farm company on notice that its tenure leases along Vancouver Island might not be renewed.
Critics of open-net fish farms, which allow water to flow freely between pens holding farmed fish and the natural environment, say they risk spreading diseases to wild stocks.
Some First Nations have also argued the aquaculture companies are operating in their traditional territories without their permission.
Horgan met last week with First Nations leaders in Alert Bay concerned about fish farming in their traditional territories.
Protesters, including environmentalists and First Nations members, are occupying three Marine Harvest Canada fish farms in the area.
On Wednesday, Horgan said the province is committed to acting within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, including the elements of free, prior and informed consent.
But he said those elements apply to new tenures, leases and business projects — not established ones.
“I believe investors should look at UNDRIP going forward, not retrospectively,” Horgan said.
“We can’t go backward on these consultations.”
It’s unclear how that would apply to Marine Harvest Canada, if its leases are not renewed and the company must apply for new ones.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham wrote a letter to the company’s managing director, Vincent Erenst, on Friday.
In it, she said Marine Harvest Canada’s plan to restock its Port Elizabeth farm comes at a sensitive time of “government-to-government discussions” and reiterated the province’s commitment to UNDRIP.
The company restocked the farm earlier that morning.
“Whatever operational decisions you should choose to make, the province retains all of its rights under the current tenure agreements, including potentially the requirement that you return possession of tenured sites at the end of the current terms,” the letter says.
Marine Harvest spokesman Ian Roberts said the letter was concerning, given the company’s 30-year history in the region and the fact it employees hundreds of people around north Vancouver Island, including First Nations.
“It’s been clear from First Nations in the area that the prime discussion is about rights and title. And we want our governments to be having those discussions with First Nations, but we feel very much that we’re stuck in the middle,” Roberts said.
“It really sends a message to any industry operating in or looking to grow a business in British Columbia, that there is a concern that the government of the day will remove your permits to operate, when you’ve been operating to the expectations of your licence and permits,” he said.
Abbotsford West Liberal MLA Mike de Jong called the letter “an insidious message.”
“I don’t remember ever seeing a letter from a minister of the Crown that says to a lawfully operating business: ‘Whatever you do, even if you are operating within the bounds of the law, we may have concerns and we’re watching you. And if we don’t like the way you’re operating, we may simply decide not to renew your licence,’ ” de Jong said.
More than 90 First Nations are in support of the removal of fish farms and ongoing occupation, according to the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.