Ahousaht First Nation and Cermaq Canada

Commercial finfish aquaculture was first introduced to the BC coast in the 1900s when fisheries built hatcheries to rebuild declining wild stocks and then again in the 1950s with the licensing of rainbow trout farms. In the 1970s, in response to the diminishing numbers of wild salmon, salmon farms began to make an appearance, primarily on the Sunshine Coast, as well as around Tofino and Barkley Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and in Ocean Falls, on BC’s central coast. These first farms were initially small, locally owned operations but due to the lack of knowledge in raising pacific salmon and the large amount of capital investment needed these companies became financially stretched.

View of Opitsaht

View of Opitsaht

In the latter part of the 1980s there was a period of expansion with large capital outlay for steel pens and modern equipment. However, after record low salmon prices and natural plankton blooms that caused significant die-offs, many of the financially stretched company’s ceased operations completely. Investors backed out and many salmon farms were forced into receivership. Many were snapped up by large multinational companies. These multinational began to rebuild the industry, consolidating hatcheries, building processing plants and moving into salmon-farming service industries.

Ahousaht Nation

Located on Flores Island in Clayoquot Sound, Ahousaht Nation, with over 2,000 members, is the largest single First Nation on Vancouver Island’s West Coast. Approximately one third of Ahousaht members live within Ahousaht traditional territories, while the remainder live in other rural and urban areas.

Ahousaht can be translated to mean ‘people living with their backs to the land and mountains on a beach along the open sea.’ Ahousaht Nation territory encompasses much of Clayoquot Sound with the village of Maaqtusiis being the only reserve or village site inhabited year-round. Ahousaht Nation has 25 reserve sites within the nation’s territories, none of which have road access.

The traditional governance system of Ahousaht still exists today and is represented by three principle Hereditary Chiefs (Hawiih) who are responsible to the Ahousaht people and the Hahoulthee (ancestral territories and resources). Ahousaht Nation also operates with an Elected Chief and Council system.

View of Ahousaht

View of Ahousaht

Cermaq Canada

Cermaq is an international salmon farming company with operations in Canada, Chile and Norway. Cermaq Canada (formerly Mainstream Canada), has been working in Ahousaht territory for more than ten years and has a total of 27 farm sites, 14 active farm sites in the Ahousaht Hahoulthee area. Cermaq Canada has seven third-party certifications that guide the operations.

Environmental, Quality, Worker Safety and Food Safety management systems are certified to ISO standards. The company also is certified to the Aboriginal Principles for Sustainable Aquaculture standard, established by the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association. Cermaq Canada is the only company in North America to meet the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association’s Aboriginal Principles for Sustainable Aquaculture (APSA) standard, acknowledging the company’s positive and mutually beneficial relationship with the Ahousaht Nation. APSA certification signifies that a First Nation is successfully bringing essential economic revitalization to its community – without sacrificing social or environmental values. It also signifies that the aquaculture operator is respectful of the values and aspirations of their First Nation partner.

All harvesting farm sites are certified to the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices standard. Cermaq Canada is also recognized for exceptional worker safety through the FIOSA-MIOSA Safety Alliance’s Certificate of Recognition. The Alliance works in partnership with WorkSafeBC in their Partners in Injury and Disability Prevention Program, Certificate of Recognition program.

The Challenges

When the Cermaq Group purchased Pacific National Processing Group in 2000, a company that had operated in the Ahousaht region in the late 1990s, they inherited a legacy of strained relations between Pacific National and the Ahousaht Nation. In 2002, a protocol agreement was signed, but it was not comprehensive.

By 2008, the management team had changed and the new team recognized early on that addressing the relationship problems with the Ahousaht Nation was a priority. Laurie Jensen, Communications & Corporate Sustainability Manager with Cermaq recapped the early meetings with the Ahousaht Chief and Council.

“We recognized that a lot of things could have been handled better in the company’s earlier relationship with Ahousaht. Within a month of joining Cermaq, Fernando Villarroel, Cermaq Canada’s managing director and I arranged a meeting with the Hawiih (Hereditary chiefs) and elected Chief and Council in Tofino. We agreed that mistakes had been made in the past and that a new, positive relationship was crucial to moving forward. Part of the challenge was that previous communications and meetings had not been properly documented, so that neither Cermaq nor Ahousaht had a clear understanding of what had been discussed. Ahousaht and Cermaq agreed that they should start afresh with a new protocol agreement as the basis of a new relationship, a process that the Hawiih initiated in February 2008. The Ahousaht formed a Fish Farm Negotiating Committee that would attend all meetings. The meetings occurred monthly for two years and were supported by the Hawiih, who were not on the negotiating committee but supported the partnership with Cermaq.

The negotiating committee represented the Ahousaht community families, the Elders and the Fisheries, and the committee discussed developments and took the comments back to the Committee. The efforts to build a positive new relationship quickly had an effect on both parties. “This was the first time a company had honoured and respected our ownership and jurisdiction in our territory,” said Wally Samuel, who served on the fish farm committee and who is now a member of Ahousaht’s Economic Development Corp. “They are the only company that has ever sat down and talked to us about having a business in our area. They are the only company that has respected, honoured and included us as a partner.”

Cermaq recognized that a relationship based on trust was going to be essential to a lasting partnership, and that it was going to take time and patience on both sides to build. The meetings focused not just on building the future, but on acknowledging past mistakes and committing to transparency in the new relationship.

