First Nations Ponder Suits as Alarm over Sea Lice Spreads

Wildlife NewsStephen Hume, Special to the Vancouver Sun

Published: Monday, January 28, 2008

If British Columbia's wild salmon runs were damaged by a sea lice crisis similar to those in Norway, Scotland and Ireland, who should be accountable?

Chief Darren Blaney of the Xwemalhkwu First Nation figures government. So Blaney is urging fellow chiefs to start thinking about class action suits directed at governments constitutionally required to protect wild fish for first nations but which always seem to place industrial interests first.

"I've talked to some of the Sto:lo chiefs about it already," Blaney says. He plans to bring the idea forward again at a cross-border meeting of tribal chiefs and elders from around the Georgia Basin.

This year it's in Tulalip, Wash. Washington tribes share Fraser River sockeye stocks, so he may find sympathy south of the 49th parallel. Not to mention among upper Fraser bands who rely on sockeye runs for food.

He might even find common cause with sports anglers. They pay dearly to fish but are first to lose access while government approves gravel mining in prime rearing habitat, logging in watersheds and fish farms along migration routes.

"Everybody is concerned about the salmon stocks," Blaney said. "This year we only got seven fish each per household. Our neighbours south of us in Sliammon didn't get anything. For our ceremonial purposes this has a huge impact. Some of our elders wrote to me complaining about it."

When I met Blaney last week, news was already breaking about new peer-reviewed science to be published in April. It confirms sea lice infestations among baby wild salmon migrating past fish farms far beyond the Broughton Archipelago.

That hardly surprised Blaney. "The amount of fish farms in this area is bigger," he said. Besides, his band has partnered with the Georgia Strait Alliance and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation to research the prevalence of sea lice in traditional Xwemalhkwu territories in the Discovery Islands.

That research is preliminary but the biologist overseeing it told me it shows the same disturbing trends first noticed in the Broughton.

Concerns there were initially greeted with a chorus of boos. Yet work by Alexandra Morton turned out to be good enough for publication in some of the world's premier science journals.

Now the Xwemalhkwu are getting similar results in their traditional territories about 100 kilometres south of the Broughton.

"We simply followed what Alexandra Morton started," biologist Mike Price said. "We monitor 14 or 15 sites and sample every two weeks during the migration period."

Last year researchers collected 2,573 immature salmon. Almost half -- 41 per cent -- carried the parasites. Some individual smolts were literally covered. But the farther the samples were from active fish farms, the fewer the fish burdened with parasites.

Alarmingly, immature sockeye and immature herring appeared most vulnerable, with 62 per cent of the sockeye and 72 per cent of the herring carrying heavier loads of the parasites than chum or pinks.

Given the importance of these two species, this data will surely seize the attention of first nations on the Fraser and in Washington. Large numbers of Fraser sockeye smolts migrate to the open Pacific through the narrow passages in the Discovery Islands.

I've been telling these Sto:lo guys that if there's a problem with sockeye returns to the Fraser, it's probably right over here," Blaney said.

If this new research sets off alarms among the Sto:lo, will the Nlaka'pamux, St'at'imc, Secwepemc, Chilcotin, Nadleh Whut'en, Nak/azdli and Lheidli-T'enneh be far behind?

Blaney's musings about defending first nations' interests in wild fish stocks through court action could take on a whole lot more weight and pretty darn quickly. If that happens, I doubt it will take long before the plight of wild salmon is linked to treaty talks.

"What's the point of signing a treaty with fish in it if there are no fish?" Blaney said. "We have a saying, 'He's generous with an empty basket.' "

"It gets tiring listening to these guys [in government]. I get tired of the discussions about the number of jobs [on fish farms]. The jobs are more important to them than the environment.

"It's insanity. If there's no environment, there are no jobs."

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