News Local

First Nations video shows 'thousands' of wild fish in salmon farm

Randy Shore, Postmedia Network

Fingerling Chinook salmon are dumped into a holding pen as they are transfered from a truck into the Sacramento River on March 25, 2014 in Rio Vista, California. As California continues to suffer through its worse drought in history, low water levels on the Sacramento River have forced wildlife officials to truck more than 400,000 fingerling Chinook salmon from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery in Anderson to the Sacramento River in Rio Vista, a nearly 300 mile journey. The fish usually make the trip on their own but would risk be targets of predator fish. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Fingerling Chinook salmon are dumped into a holding pen as they are transfered from a truck into the Sacramento River on March 25, 2014 in Rio Vista, California. As California continues to suffer through its worse drought in history, low water levels on the Sacramento River have forced wildlife officials to truck more than 400,000 fingerling Chinook salmon from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery in Anderson to the Sacramento River in Rio Vista, a nearly 300 mile journey. The fish usually make the trip on their own but would risk be targets of predator fish. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Video shot at the Sonora Point salmon farm appears to show large numbers of wild fish inside the pens used to grow Atlantic salmon.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society posted footage shot by Hereditary Chief George Quocksister Jr. of the Laichwiltach Nation at a fish farm owned by Marine Harvest.

In the video, a farm worker can be heard saying the pen is empty, while the footage shows large numbers of fish swirling just beneath the surface of the water. Underwater footage appears to show several species of fish that may have entered the pen through the netting.

"I went pen to pen up there and I thought there were maybe seven tonnes of fish in that one," said Quocksister. "But there are all kinds of pens like that."

Quocksister visited several farms in August to shoot video and check for disease at farms throughout the Broughton Archipelago.

He believes Marine Harvest maybe using the fish as natural feed for farmed fish.

"Thousands" of small herring and other species are attracted to the lighting used on the farms, he said. If the fish stay long enough, they grow too big to escape the pens.

"I asked why they don't release the fish and the workers always say the same thing, 'no comment,'" he said. "If it's not for feed, then there's only one way to describe it — intentional kill."

A Marine Harvest spokesperson denied the company intentionally attracts small fish to farm sites.

"The fish are small enough to swim in (through the netting) and they are small enough to swim out," he said. "We ensure that those fish are removed from the pen when the nets are lifted after harvest."

Small fish use the pens as a way to evade predators, he said.

"It provides safety when you are inside, from any predator bigger than the mesh," he said. "The whole site acts a bit like an artificial reef."

The company's record with wild fish is not perfect.

Marine Harvest was fined $5,000 for a 2009 incident in which it failed to release wild herring to the ocean. The company has since changed its equipment to prevent a repeat of that incident.

"We have ways throughout the production cycle to remove those fish, but some of those little ones do choose to stay, and grow too big to exit the net," said Marine Harvest spokesman Ian Roberts. "At harvest time we do our best to remove those, and most of those fish are released alive."

Those that don't survive are retained and reported to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

There is past and ongoing research to determine to what extent wild fish are preyed upon by farmed fish within net pens, but at this time predation appears to be minimal, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Meanwhile, members of the Musgamakw Dzawada'enuxw, Namgis and other First Nations have occupied two Marine Harvest fish farms for almost four weeks, vowing to stay until all the fish farms are removed from their traditional territory.

"We never consented to having these farms here," said K'odi Nelson. The protesters blame the farms for spreading disease among wild fish and the collapse of some important traditional fisheries.

"I am a grizzly bear guide in the summer and have been a commercial fisherman in the past, and there are just no wild salmon anywhere," said Nelson. "The bears are looking for fish in rivers that not to long ago produced huge numbers annually. We natives have not had 'food' fish for two years now where I live."

Protesters are planning to interfere with any effort to restock the pens at the occupied Midsummer Island and Swanson Island fish farms.

"People are willing to get arrested," he said.

Roberts said no new fish are due to be stocked at the occupied farms, but some partly grown fish are scheduled to be moved from a nearby site to an empty Midsummer pen this week.

"We have supplied or offered all of our stocking and harvest plans to the First Nations," he said.

Marine Harvest management met with members of the Namgis First Nation on Sept. 1 in an attempt to resolve the protest, but failed to reach an agreement or to dislodge the occupation.

"Nothing much has changed since then," said Roberts.

rshore@postmedia.com