Chris Cook is a First Nations commercial fisherman and President of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia in Alert Bay. He's been fishing since age 14 and skipper on a boat for 34 years.


How important are fisheries to this community and to you?

We are the salmon people. If you take a look at any chart up and down the coast of B.C., every one has an "IR" meaning Indian Reserve. Our people traveled from river to river, and we have the four seasons in which we gathered our food throughout the year. It wasn't until about the late 1800s, 1900s that the salmon industry started, and the cannery started. We've always lived from the sea, the ocean. One of the things that is said by our old people is 'when a tide is out our table is set.' We are the keepers of the ocean and the salmon that we have. Our old people tell us that we are the keepers of the salmon.

We've never desecrated the rivers, we've always made sure that there was enough fish that was going to come back, we never took more than we were supposed to, and we look after the rivers. If you took the dirt away from the farmers, what would they have? If you take the fish away from the Indian people, our people, what would we have? Our people have come and fishing has clothed us and has fed us. In the old days, it fed us with the seasons. There was trade with other tribal groups for all different things. Now I'm 59 years old and I started fishing when I was 14, in about 1957, 1956, and times have changed so much. We were noted throughout the world.

Every place I traveled, as I traveled, our people were the wealthiest people. The people of the coast here were wealthy because of our salmon industry. Today, there has been a big change. There's a big change in our economics, our economic base, with all the different coastal communities up and down the coast. Myself, as the President of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia, which is the oldest organization in Canada, an active organization of 71 years. They fought for the rights of the First Nation's people. We've been dealing with salmon and fishing and now we're getting the lowest amount of prices we've ever got.

You've walked in our village here of Alert Bay and I imagine there are other villages that you've visited on the coast already. From a rich village to a village that has only five boats leaving this community to go fishing in the season. At one time we had 50 to 60 boats. That's due to the government. I believe it was the federal government of Canada who said 'there's too many boats chasing too few fish.' So one thing they've done is to offer a buy-back program. As far back as I can remember, the First Nation people were always victim of change.

When the white men first came into our country we were victims of change. They wanted us to use their laws, their ways, and our ways were looked down upon. Yet our way is living in harmony. All of the ocean and all of the sea belongs to all of us, but we all have to protect it. These are things that we grew up with. This is coming from the heart. Salmon is a big part of our life and it's intertwined in our way of living. How we store our food in winter, how we feed our people, and when we come to feast and celebrate life we are accustomed to using our salmon.

The salmon has put food on the table and has enriched our culture. All of a sudden, we have a moratorium on all kinds of licenses. At one time when I was younger, within the last 25 years, I could walk down to the dock, go on my boat, and I could go out and get some halibut and sell it. I could go out and get some crabs and I could sell them, or prawns, or whatever it was that I wanted to do, and I could sell it. Now, today, we have to have a license and very few people hold these licenses. On this coast here, First Nation's people populate 85% of this coast, from Campbell River to Prince Rupert, which is about 300 miles. 85% of the licenses and leases that are held in tenures, in forestry and fisheries, and all kinds of different licenses are held by 90% of the non-First Nations.

We're a prisoner within our own area. We've been closed in more and more. It's not our laws; it's the laws of Canada. We go to court and try to prove this is our land. Why is it that we have to go court, with the people of Canada, and prove what part of this country is ours? We should be going to the court and serving them saying what part of Canada do you want? But it's the other way around and it makes me very sad. You can see where a lot of us have been inter-mixed. You see the blues eyes? Sometimes I hate these blue eyes because I see what's happening to our people, my children and my grandchildren. My grandfather taught us to live in harmony and how do you live in harmony when you're going uphill all the time and everything seems to be against you.

But, that's what I see. I think there are changes that are coming with the fisheries. I've been the president of a fish company, and I've traveled to Japan. I think the last time I was there was four years ago, and I saw farmed fish. Farmed fish has been put on the market all over the world and it has come to our place 20 years ago. We've been fighting it. We've been fighting it and it has taken over the commercial wild fish throughout the world. Five years ago if you asked any of my people if they wanted a fish farm within their area they were 100% against it. Today there are villages that are signing contracts with them because they have no economic development on the different reservations.

So, we're faced with a lot of change again. Where do we go? The environment that we're so protective of is one we have no control over. The provincial government has control of all the leases and the land, the areas. They give the leases out to the people and we keep fighting it. If you travel anywhere up and down this coast here you'll get on a beach and you'll see clamshells. They're one of the mainstays of the First Nation people. Now we have to have a license to go and get our own clams.