Ahousaht Cermaq Farm Tour

Ahousaht Cermaq Farm Tour

The Partnership

In early 2010, Cermaq and the Ahousaht Nation signed a new protocol agreement which renewed the agreement from 2002, but with significant additions. Both parties made sure the protocol was clearly understood. “English is a new language for us; we’ve only been speaking and writing it for 100 years and some of our Elders don’t enjoy a lot of reading,” said Samuel. Our Elders would say something in the meeting and we would have to try to translate that into English, and into a written document. We have our own knowledge but it’s different from the knowledge non-First Nation people have.”

The goal of the partnership was to work together to develop a sustainable finfish aquaculture business, incorporating Ahousaht’s respect for and balance among all living things. Ahousaht’s objectives were direct employment and contract jobs; protecting the environment; and funding for wild salmon enhancement projects. Cermaq’s objectives were long-term stability for salmon farming operations in Clayoquot Sound and to have an available local workforce.

A critical component for the ultimate success of the negotiations and protocol agreement was developing a formal structure for conflict resolution at the beginning of the process. “Cermaq and Ahousaht both had their own clear set of objectives and vision statements. We both wanted a partnership so we knew we would just have to work through disagreements and conflicts. We tried to laugh through some of the tough times. We committed to work through it together, no matter what, and that’s what we all did,” Jensen said.

The protocol went through many revisions. The Fish Farm Negotiating Committee members had to agree amongst themselves on the terms and conditions of the partnership. The Hawiih had to review and agree on it, and so did Cermaq’s management – it was not a quick process but absolutely necessary in order to be accepted from both parties.

Cermaq’s contribution:

  • Acknowledged and respected the Ahousaht Nation’s claim to rights and territorial title
  • Respect for the Ahousaht people and an interest in working with them
  • Commitment to developing a strong respectful working relationship
  • Practices will be conducted in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable manner

Ahousaht Nation’s contribution:

  • Local traditional knowledge and resource planning expertise
  • A local community source of workforce
  • Commitment to developing a strong respectful working relationship

Benefits to Cermaq:

  • Certainty and stability for operations
  • Operational support
  • Opportunity for growth
  • A local community source of workforce
  • A public commitment to partnerships with First Nations

Benefits to Ahousaht Nation:

  • Funding for training and education
  • Capacity building funds
  • Funding for salmon enhancement projects
  • Full-time employment provides wages/benefits which benefit the whole community
  • Opportunities for contracting
  • Economic development funding assistance

Nobody else’s business

While Ahousaht and Cermaq were building their relationship, there was strong opposition from environmental groups and other non-governmental organizations who were waging war against the finfish aquaculture sector. The partners mutually agreed to not publicly discuss the terms of the Protocol or their relationship building process – if anything was to be communicated, then the two parties would do so together or with prior consent. The Ahousaht have deep concerns about the health of wild salmon stocks.

Restoring The Atleo River from Mark Wyatt on Vimeo.

“One of the key concerns for Ahousaht is the wild salmon, which have always been an important food source for our people. The decline of wild salmon stocks in our territory is a serious concern, but we recognize that the salmon had been in decline long before fish farms started operating” said Samuel.

One of the key items included in the Protocol was funding for a Salmon Enhancement Plan – we left it up to the Ahousaht to determine how that plan would come together but we promised to work together with them,” says Jensen.

The main components of the Salmon Enhancement Plan have been river restoration. In particular, funding was allocated for Anderson Creek spawning channel enhancements, and for habitat restoration in the Atleo River.

Aboriginal Principles for Sustainable Aquaculture Certification

Aboriginal Principles for Sustainable Aquaculture Certification

Going Forward

The partnership seeks mutual long term social, economic, cultural and spiritual benefits for both parties and will consider the needs and interest of future generations in all their dealings. Future protocol developments will follow a similar process with the same dedication. The parties will continue to meet on a regular basis to review, refine and discuss the agreement.

Among other goals, the partnership strives to be recognized globally as a progressive, innovative Indigenous /industry partnership that demonstrates a respect for and seeks a balance among all living things.

Lessons Learned:

What advice do you have for companies that want to form partnerships with First Nations on finfish aquaculture projects?


  • Have a cooperative, not competitive attitude.
  • Be willing to put in the time to meet them in their own territories, have the patience to respect their time frame, and have patience while First Nations find their way – they are bombarded with information from many sources and are not sure who to trust.
  • Be honest even if it’s a hard truth. If you have to say something you know they won’t like, explain your reasons, and watch your body language.
  • Time plus patience equals trust, and without trust, there’s no partnership.Albert Frank

Albert Frank

Ahousaht Nation:

  • Be truly honest about your intentions and don’t hesitate to put everything on the table.
  • Use clear language – don’t hide behind big words, and take the time to make sure everyone understands the terms.
  • Be sure to send the right people to negotiate – they have to have the right attitude and the right demeanor.

What advice do you have for First Nations communities that want to form finfish aquaculture partnerships?


  • Take the time you need to develop the relationship, don’t let yourself be pushed into anything.
  • You have a lot of community members to answer to and if the process is rushed then they won’t feel as though they have been involved.
  • Have a co-operative, not competitive attitude. Make an effort to understand the business’ point of view.
  • Recognize that there is a difference between non-First Nation people and First Nation people.
  • Be honest about your concerns and try to keep them specific to the topic you are discussing.
  • Be honest about your capacity and ability to meet commitments.
  • Trust takes time to build, but if you feel this will be impossible, walk away.

Ahousaht Nation:

  • Be sure to send the right people to negotiate – they have to have the right attitude and the right demeanor.
  • Hire a consultant to work with you on the agreement to explain the definitions, and to make sure that everyone understands the entire agreement.
  • Don’t rush the process.