“I’m shocked it was this easy with just a handful of warriors… imagine what we can do with a Nation. Imagine what we can do with all the people that care for this planet.”
With these words, Lennie John of the Ahousaht First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island, declared victory over one of Japan’s largest and most powerful corporations in a fight for his nation’s territorial rights and food security, and in defence of wild salmon.
John, who operates a small tourist business, was one of many Ahousaht outraged over the placement of a new salmon farm being constructed by salmon farming giant, Cermaq (a subsidiary of Mitsubishi), in a place they call Yaakswiis Bay. The proposed feedlot site, approved by the B.C. provincial government in July 2015, was adjacent to the Atleo River, an important salmon river that has been fished by his people since time began.
The Atleo once teemed with all six species of Pacific salmon and trout, but like many others in their territory and throughout B.C., it now struggles to maintain even much smaller runs. The combined effects of decades of logging, warming waters, and an existing salmon farm less than a kilometer from its mouth have left its salmon little room for more insult. And John and the others knew all to well that salmon farms carry plenty of potential insults.
Because each farm crams up to one million salmon into its cages, outbreaks of parasitic sea lice are common. Both farmed and wild salmon are equally vulnerable to these parasites, but they are particularly harmful to migrating juvenile wild salmonbecause of their small size.
Keeping fish at such high densities in these farms also provides ideal conditions for outbreaks of disease that can spread to wild populations.
To add to their concerns, the proposed site was in prime prawning grounds and uncomfortably close to clam beds that have provided sustenance to the Ahousaht people for generations. The pesticides salmon farmers use to control disease outbreaks are known to be extremely toxic to shellfish, and cannot be strictly contained in open-ocean pens, impacting a sizable perimeter around the farms.
As well, toxic algae blooms that suck life-sustaining oxygen from the water and leave little in their wake are known to occur around these farms due to the extreme nutrient loading. Worst, a salmon farm like the one proposed can create about the same amount of raw sewage as a city the size of Kelowna.
“It’s common sense,” says Lennie John. “We fish in these waters for food, we don’t go into Cermaq’s kitchen and leave manure all over the floor.”
To John, as well as a generation of salmon farm activists, common sense had not stopped the expansion of salmon farms in Ahousaht territory or in B.C. as a whole.
And so, seeing only one option left, the standoff began on Sept. 9 when he caught the farm in the process of anchoring in Yaakswiis Bay.
“I came in with my little speed boat, the Sweet Marie… told them they were trespassing,” says John.
Rebuffed by the Cermaq crews, he radioed back to the village of Ahousaht, and was soon joined by several others. A total of six men in three boats then boarded the farm structure and made it clear they had no intentions of leaving.
Cermaq crews loaded their barge and fled.
Word went out quickly of their actions. An outpouring of support from First Nations and the British Columbia public saw more people, food, and supplies arrive. Tents dotted the pen structure as the occupiers prepared for a long battle, vowing to stay as long as it took to defend the ancestral waters and wild salmon considered sacred among their people.
But as it happens, the occupation at the Yaakswiis Ocean Camp, as they came to call it, lasted for only 10 days.
On Sept. 19, after several meetings and exchanges, a letter arrived at the camp from the elected chief and chief’s representatives of the Ahousaht Nation offering to meet the demands of the camp. After coming to agreement on the exact wording of the language of the agreement, Ahousaht chiefs visited the site two days later and took ownership of the site through ceremony.
On behalf of their people, the Ahousaht chiefs then negotiated with Cermaq to have the feedlot removed — the Yaakswiis site would be permanently protected from any future fish farms or logging.
And with that, John’s handful of warriors had won. They had preserved the nearby clam beds to feed future generations, they had given the wild salmon of the Atleo river a fighting chance, and they had struck a blow for the indigenous rights of First Nations across BC.
Cermaq operates a total of 16 salmon feedlots in Ahousaht territory, as a result of a protocol agreement that exists between the company and First Nation. Yaakswiis was to be the 17th.
Despite the new agreement, representatives of the BC Salmon Farmer’s Association stated in interviews with Global TV that they are looking for a way to meet Ahousaht demands in order to put the farm back. That may prove difficult.
The “Yaakswiis Warriors,” as they are now known, have brought the issue of salmon farming back to the forefront for the people of the Ahousaht. The village of 1,000 people, only 15 of whom are employed on the farms, now plan to review the impact of the feedlots on their declining salmon and herring populations.
Despite his shock in accomplishing their goals so “easily,” Lennie John says the peaceful way in which this action was resolved comes down to a respectful dialogue between the leadership of the Ahsousaht First Nation and the Ahousaht people occupying the camp.
Therein lies a most important lesson for the governments of B.C. and Canada.
Because, the Ahousaht way of resolving this issue stands in stark contrast to the dealings of our provincial and federal governments after more than 20 years of overwhelming public opposition to open-pen salmon farming in B.C. They have steadfastly ignored public concerns by downplaying the risks to wild salmon, silencing Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists, and ignoring the recommendations of the $37-million Cohen Commission inquiry.
Lennie John, the warriors of the Yaakswiis camp and the people and chiefs of the Ahousaht have reminded us all that there is a better way.