The American Indian Quarterly 26.3 (2002) 360-377
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Our Wealth Sits on the Table
Food, Resistance, and Salmon Farming in Two First Nations Communities
"It sits on the table, our wealth.... I mean, I can go into Safeway and I can go look at a small little sockeye for 20 bucks, where in reality, our tribe alone, we went out and got 12,000 [wild sockeye] distributed between our people," said Dan Cummings from the Ahousaht Fisheries Office. 1 He was responding to my questions about the differences between farmed and wild salmon, salmon farmers and fishers, and net pens and fishing spots. I had come to Flores Island off the west coast of Vancouver Island to speak to Ahousaht people about how they experienced the effects of the local salmon farming industry. Commercial fishers, former fishers, and others from Ahousaht who regularly participate in marine resource harvesting have direct experience with the environmental changes brought about by salmon farming. In this article I look at some of the ways in which both commercial and "food" fishers who live on the reserves at Ahousaht (Ahousaht First Nation, in Nuu-chah-nulth territory) and Alert Bay (Namgis First Nation, Kwakwaka'wakw territory) make sense of the salmon farms that dissect their traditional territories. "Food" fishers are those who fish at the fishery allocated by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to First Nations people. This fishery is open at certain times and places and is closed to nonaboriginal fishers, but the legal distinction between commercial and food fisheries creates an artificial "traditional" fishery that has no precedent in actual First Nations societies.
Over one hundred open net-cage sites containing Atlantic salmon are currently operating on the coast of British Columbia. At least forty of these are concentrated in the Broughton Archipelago, between northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland, in the territory of the Namgis First Nation, and in Clayoquot Sound, the traditional territory of the Ahousaht First Nation. While the Ahousaht First Nation signed a "protocol agreement" with Pacific National Aquaculture in September of 2002, the Namgis First Nation maintains a zero-tolerance policy toward fish farms. According to the protocol agreement, the Ahousaht First Nation allowed the already existing fish farms [End Page 360] access to its territory in exchange for input into environmental monitoring and research. Additionally, Pacific National Aquaculture agreed to recognize, at least in principle, the existence of hereditary chiefs ( ha'wiih ) and their territories. Aside from the physical occupation of particular net-pen sites, salmon farming also appears to have made its presence known at other nearby sites that many people now avoid for fear of food contamination. In addition, I am told that a number of formerly reliable food gathering areas now yield herring spawn, fish, clams, seabirds, and other seafoods in temporally unpredictable and spatially patchy ways. With the growth of the salmon farming industry, farmed Atlantic salmon has become increasingly and readily available as a food product at local grocery stores, but both the Namgis and Ahousaht people continue to rely heavily on wild-caught, Pacific salmon.
The fishers living in Alert Bay and Ahousaht provided me with many details about how the distribution and abundance of various species had changed at and around salmon farming sites. 2 I wanted to know how the Ahousaht's and Namgis' fishing activities had been altered by the presence of fish farms. However, the people I spoke to did not encourage questions concerning the fish farms as much as they did questions having to do with fish as food. Perhaps it is through an emphasis on food that these fishers tried to convey how severely and immediately the salmon farming industry affects not only their individual lives but also those of all others in their communities. I became interested in the meaning of farmed salmon as food primarily because this link between sustenance and nature seemed to be a way of understanding the importance of wild salmon runs for cultural continuity. Although...