"It's all being depleted because of all the algae, the sea lice and the contamination the fish farms are putting in our territory."
- Chief Henry Scow
ILFORD VILLAGE, British Columbia Ornate totem poles stand over beaches of cracked white clam shells in this village of 80 people from the Kwicksutaineuk tribe. Sunflowers sparkle near their simple wooden houses. Eagles, sea gulls and cormorants make acrobatic glides across the sky above Health Bay, which is sprinkled with islands thick with forests of spruce, cedar and pine trees.
A visitor sees paradise. But for Henry Scow, the chief of the Kwicksutaineuks, it is a paradise that may soon be lost.
"Clams, prawns, crabs, salmon we had it all at our fingertips," he recalled. In his view, the culprits are close at hand. "It's all being depleted because of all the algae, the sea lice and the contamination the fish farms are putting in our territory."
It is a common refrain: that the 30 or so salmon farms that float on the bays of the sprawling Broughton Archipelago to the north of Vancouver Island are responsible for every possible pestilence. The farms consist of giant cages that float in the open water and hold large quantities of fish. Their denseness allows disease to spread, and, according to the native people, pollutes nearby waters where other fish swim.
Natives say that the farms in these islands, the most concentrated fish farming area of western Canada, cause an orange foam to appear on beaches, suffocating clam beds and discoloring the meat of the surviving clams. More than that, they say, the farming has caused pink salmon runs to collapse in the last two years, depriving the natives of an important protein source and jeopardizing the entire food chain of the river system and nearby forests.
Bears are beginning to go hungry, the native people say. Before long, they fear, trees and other plant life will die for the lack of nitrates that decaying salmon provide when dragged through the forests by the bears and other animals.
"These people are playing God with our lives," said Arthur Dick, a hereditary chief of the Namgis nation. "Even the eagles are moving."
Now the Indians are waging their battle in the courts, on constitutional grounds. The Sierra Legal Defense Fund has filed a suit in the British Columbia Supreme Court on behalf of the Tsawataineuk, Kwicksutaineuk, Namgis and Gwaraenuk bands who live in the maze of islands and for whom the salmon has a mystical importance.
The Indians of the Broughton Archipelago have chosen to make their fight in the courts, citing the country's constitutional obligation to protect their fishing and rights. That means that if the suit prevails, large coastal areas populated by native peoples could be affected.
The suit, which could take months or years to be resolved, intends to force the provincial and federal governments to prohibit the issuance of new licenses for open cage salmon aquaculture. In particular it wants to force Heritage Salmon Limited and Stolt Sea Farm Inc., two multinational companies that operate here, to stop stocking their farms, remove diseased fish from the environment, and stop using a pesticide for lice that the natives contend harms local crustaceans.
Company officials say they do not fear the suit and deny any significant responsibility for environmental damage. They say that the natives do not want their commercial fishermen to have to compete with the farms. "I think they have been given information that is not factual and accurate by environmental groups and activists opposed to salmon farming," said Odd Grydeland, manager of strategic development at Heritage Salmon.
"In the 17 years that we have been operating in the Broughton Archipelago we have seen an improvement in the ecological well-being of the area," he added. He said that pink salmon stocks had dwindled in recent years but that other types of salmon increased and that dolphin, sardine and hooligan populations were also larger.
Clare Backman, Stolt's environmental manager, said, "Our experience is that our impacts are minor, not permanent and are reversible in a short period of time."
The natives' lawsuit was prompted by a collapse of pink salmon runs in the fall of 2002. Returning salmon decreased to 147,000 from 3.6 million in the previous season of 2000, according to a study by the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council. (Pink salmon, used mostly in canning, return in two-year cycles.)
Pink salmon populations do fluctuate widely, but environmental groups contend that samples gathered in 2001 by Alexandra Morton, an environmental researcher, showed that young salmon passing fish farms were being infected with lice at lethal levels.
Her collection techniques have been questioned by some scientists and defended by others.
The lice eat through their tissue, slow them down and transmit disease, she and other environmentalists say, either killing them outright or weakening them.
The lice problem among juvenile pink salmon "is significantly higher around the fish farms than anywhere else on the coast," said Richard Routledge, a biologist at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver.
Similar accusations have been made against salmon farms that have operated for more than 20 years off the coasts of Britain, Norway, Nova Scotia and Maine.
In Canada, environmental advocates have chosen the Broughton Archipelago to make a strategic alliance with natives who claim fishing rights to the waters and who contend that the farms have polluted their beaches.
Some scientists say it will be difficult to prove that fish farms are totally at fault for environmental damage. They say that salmon stocks have also been hurt by acid rain, excessive logging and global warming, all of which have caused pollution, blocked spawning streams and increased predator populations in nearby waters.
More formal studies linking salmon farms and the plummeting pink salmon runs need to be done, scientists say. They say that the British Columbia and national governments have been slow to finance studies to assess charges by local natives that their crab, clam and other wild fish catches have also been diminished.
But the suit is expected to produce a new body of scientific research by the Canadian government, the fish farms and environmental groups. It may also produce unwelcome publicity for an industry faced with falling prices and accusations by consumer groups that coloring and antibiotics added to the fish may be harmful to humans.