“The sector is not going to farm where they are not wanted”

Brian Kingzett, new Executive Director for BCSFA. Photo: BC Salmon Farmers Association.
Brian Kingzett, new Executive Director for BCSFA. Photo: BC Salmon Farmers Association.

Brian Kingzett is a man of dialogue. His resume says it and his conversation corroborates it. As soon as you listen to him argue, you realize that dialogue is for him a fundamental tool, almost a philosophy of life. That is why his appointment as Executive Director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) at a time when the industry is discussing its future in British Columbia seems a good fit.

That four-way discussion between industry, government, opponents of aquaculture and, above all, First Nations – Indigenous Canadian people -, is an open game that is played every day. Shortly, it will have a definitive hand, the resolution of the future on aquaculture in the Discovery Islands that the former Fisheries Minister of Canada banned in 2020 by withdrawing the licenses of 19 farms. The companies appealed and the decision was overturned by a judge who gave the government the opportunity to restore those licenses. That decision will be made in the next few days and the industry is expectant. More than the licenses, what is at stake is the future of aquaculture in BC.

Indigenous reconciliation at the core

After learning of his appointment as the new Executive Director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, the first thing we asked Brian Kingzett was how he sees the current aquaculture landscape in British Columbia. "We're all pretty challenged right now", he tells us, "but I think producer companies will come out of it better". In the association, he says, they have a lot of responsibility. There are only a few producer companies, but the BCSFA tries to reflect everyone's common interests. "What I'm most proud of is that we represent a really capable and committed group of people that really want to do the right thing", he claims. "We really see that in the initiatives and the support that we have to really align everything we're doing with Indigenous reconciliation here in Canada".

For the BCSFA reconciliation is at the core and they advocate for an Indigenous-led transition plan as the future of salmon farming in British Columbia. But that future first goes through what Brian Kingzett names "our big immediate issue". In 2020, a previous fisheries minister unilaterally made a decision not to renew licenses for 19 sites in the Discovery Islands. That became a flashpoint. It took 20,000 tons of production out of BC, a little over 1/5, almost 1/4 of their production and that has taken a while for those farms to liquidate. "We predicted a bunch of economic damages from that and that's now happening. We've had hundreds of people lose their jobs over this", he says. Many of them are First Nations jobs.

As mentioned, the companies appealed the decision, a judge ruled in their favor and now the government must decide whether or not to reinstate those licenses. A decision that directly affects First Nations because, Brian Kingzett explained to us, as one of the chiefs said, they had their "right to even decide as a community" taken away. These are their territories and that is why, before the government makes the final decision, the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship (FNFFS) wanted to make its position clear. "We will choose if, when, and how the sector operates in our waters", they said at the end of last week. Not only the companies are affected by the decision, it will also affect the Indigenous communities and, for this reason, they have all worked together in search of solutions.

The proposal includes a reduction in sites in this territory, as well as a much higher level of oversight of the Nations' guardians and biologists at these sites, while developing their own scientific capacity. "We're really hope that the federal government sticks to their bigger reconciliation commitment of listening to First Nations and listens to what happened in the courts", Brian Kingzett says. "We would like to think that the Nations and the companies have come back with a very responsible proposal that is good both for the Nations, allows the companies to restore a little bit of that production that was lost and some of those jobs, but also does in a way that actually respects the concerns that were expressed by the Canadian government".

For a decade, Brian Kingzett managed Vancouver Island University Deep Bay Marine Field Station, devoted to being a place for dialogue between industry and the community. Photo: Brian Kingzett.

Being more sustainable

At the same time that they are waiting for this decision on the Discovery Islands farms, the industry has the transition process underway where the BCSFA has made it clear that it wants to take direction from the Indigenous communities. "It's been a bumpy ride, and it's going to continue to be", Brian says on the situation. "The sector is not going to farm where they are not wanted", he claims. But he also notes that an increasing number of Nations are realizing that there are really significant benefits that come with the industry that match their own. "When they compare those to other industries in the area, we're actually the most sustainable industry to have. So, we're actually coming around to support in many instances", he adds.

"We're very proud of that we're a sector that is engaging in this true reconciliation and when that happens, everybody's fighting for that common cause", Brian Kingzett tells WeAreAquaculture. "Our common causes right now are to maintain and hopefully get to a position where we're growing the industry again because the issues that we're dealing with are very political and they're coming out of the federal government, they're not coming out of the communities that we're in, both – the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous communities –  want us there because of the opportunities that the sector provides".

"There's a tremendous responsibility associated with all that. We're trying to be ethical. We're trying to be practice reconciliation. We want to be more sustainable. We want to show that we're being more sustainable", continues the BCSFA Executive Director. And he recalls, "We're in this really daunting challenge right now because a political decision was made in 2019". The mandate was changed to mitigate, reduce or eliminate interactions with wild salmon. "Ironically, almost everyone in our sector, myself included, considers themselves an environmental activist because we want to take pressure off of wild fish and we want to create sustainable seafood", he tells us. Now they are trying to find a middle path.

"Our responsibility is trying to help the sector", he insists. "Companies are doing this individually, but our role is to sort of keep everybody working collectively a little bit, which we are doing a very good job. We have very congenial relationships between the competitors on these bigger issues they have. They have other places they can compete. The companies are working together to find a middle path that reassures the government that we can be better, we can be more sustainable", he says. But he also adds, "We've put out front that the government also has to reconcile".

As far as he wants to reduce pressure on wild fish and create sustainable seafood, Brian considers himself an environmental activist. Photo: Brian Kingzett.

Much work still ahead

Working together, reconciliation, dialogue, are words and expressions that Brian repeats during our conversation. And he does so not only when referring to the members of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, but also when talking about the activists against salmon farming. "We have open doors, we try and engage in dialogue in these things", he says. But, instead, what they usually find in front of them is what he calls a "professional community".

"They are operating businesses, their business is fighting aquaculture, and if aquaculture went away, they'd find something else to fight and they do not want to engage with us", he laments. And, once again, he recalls that the industry is not the enemy of wild salmon. "This is an industry full of people that want to work on the water, who are super passionate about the ocean. And frankly, on this coast, where salmon are totemic, everybody in the sector is fish crazy. They don't want to see wild salmon go away and if we can figure out a way to protect wild salmon, we're going to continue to do that", he says.

When the decision about Discovery Islands is done, he tells us, "if the government comes down in the sector's favour, there's going to be some activists that are extremely upset and that becomes a bellwether for the larger transition process that's happening right now". The goal in that process, he says, is to have a plan. "Not a solution, but a plan for how we're going to go forward to show that we minimize and interactions with the wild fish and that's expected to be put in place by the end of June".

Much work still ahead for Brian Kingzett, the BC Salmon Farmers Association, First Nations, and, of course, the government, but he is confident they can pull it off because, as he tells us, if the transition goes badly, "the global demand for seafood is not going to change, the pressures just going to get worse. Climate change is going to get worse". So, at some point, he says, "these decisions will all get reconsidered. The demand is all going to be there. The First Nations are going to want to be there. I don't think we'll lose the sector, but we have some opponents that have said publicly that they don't need to see us shut down. They just need to see the sector made so difficult that the companies pull out". Let's hope that's not the case.

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