These farms have come in all our areas. They're having a lot of damage in our environment, our environment within our villages. The government, the provincial government of B.C., just lifted a moratorium. After we fought for years. Years of trying to fight these farmed fish, but they just lifted it. Now it's going to be from one end of the B.C. coast to the other, again.

I understand that salmon is a huge part of your culture.

Yes, we have always worried about our environment. No matter what happens with our people. For centuries people have come and gone, they've built all kinds of different things and it hasn't worked for them. Whether you're here for 50 years, whether you're here for a 100 years, they're gone. My people of the First Nations, the native people, are still going to be here. So we're left with the destruction of a lot of people who've come here to make a dollar, to come in and use the environment and then go. You can take a look at the mountains and the trees that have gone.

It's the same thing with the salmon. Over the years the salmon were productive. We had canneries, we had all different companies come in who become very rich and we got a big part. But the wealth that we have is not in dollars; it's in our land. Our land will always be here. When you talk about the salmon, we talk about our streams, and our streams are our bloodline. They're our wealth, they're our food, and they're just as much a part of me as my arms, my legs, and my breath.

When you take a look at the changes that fish farms have caused. Within my organization, some of the tribes belong to the farmed fish. Our organization doesn't tell people what kind of economic development to have, because that's their choice. Some of them have accepted the environmental problems, and they hope that they can make some changes in it. But the majority of the people on the coast are against the farmed fish.

One thing that I've seen with the farmed fish as I've traveled, well, I went on a tour four months ago on one end of the coast to the other and we stopped at some fish farms. My wife was with us and she went to smell one of the bags of food that was in there. One of the workers said, 'don't do that, it's dangerous.' In one fish farm, one of the native people actually took us to there. He was about 30 years old, and I said, 'do you eat this?' 'Do you guys smoke this fish?' He said, 'no.' I said, 'do you can it?' He said, 'no.' 'Do you guys eat it?' He said, 'no way.'

The First Nation's people along this coast once had the moratorium taken off. They're signing contracts with the different big companies to put a site within the tribal areas. I don't think that our people have turned over from wild fish to farmed fish. I don't believe that. If you go through the villages of the coastal people that have farmed fish and ask them the question, 'do you can this fish, do you eat it, or do you foresee that one day your village will turn over from wild fish to eating farmed fish?' I'd be awfully surprised if they said, 'yes, we're going to eat farmed fish.'

Within this area, the villages' main concern is our environment. The farmed fish can come and go, they could be here for 100 years, they could be here for 200 years, but we're still going to be here when they're gone. So we're left with the aftermath. We've had mines that came in here. Utah mines. They came here 35 years ago. They told us that they were going to put all our people to work. All they needed was our backing. That mine came in. None of my people worked in that mine. One of the reasons is that we are salmon people. All the First Nation people on this coast have a biological clock that ticks with the ocean, six hours in with the tide, and six hours out.

If you take a look at our environment, all the clams, seaweed, and all that's there is part of the salmon. It goes back to the salmon again. The culture. The salmon goes up the river and dies and it feeds the forest with the carcass and all the different things that go with it. It's a big cycle. When you cut that cycle apart what happens? I want all people to know who are eating farmed fish, Atlantic salmon, that my people aren't eating it. They're not eating it because we feel that it's not healthy. If it were, we would eat it. We eat everything in the ocean. We know what's good and we know what's bad.

When you go into the markets, they say "Atlantic salmon." It doesn't say that it's farmed fish. It doesn't tell you about the pellets they are fed, or all the stuff they feed it to make it bigger. Natural salmon takes four years to come that size. A wild fish takes months to become this big. So, who's eating that fish? Who out there is eating that fish? Whoever it is that eats the farmed fish, I'm very sad for you. I'm sad for the people who are putting this out on the market and saying that this is good quality fish.

I would love to see the governments of Canada have a stamp "wild fish" that is certified to be wild fish. If you go through the markets, anything that is grown wild and organic is a lot better for you and it's a lot better for your food. First Nation's people, in our spirit, believe in our soul. If we put something bad down there sooner or later something is going to happen.

Can you talk about morts?

We went to these different fish farms and they have what they call 'morts,' it is mortality, the ones that die. How do they get rid of them? Within this area, we have one or two boats that go out and pick up the morts, out of those fish farms and then take them to a dump which is about 7 miles from there. They dump them and they crush them within the garbage dump. It's an awful smell, like death. They've had people, tourists who have come here who just turn around and go back it's so awful. We're fighting that from our village here. They're dying every day.

So they wait till they have enough carcasses for this boat to come pick them up, maybe 4,000, 5,000 pounds or 10,000 pounds and then take them away. Now that this moratorium is on, I read in the paper last week that they're getting permits to go out and dump tons of the morts out into the ocean. After this moratorium has been lifted, my understanding is that they're taking a look at about between 10 and 15 new sites a year and over the next 10 years you're probably going to have 150 sites up and down the coast.

