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Swanson Salmon Fish Farm Occupation, British Colombia, Canada


Swanson Island is located on the Northeast Coast of Vancouver Island in the Broughton Archipelago and is the home of the Kwakwaka’wakw people (Living Oceans, 2014). The Kwakwaka’wakw people are considered the traditional gatekeepers of the region and have lived here since time immemorial. Foreign companies such as Marine Harvest, the largest salmon farm corporation in the world (Norwegian because it was experimental, very little policy), have been operating in  the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations Mamalilikala, Musgamagw, ‘Namgis, people´s territory for the last 30 years without their consent (Prystupa, 2018).

One of the largest fish farms in B.C., the Swanson Island fish farm, is located in Blackfish sound which is situated in Kwakwaka’wakw territory between Swanson island and Vancouver Island. The Swanson Island fish farms have become a breeding ground for Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) and sea lice (Alfred & Morton, 2018). Due to PRV, these salmon are developing diseases and are acting as vectors and infecting native wild species and diminishing their populations. Also in salmon packing plants, such as the Browns Bay packing company, they are dumping raw salmon waste into water systems. This waste is testing positive for diseases and also infecting wild salmon. The diminishing wild salmon populations are affecting the Kwakwaka’wakw people who depend on salmon for sustenance and their livelihoods. Natural systems such as forest ecosystems and orca populations that demand on the energy salmon provide are also diminishing (Canadian Press, 2008).

The action taken to further reduce this harm was organized by the Kwakwaka’wakw nation who protested with an occupation on Swanson island fish farm: a tiny house Chief Ernest Alfred lived in for the duration of the protest before being forced to leave. The Kwakwak’wakw people's occupation of the Swanson Island fish farm was over 284 days long starting in August of 2017, which is the longest occupation of any B.C. fish farm (Prystupa, 2018, The protesters not only voiced their opposition to the salmon farms, but also regarding the re-licensing of BC fish farms with tenure, of which approximately 20 have expired in 2018 (Lovegrove, 2017; Rasmussen, 2018; Living Oceans, 2014).

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Swanson Salmon Fish Farm Occupation, British Colombia, Canada
State or province:British Columbia
Location of conflict:Broughton Archipelago
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict: 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific commodities:Land
Biological resources

Project Details and Actors

Project details:

Fish farming developed in British Columbia in the 1970s as salmon aquaculture. It was experimental and was born out of dwindling salmon numbers and increasing demand for salmon. Salmon aquaculture started in the Broughton Archipelago and grew through trial and error. Scientists conducted these tests in small-scale operations and eventually discovered that growing Atlantic salmon, non-endemic species provided the greatest yield. The 1980s and the 1990s saw upscaling and the growth of the industry to 1.5$ million dollars in B.C. and 75 salmon farms owned by Marine Harvest. ("History of BC Salmon Farming | Positive Aquaculture Awareness, salmon fish farming facts", n.d.). Modern salmon farming operates by submerging a metal cage full of cultivated Atlantic salmon into bodies of water where native salmons travel within to spawn. This massive industrialization has lead to large quantities of salmon growing in close proximities and developing diseases and ailments that spread laterally to native salmon populations and decrease the abundance of native wild salmon.

According to Marine Harvest, the company operates within the traditional territories of 24 First Nations and has formal agreements with 15 of them and eight First Nation-owned businesses.

Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:24/08/2017
End of the conflict:20/06/2018
Company names or state enterprises:Marine Harvest from Norway
Relevant government actors:BC Provincial Government
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Maya’xala xan’s Awinakola ("Respect Our Environment")
The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local scientists/professionals
The ‘Namgis First Nation of the Kwakwaka’wakw, Biologist Alexandra Morton
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
occupation of the fish farm, tiny house, collection of water samples and studies on impacts

Impacts of the project

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Food insecurity (crop damage)
Other Environmental impactsDiseases impacting wild salmon that may be related to fish farms: the bacterial disease ferunculosis, piscine reovirus, a highly contagious virus believed to cause disease, a heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, known as HSMI which makes fish lethargic and sea lice, small parasitic crustaceans that feed on the skin and mucous of fish.
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures
Other socio-economic impactsThe protection of Aboriginal rights put at risk


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:In operation on a month-to-month basis
Development of alternatives:Provincially run on land fish farms is an alternative addition to federal open net fish farms. Technology is proven to work in Port McNeill in a pilot test, yet the operation will need to be substantially larger to earn a profit (Wilson, 2018). The move to on land fish farming does not face much opposition from aquaculture workers as demonstrated by the positive response from Jeremy Dunn the director of British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association (Wilson, 2018).
This open mindset to move to on land operations is quite supported, yet the process may be costly. The cost of transitioning may serve as an obstacle due to industry inquiring about heavy subsidization from the government to aid the process. As Jeremy Dunn states "with tremendous government assistance to help fund those costly programs." (Wilson, 2018) providing a perspective of how economic gain persisting to be in the forefront.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:There are some groups that are happy with the outcome of the Swanson Island case study, as the government has made the commitment to place a policy in 2022 which is seen as a step in the right direction. However, there are others who believe 4 years is too late, as the salmon have already been impacted so heavily by the aquaculture industry since the 1970s.

Sources and Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

History of BC Salmon Farming | Positive Aquaculture Awareness, salmon fish farming facts.

Living Oceans. (2014). Broughton Archipelago Salmon Farm Licenses and Tenures [Image].

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Wilson, D. (2018, March 7). B.C. government 'very interested' in moving open-net fish farms onto land, minister says. CBC News.

Rasmussen, G. (2018). It's wild salmon health vs. money and jobs as B.C.'s fish farm fight comes to a head | CBC News.

Lovegrove, D. (2017). Swanson Island.

Prystupa, M. (2018). Swanson Occupation: The battle for wild salmon. Cascadia.

Alfred, E. & Morton, A. (2018). Something in the water: New salmon virus study stresses need to get fish farms out of ocean. Ecojustice Blog

The Canadian Press. (2008). Salmon farms destroying wild salmon populations in Canada: study | CBC News

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Maya’xala xan’s Awinakola, the group of activists fighting for the removal of all open net fish farms on the coast of BC

A video reviewing the Swanson Occupation from the perspective of Cheif Ernest Alfred

Meta information

Last update29/12/2018