Cermaq v. the people

By Briony Penn, November 2015

The rise and fall of fish farming in Ahousaht territory.

Qaamina Hunter starts our telephone conversation by telling me I’ve reached the general store in Ahousat village. I apologize that I have called the wrong number (Is there a general store in Ahousat?). Then I hear him laugh. Judging by the children’s voices in the background, it might as well be a general store I’ve reached. Qaamina’s house is certainly some kind of major hub for this First Nation of 2000 people.

Carver, fisherman, wilderness tour guide, youth counsellor, activist, ex-fish farm worker, grandfather, basketball coach and wise guy, Hunter laughs again when I cautiously ask him what his western title is. “Better say carver because that’s the one I’m famous for.” His masks are famous—in more ways than one. They have been all over the media lately. Masks with the tears of swimming salmon on them, strapped to boats of Ahousaht protestors who—for the first time in BC’s conflicted history with fish farming—successfully stopped one. The offending proposed farm was due to go into Ahousaht territory, at a place called Yaakswiis—a real general store of the region, a bay near the salmon-bearing Atleo River where you used to be able to get all the food you needed before the fish farms arrived. 

(Careful readers will notice two apparently different spellings of “Ahousat” in this story. Ahousat refers to the village, Ahousaht to the people and their land.)

Qaamina, as one of the elders, provided support to the younger Ahousaht activists led by Lennie John, who camped out on the new floating catwalks and successfully blocked fish farm giant Cermaq’s access to the net pens. 

How and why did a carver grandfather turn into an activist? Qaamina describes how from the day the fish farms arrived nearly 20 years ago, he had concerns about them. A fisherman of 45 years, there isn’t too much on the sea that misses his notice. “Our fishing collapsed, it went downhill and that is all we knew. Our people have been suffering.” 

Luckily Qaamina could turn to wilderness guiding as an alternate livelihood, something he had done since a boy of 11 taking visitors to the hot springs for 5 cents. “The fortunate thing for me was that I knew tourism was going to be there,” but others in his community, with declining fishing, were drawn to big promises of lots of steady jobs in the industry made by Pacific National Aquaculture (PNA). “So our people said: OK, it is money coming in.” Fish farming was welcomed by the leadership. Yet over the years, the 14 fish farms in the territory have resulted in only about 15 total jobs for local people.

Mainstream purchased PNA in 2000, acquiring farms in Chile and Norway, as well as the 14 farm sites in Clayoquot, all of which are in Ahousaht territory. Then Cermaq, a Norwegian company, purchased Mainstream. And last year, Cermaq became part of the giant Mitsubishi empire. 

In the beginning, Qaamina said, “We didn’t know what the impacts were, if any.” 

In 2007, he decided to go work on the fish farm “to see what it was like.” He worked for three months when the first disaster struck. In September 2007, a containment net of a pen near Ahousat village was torn and salmon started escaping. The deputy manager of Mainstream told the Globe and Mail at the time that 5000 Atlantic salmon had been pulled out of the water in between that net and the predator net. 

Meanwhile, outside the pens, Ahousaht fisherman were pulling up Atlantics in droves with buzz bombs and their own nets, to keep the non-native species from intermingling with the returning Pacific salmon species. “There was a lot more escapees than they said,” says Qaamina. He and other Ahousaht fishermen protested and Qaamina lost his job: “They let me go because they saw my boat out there protesting.” 

He says he had seen enough to know that there were other problems. “I noticed the deterioration of our fish, but also the divide it has created, not only bleeding our stocks but bleeding our ties together.”

But the leadership of Ahousaht had signed an agreement with Mainstream/Cermaq in 2002. The protocol was renewed in 2008, 2010 and then extended for another 5 years last January. The most recent iteration identified problem sites, like Dixon Bay west of the Megin River, that needed re-siting away from what were referred to as “Pristine Areas.” Yaakswiis was intended to be a replacement site for the Dixon Bay farm, which was believed to be more vulnerable. But for Qaamina and others, no location is good. 

