These are hard times for aboriginal people in Canada.

  People in Attawapiskat, upstream from the Ontario coast of James Bay, are living in tents.

There may now be money to help (although nothing is yet certain); but is it too little, too late?

–  The United Church of Canada has written the Prime Minister to express concern the omnibus crime bill would expand the already too-large aboriginal population in Canadian prisons.

–  All of the political parties in Parliament agree that there is a drinking water crisis in First Nations communities, and the federal government has even promised legislation to deal with it.

(No hurry for that, though. The “crime bill” is a priority).

–  Statistics Canada reports that aboriginal Canadians have been disproportionately hard hit by the current economic downturn.

This should not be a surprise, since aboriginal workers are normally the least secure — the last hired and first fired.

–  And then there is the Auditor General’s report of last June that pointed out, among many other outrages, that Canada spends only $0.66 per student on aboriginal children versus $1.00 per student on all other Canadian children.

A constructive answer to an environmental challenge

So here is a little positive news from aboriginal Canada, from the ‘Namgis First Nation on Vancouver Island

If you were planning to eat salmon today, tomorrow, next week or next month, this story should interest you.

It is a story about how we might be on the verge of a revolution in the way salmon is “farmed” in Canada. One day there may be no more open nets in coastal regions, filled with thousands of salmon munching on dry feed pellets and growing to fat and tasty table size.

The future of salmon farming may lie in what are called “closed containment” farms, which will keep the farmed fish away from the open ocean and the wild fish that live there.

At one time there were only the wild fish

There was a time when salmon — especially the most popular farmed species, Atlantic salmon — meant wild fish available only seasonally.

There have been some “farmed” fish for a very long time, of course.

The Chinese began raising carp in ponds thousands of years ago. Anyone who grew up in post World War Two Canada will remember the grocery store rainbow trout (usually frozen) that were raised as far away as Japan and Denmark.

Salmon farming did not get serious until the 1980s, starting in Scotland and Norway, and then coming to coastal Canada.

When people designed aquaculture operations to raise Atlantic salmon to full, mature size (from five to 15 pounds) they tried to reproduce the fish’s migratory life cycle.

Salmon are born in freshwater and, as a rule, when they grow big enough, migrate to the sea — where they grow much bigger. After a number of years, the mature fish return upstream (sometimes, famously, leaping waterfalls) to the exact places where they were born. They then spawn and create a whole new generation.

Re-creating the salmon’s complex life cycle

Fish farmers rear the salmon from eggs to small sized fish in fresh water containers and then transfer them to nets moored in salt water, where they grow to table size.

In theory, it seems like a good idea.

And, if you believe what folks in the salmon industry and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) say, it is a good idea, with little downside.

Salmon — especially Atlantic salmon — used to be a fairly pricey delicacy, only available at certain times of the year. These days, it is almost always available and at a price that means most of us could dine on salmon every night, if we wanted to.

Are there negative environmental effects from coastal salmon farming?

DFO says: “there are challenges to farming fish and seafood, just as there are with any kind of land-based farming.” But it argues Canada is meeting those challenges, with strict regulations, monitoring and “rigorous standards.”

Bureaucrats and experts versus First Peoples

The ‘Namgis First Nations people have never been fans of open-net, coastal salmon farms.

Their communities could have made lots of money had they embraced this type of aquaculture when it first came to Canada more than a quarter century ago.

However, the ‘Namgis people are convinced that coastal salmon farms introduce and propagate sea lice that attack wild salmon, cause deterioration of herring spawning grounds and pollute the coastal areas.

Plus, they are worried that the Atlantic salmon (the most popular farmed species in Canada, even on the Pacific coast) could escape and compete with the native, wild fish.

DFO says none of this is true, and that the proof is that the wild salmon of B.C. are doing just fine.

First Nations people have a different view

The ‘Namgis people are not convinced and told that to the Commons Fisheries and Oceans Committee, earlier this week.

But they did not just appear before the committee to complain about fish farming. They came to argue for a positive alternative: closed containment fish farms.

 ‘Namgis Chief William Cranmer told the committee about his community’s pilot project, which will use new “recirculating aquaculture system” technology. The fish will be raised in land-based pens, where the water is recirculated rather than dumped into rivers and lakes, which is now the practice of fresh-water fish farms. Neither antibiotics nor pesticides will be needed to farm fish this way, the Chief said.

Maintaining the salmon industry while protecting the coastal environment

The idea of this pilot project, the ‘Namgis say, is to “catalyze the start of a new industry on the B.C. coast — one that is particularly well suited for First Nations to embrace.”

And the ‘Namgis’ hope is that this new industry will “serve as a driver to the open-net pen salmon farming industry moving out of the marine environment.”

Despite the DFO claims for the B.C. salmon, the Chief of the ‘Namgis argued that “history shows wherever there are salmon farms the wild species suffer.”

In fact, he went so far as to say that his people are worried that, if current salmon farming practices were to continue, open-pen fish farming could “kill all the wild salmon.”

“If DFO would enforce the fisheries act,” Chief Cranmer told the Committee, “there would probably not be one fish farm in B.C.!”

The government wishes the ‘Namgis people well

Conservative members of the Committee tended to take the DFO view that salmon farming poses no real threat to the wild B.C. fish, and worried that the closed containment alternative would be costly and not economically viable. They also pointed out that there could be other environmental costs to the system the ‘Namgis people want to try, such as increased use of energy.

On the other hand, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, B.C. Conservative Randy Kamp, told Chief Cranmer that the government supports the pilot project and wished the ‘Namgis people well.

In fact, the federal government is putting money into the project. Sustainable Development Technology Canada is a significant funder. And just recently (in early January, 2012) the Aquaculture Innovation Market Access Program of DFO also announced it would be providing financial support.

Despite that, though, DFO is quite skeptical about the closed containment salmon farming alternative.

“To farm salmon on land,” it says, “large amounts of sea water would have to be pumped in. Because of the lack of hydroelectric power in remote locations, this would require the use of diesel-electric generators, using large amounts of fossil fuel. There is also the issue of how to deal with the waste resulting from a closed system in a remote location.”

Time to consider getting out of open-net fish farms?

Some members of Parliament think the native peoples of the west coast may know more about the negative impact of fish farming than DFO’s experts.

NDP MP Fin Donnelly, from B.C.’s lower mainland, has a private member’s bill in the works that calls for the phasing out of open-net coastal fish farms altogether.

“The question to decide is the time frame,” Donnelly says, “Should the phasing out take place over a decade, or longer?”

Together with a lot of others interested in the environment and the health of the oceans, Fin Donnelly will be closely following the progress of this pilot project, which the ‘Namgis First Nation calls the “K’udas Project”.

“K’udas” means “place of salmon.” And the ‘Namgis people hope that their archipelago region will continue to be a place of wild salmon for a long time to come.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...