“Sustainable aquaculture is key for our wild fish to thrive,” – James Walkus, independent commercial fisherman and a First Nations aquaculture success story. James Walkus was 15 when he found an abandoned boat on the traditional territory of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nations in northern Vancouver Island.
“I fixed it when nobody claimed it and went out to fish…I made about $250,” said Walkus, 79.
The next week he bought an old gillnetter that also leaked.
“I had to pump it regularly to keep it afloat.”
Today, Walkus is one of BC’s largest independent commercial fishermen in British Columbia as well as a First Nations aquaculture success story.
“Sustainable aquaculture is key for our wild fish to thrive,” Walkus said.
“The employment it creates for many of our First Nations and other Canadians is important.
“We need it, British Columbia needs it, the world needs it. If we don’t do it some other country will and it will be our loss and some other country’s gain,” said Walkus.
This month, surrounded by family and friends, Walkus launched the MS Geemia Joye, an $11 million addition to the James Walkus Fishing Company’s fleet.
It was his testament to the fact that aquaculture is a thriving and sustainable industry that helps First Nations and coastal communities in British Columbia.
The Geemia Joye is the sister vessel to the MS Amarissa Joye, which hit the water four years ago. Both have been outfitted with the latest technology for safe travel, as well as state-of-the-art fish handling equipment and temperature control to ensure quality salmon.
The Port Hardy based James Walkus Fishing Company is contracted by Marine Harvest to operated year-round harvest and transport vessels.
“The First Nations aquaculture owned and operated business employs 30 people, and has invested in the latest equipment that is a big part of ensuring Marine Harvest’s product quality,” said Jeremy Dunn, director of community Relations and public affairs for Marine Harvest Canada.
A recipient of the BC Aboriginal Business Award for Individual Achievement, Walkus is proud to have his children and grandchildren working on the boats in his fleet and his business.
“The aquaculture industry has been tremendous for me, my family and my community…there are a lot of us First Nations that are for aquaculture,” he said.
“I’m a commercial fisherman as well but our wild fishery won’t support the supply and demand.
“We need to have both because they complement each other,” said Walkus.
Walkus, earlier this year joined other First Nations leaders in Vancouver to send a message to the anti-fish farm activists – stay away from our traditional territory.
“They show deformed fish in pens…but there are more deformed fish in the wild…they talk about sea lice but they don’t talk about the uncontrolled large populations of sea lions and seals which are constantly eating up wild stocks…it goes on and on,” Walkus told Seawestnews.
“Aquaculture needs to continue,” Walkus said.
About 20 per cent of the people working for salmon farmers in B.C. are of First Nations aquaculture heritage, said John Paul Fraser, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.
Farm-raised salmon is B.C.’s highest valued seafood product, the province’s top agricultural export, and generates over $1.5-billion towards the B.C. economy, supporting more than 6,600 jobs.
Wild fish populations here and around the world are under pressure from over-fishing and climate change. So if we want to eat fish responsibly we need to farm it. First Nations aquaculture leaders like James Walkus play a key role in that,” said Fraser.
“The industry is committed to productive engagement with First Nations, such that our farmers have agreements with 20 First Nations along our coast and more than three-quarters of the salmon they produce is done so in partnership with a First Nation,” he said.
One of them is the Tlowitsis First Nations, whose traditional territories span the coastal area of Northern Vancouver Island.
“The salmon farmers have been a real blessing for us,” said Tlowitsis Chief John Smith, in an earlier interview with SeawestNews.com
“I wish it had happened earlier and I wish we had more fish farms otherwise we would be on welfare,” said Smith.
“We lost a lot of our people when the local economy dried up, we lost our language and much of our traditional way of life…now it is coming back and the fish farmers are helping our children grow,” Smith told Seawestnews.
“We as First Nations leaders have a responsibility to protect our environment and we watch over it carefully…we have done it for thousands of years and we don’t need these activists telling us what to do,” he said.
Smith added salmon farming has become an important economic driver for his members, creating jobs and economic activity allowing them to purchase land for their community and establish a post-secondary education scholarship fund for their youth.
In a published op-ed, Chief Smith articulated why fish farming is so vital to his community.
“We are striving to become self-sufficient. The Tlowitsis receive very limited funding from the government as we don’t have a home community. So, we have had to find alternative economic drivers for our Nation. We know what’s happening to all the sea resources as well as other food supplies as the world population continues to grow. Like many First Nations aquaculture in British Columbia the Tlowitsis are eager to grow our community and develop a lasting economy from our traditional territory. Developing salmon farms in Clio Channel is a cornerstone for our Nation and after careful consideration, we developed an economic partnership with Grieg Seafood.
We have studied Grieg Seafood and the way they do business and we are pleased. This is not to say that they will not be under scrutiny by our guardians, who are our eyes and ears in our territory. Council is also keeping a watchful eye on behalf of our Nation. Grieg Seafood and our council are always in communication and have a very good reporting system in place. They are proving to be a good partner. We receive no royalties or economic gain from the forestry giants on their onslaught of our forests and this agreement with Grieg Seafood is vital to the Nation’s economic well-being.”
Harold Sewid, is the Clan Chief of the Qwe’Qwa’Sot’Em people of the Broughton Archipelago and a commercial fisherman who also works in the First Nations aquaculture industry.
“In the sixties when there were no salmon farms and when the salmon did not return, my father had to feed his family by cleaning gutters for $10 but now we have we have the fish farms to provide us with a steady economy,” Sewid told Seawestnews.
Sewid owns and operates Qwe’Qwa’Sot’em Faith Aquaculture Ltd., which supply a wide range of support to the farm sites including delivering feed, mort removal, installing nets, pulling dirty nets, towing pens and houses, anchoring and more.
Not only has his business provided stable employment for First Nations people, but it provides Sewid, a firsthand view of the changes in the industry as technology advances.
“I’ve seen improvements in the aquaculture industry over the years and they have been very significant” said Sewid in an interview published on Marineharvest.ca.
“I have seen attitudes change positively over the years, as First Nations see the many opportunities that exist with aquaculture in general,’’ he added.