Qaamina’s 87-year-old father Stanley Sam— or Tsahsiits—told his son that these sites are too culturally important to be invaded by farms. He told Qaamina that below one of the farms, “is a cave underwater that our people used to swim down to become what they wanted to become—whether it was a great speaker or a warrior in the village.” They put a farm right on top of it without consulting the elders, Tsahsiits told him.

Qaamina also points out, “People didn’t know the impacts of the fish farms to our territory. They didn’t know about all the sludge and the crap that dumps into the ocean. One of my nephews who worked on a farm says: ‘I can’t speak. There are a lot of things that they tell us not to say.’ So my encouragement was: Just do the right thing.” 

According to Qaamina, every family had someone working for Cermaq. One of his own sons worked for Cermaq, as have nephews. His son knew what was going on in the inside and had decided he wanted out; he planned to become an RCMP officer. Unfortunately, a week after he quit the fish farm, he was in a fatal float plane crash. Qaamina took in two of his orphaned grandchildren and started on a project to ease his loss through carving masks for all his grandchildren to celebrate a teaching that his mother, Katie Sam, had provided. 

“My mother always told me about the sacred salmon; how they searched for you and you didn’t search for them. And that is the theme for every carving, so I basically put salmon-are-sacred tears on the masks.” 

It is these masks that have found their way, lashed to the bow of protest boats, into the media recently. “I thought of my mum when I told her I hated these farms. I just despised them. Not the workers, not the humans beings. I respect human life, but I just couldn’t stand what they were doing in our territory and to me as a fisherman—taking our jobs away.”

The issue came to a head this summer with a decision by Christy Clark to issue two new tenures on the August long weekend despite the recommendations of the Cohen Commission for DFO to review and change the siting criteria and analyze all current licenses to meet the new criteria. DFO did review the sites with some criteria and rejected one at Hebert Inlet (a first for DFO), but Yaakswiis got the green light, perhaps as the sacrificial lamb for re-siting Dixon Bay. Ahousaht warrior Lennie John spearheaded a petition to the hereditary leadership (who had approved the farm’s site), while biologist Alex Morton took a 106,000-signature petition to the legislature. When the catwalks and pens started accumulating on Tofino docks late this summer, they knew a protest would be necessary to protect Yaakswiis.

Qaamina’s role in the blockade was doing what he always does at basketball tournaments, potlatches and functions of the village. “I supported them circling the farm doing silent prayers and I made a statement: that the power that we carry from our ancestors is still alive within us.” Qaamina has coached most of the young people of the village at some time or other, as well as being a parent, foster parent, uncle and of course grandparent. With the general store of the Hunter clan supporting them, the younger warriors were on solid footing. 

The blockade continued for 13 days and on September 21 the company agreed to remove the farm. Dan Lewis and Bonny Glambeck of Clayoquot Action were witnesses in Qaamina’s boat and they report that in the final hours of the blockade Qaamina left them to do a stream purification ritual. He explained, “A long time ago, we were all praying people for our salmon. We all went onto the ocean and swam together praying for the fish to come…We have to start by putting everything back to the way it was. The old way.” The Ahousaht fisheries boat arrived at the floats being dismantled and the hereditary and elected chiefs asked Qaamina to join their ceremony. 

When asked why he thought the leadership rescinded their approval of the farm, Qaamina said: “I think because of pressures. Even though a Chief can make a final decision and say the way it is going to be, people have more of a voice.”

Qaamina is full of plans to see the return of the salmon “back for our grandchildren.” He wants more information for his people. Tsahsiits wants native names re-established for all the places where the fish farms are because “they all have a story and a meaning and they were given to us by the creator.” 

According to Glambeck and Lewis, “the social licence to do fish farms is almost gone. People don’t want an expansion, they don’t want the farms.” Qaamina believes the salmon will come back but “we have to work together to make these things happen. It took nine very strong people to get it overturned with support and supporters. I’m thinking of Lennie John’s words: ‘Imagine what we could do as a nation?’”

Briony Penn PhD is the author of the new book, "The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan," which will be launched on November 18 at the Royal BC Museum, 7pm. (Free but registration required, royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.)