So, if you take a look at the millions of pounds of farmed fish that's going compete with our livelihood, we're going to be pushed into the corners. The government of Canada and the federal government will see the dollars they get to rake off of it. They're going to say okay, it's all right to dump this fish out. This is out in the ocean. How would you like it if I came to your deep freeze and put these morts, this garbage, in your deep freeze? This is our deep freeze. Like I said, when the tide is out our table is set, and that's what's happening to us.

It's sad, because we of the First Nations are fighting not only for ourselves, but we're fighting for you, too, and for your children, for all of us. All we ask is that they make sure the environment is safe, with their farmed fishes. That somehow they're going to do it in a safe manner. It almost brings tears to my eyes because I think of all of us who are here in the world and this thing is happening on us. We hear of all the things that are happening terrible in the world with third world countries. Well, this is the same thing that's happening here. So we would like for you, the people of the world, to help us.

What is the negative environmental impact of salmon farming?

Well the impacts that I see here, the impacts that are happening within the environment are especially with the shellfish. We've gone out there and we see things more, because they have the biologists. We have biologists also. They go out there and they take a look at these clams, they're not very healthy. The fish farm people say they're okay. I wonder if all these families of these biologists that know these different fish farm people would eat them. With all these people here, it's hard to fight. They come back, they have statistics, and the same statistics we have. The government doesn't take our statistics.

The biologists have all these degrees. They all have degrees, like the rectal thermometer has a degree - you know where you put that. So, sometimes I wonder when you talk about degrees vs. local knowledge. Local knowledge is from the time we've been here. My grandfathers and their grandfathers have lived right on the rivers, lived right on these oceans. When they went to dig clams they took so much and they moved to another beach - they didn't decimate the beach. One of the things that I worry about as a commercial fisherman, as a First Nation's fishermen, is that those salmon are going past this farmed fish stuff, whether there are diseases or not. They're put close to rivers.

That's a lot of concern to me if they get involved. They say that it's not going to harm anything but what if it does? Where are we? I hear of things that are happening in Scotland, things that are happening in other places about farmed fish. What I'm talking about has already happened. Why are those people that were there, why are they now here? Because they didn't want them there and that's the thing that I see. The stocks that we have within the rivers there, they're going to be found there. I was up in a meeting at the Alaskan Native Brotherhood three years ago, it was around 1999, and they were concerned already about the farmed fish coming from here to Alaska. The Alaskans I believe are like us, more so - richer within their salmon population. When the farmed fish comes there what kind of control are they going to have?

I hope that the United States and the UN, but the United States of America and Alaska do some real heavy duty fighting because what's happening here is going to swim over there. These farmed fish don't know boundaries and I hear that they've already found fish in the rivers that have been caught in Alaska. Prior to that, when they caught these fish, there were no farmed fish sites within 400 miles of Alaska. Now they're going to be within 30 miles. So look out brothers up there in Alaska. I hope you unite with us to fight this.

What about the morts? Why do those fish die?

I haven't too much idea on that. I know the tribal council and all the different people that are working on the farmed fish, but I believe there are sea lice. I think that has a lot to do with it. What's killing them I believe is some of the feed that they're giving the fish. I don't think they really know enough about this fish, otherwise why would they be dying? They take the risk that these are going to die. The only way to get rid of the disease, to not cause any damage to the environment, is to incinerate. Are you incinerating it when you pour it into the ocean? Our rich ocean is going to get that again. As far as what's causing the problems with the morts, I think some of the technicians would probably have more knowledge of that.

Any other concerns?

With all of this aquaculture that's happening, the federal government put $50 million into aquaculture. Where we are here is a village. All the different 13 tribes that are within this area, which is about 10,000 people, have concerns with a lot of aquaculture coming in there. It's pushing off all the wild fish, the wild stocks, and the wild shellfish. That's one of the things that we've always lived on; therefore I have a lot of concerns. I have concerns for where my people are going. Where are they going to be 10 years from now, where are they going to be 20 years from now?

Our values have always been instilled within our people, as the First Nation's people. I hope and pray that the Creator will look after us and look after all the people of the world, especially in this part of the aquaculture, environment, and salmon. We are the salmon people and we always will be. You will come and go, all you people will come and go and we will still be here. Maybe you'll leave with blue eyes, leave us with a lot of what you've had, but we as a people right here, our native people, will always be here. We would like you to respect our land and respect our culture and respect our way of life as we've lived with you.