Aquaculture workers worry about bleak future with the closing of farms in the Discovery Islands

·4 min read
Aquaculture workers worry about bleak future with the closing of farms in the Discovery Islands

Fish farming has been a family affair for Paul Pattison.

He's the manager of operations for Mowi Canada West's Discovery Islands group of farms. His wife is an accountant with the company. His brother works for Mowi's health and safety department. His mother-in-law and sister-in-law work in accounting and sales for contractors, and his cousins are fish processors.

He says it came as a rude shock to them all when late last year the federal government announced that all open-net fish farms in the Discovery Islands would be phased out over the next 18 months.

"I'm still in a sense of absolute disbelief that this is happening," said Pattison.

submitted by Mowi
submitted by Mowi

Uncertain future

Pattison started his career at 17, working at an open net farm and over the past two decades has made his way up the corporate ladder, but he says the Dec. 17 decision by Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan has left him and his family with an uncertain future.

Mowi has eight active fish farms in the Discovery Islands and own another eight that are fallow. The company says the farms account for 30 per cent of its business in B.C. and that shutting them down will mean layoffs for people like Pattison.

Having grown up in Campbell River, the son of coal miners, Pattison fears what the death of another local industry will mean for his family.

"I'll have to leave home. I have to take my family and probably uproot and go where I can find meaningful work," he said.

Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC
Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has estimated the closing of the Discovery Island farms will result in as many as 1,500 job losses on Vancouver Island. Their estimate includes both employees working directly at farms and hatcheries as well as support staff, contractors and adjacent businesses.

8.3 million fish to be culled

Amanda Luxten, the assistant manager of the Mowi Big Tree Creek salmon hatchery north of Campbell River, says with the company set to lose more than a quarter of its island operations there is a lot of fear, confusion and anger among her staff.

Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC
Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC

"I bought a house. I put down roots and for a decision to be made like that and not have any further guidance is extremely frustrating." said Luxten.

She says it's about more than just the jobs being lost.

The industry works on a five-year schedule and with farms set to be closed in 18 months and a ban on restocking, the millions of fish they are currently growing in the hatchery will go to waste.

"Instead of it being 8.3 million meals provided to people to eat, we're going to have to cull these fish." she said

Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC
Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC

Luxten worries that misinformation about the industry played a role in the government's decision to phase out farms, and says the short timeline has left everyone feeling like the rug was pulled out from underneath them.

Watch | How Atlantic salmon are farmed in B.C.:

Devastating hit for some First Nation entrepreneurs

Bob Charlie feels the same way.

He is a member of the Quatsino Nation and captains a boat for the James Walkus Fishing Company, which contracts with Mowi to transport salmon to and from the Discovery Islands farms. Over the past 20 years, Charlie says he has seen more and more First Nations people getting jobs and investing in aquaculture.

Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC
Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC

"Some of them are tugboat operators. They have barges. They do transporting for Mowi and they've got anywhere around $1.5 to $2 million invested," he said.

Charlie says the loss of the Discovery Islands farms will mean layoffs at his company and a devastating hit for First Nation entrepreneurs.

Fish farms threatening food security and culture: Homalco First Nation

But while Charlie worries about the economic fallout of open net fish farms closing, other First Nations leaders like Homalco elected Chief Darren Blaney have concerns that go beyond dollars and cents.

"These farms are threatening our food security, threatening our culture," said Blaney

The Homalco First Nation's traditional territory encompasses parts of the Discovery Islands, and they were one of the nations consulted by Minister Jordan before she made her decision.

Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC
Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC

Blaney has little sympathy for aquaculture companies that say they were caught by surprise when the federal government released its policy statement. Companies like Mowi have been getting a "free ride," he said, and should have done more to prepare workers for what he says was an inevitable shift away from open net fish farms.

"The company did not plan. They did not prepare. And so, they're where they're at now." said Blaney.

The idea that jobs should take precedent over the long term safety of wild salmon stocks is backwards, he said.

Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC
Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC

But for lifelong local fish farmers like Paul Pattison, who have watched the decline of logging, mining, and pulp mills in Campbell River, the closing of the Discovery Island fish farms feels like the final nail in the coffin.

"What's the plan to get jobs back in the province, on the West Coast and what's the plan to bring those tax dollars back into my community?" He asked.

"I don't know that this community is going to survive another hit like this."