Kitasoo/Xai’Xais and Marine Harvest Canada

This is the land of the Spirit Bear which features prominently in Kitasoo/Xai’Xais legends. According to one legend, the Raven, creator of all things, made every tenth bear white to remind Man of the harsh times when the world was covered in ice, and of a promise that the people would always be thankful for the lush and bountiful forests and seas. Raven set aside a very special part of the world for the Spirit Bear – the Great Bear Rainforest.

The traditional territory of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais is on the central coast of BC, across from the southern tip of Haida Gwaii – a traditional trade route for coastal First Nations. Their territory is 3939 square kilometers of rugged coast, long fjords, deep valleys and the rugged peaks of the Pacific Coast Range Mountains. Scores of ancient cultural sites have been documented within the area, including abandoned villages and culturally modified trees. Access is by water or air – there is no road access. In 1989, the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais set up and operated a fish farm in an effort to provide income for the community after a fish packing firm that had been operating a cannery in Klemtu since 1925, abruptly shut down. When the only employer in town pulls out of a small, isolated town the size of Klemtu, it’s a tough body blow to the whole community. The fish farm, however, could not achieve the economy of scale required to compete on the global market or withstand the drop in salmon prices in the 1990s.

Marine Harvest Canada

Marine Harvest Canada is the largest aquaculture company in BC, employing over 500 people. Marine Harvest produces one-fifth of the world’s farm-raised salmon at facilities in Norway, Scotland, Canada, Chile, Ireland and the Faroe Islands. The company demonstrates conformance to a high standard through ongoing third-party certification standards audits and its ISO 14001 environmental management program, which has been in place since 2000.

The Partnership

The Kitasoo/Xai’Xais invited Marine Harvest Canada to Klemtu in the mid-1990s to visit the area and meet the people. It took a couple of years for the two parties to learn about each other, identify and share concerns but by 1998 they had signed a Protocol agreement, which was renewed in 2006 with very few changes. The enduring strength of the agreement is a testament to the time and honest, open discussions that occurred during the development of the original agreement. “The agreement is up for renewal in 2016, and I don’t think much will change then either,” says Larry Greba, Director and Advisor, Kitasoo Fisheries, who has worked with the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais since he helped them set up the original fish farm.

“The main tenants of the agreement included very strong environmental standards set by the Kitasoo; if the Nation felt there was any damage occurring to their traditional foods in the areas of the farm sites, then they had the ability to shut down the site, and that still holds today. Protecting their food fish is a very important component of the agreement,” says Greba. The Kitasoo were very explicit that they were only going to invite one company to work in their territory, and that was done to ensure that there is consistency in environmental applications on the sites. The eight page agreement covers the management of the risks and concern, expectations, and benefits to each party and limitations to number of farms (six). The Kitasoo are the tenure holders while Marine Harvest is the licensee.

The number of farms is restricted to six – there is no advantage to the Kitasoo to expand beyond that number as the capacity of the community to fill the jobs is at maximum. Bringing in workers to fill jobs was never a goal.

As “luck” would have it, just as Marine Harvest and the Kitasoo were developing the agreement, there was a bloom of negative press about fish farms from environmental groups. While the Kitasoo had a balanced view of farming fish due to their past, personal experience, the proposed fish farming operations were much larger. Marine Harvest and the community leaders presented both the negative and positive aspects during community meetings. When it came time to vote, it was almost unanimous support to proceed with the farms.

This was the first partnership of its kind on the BC coast – there were no other formal agreements between First Nations and finfish farmers. Ian Roberts, Communications Manager, Marine Harvest says “This agreement set the standard for how we engage with other First Nations as we build – we now maintain relationships with 10 other First Nations. Klemtu is also unique because it already had a processing plant so that all the fish from the territory are processed right on the reserve. The infrastructure was there as they were processing other species of seafood such as sea cucumbers and urchins. The plant was expanded to process salmon.”

The remoteness of Klemtu provided some logistical challenges and higher costs for moving equipment and fish in, and product out. But through scale and the excellent growing conditions for salmon the company is able to compensate for the additional logistics costs.

In order to develop a skilled workforce within Klemtu, population about 450, North Island College provided instructors who spent six months in Klemtu training fourteen individuals in marine aquaculture. “From that group, we still have quite a number who are still working with us sixteen years later,” says Roberts. “We have second generation salmon farmers working on the site, some alongside their parents.” There is a generational work ethic in the community – community leaders have set a standard of expectations. It is also a dry community – alcohol has not been for sale in the community since the 1980s.

On the seafarms there are 20, full time, year round positions filled by Kitasoo workers; five workers on the harvest boats (Kitasoo owned) which is an eight month position; 25 in the processing plant; plus, five full time equivalent positions. A balance must be maintained between providing maximum employment for Klemtu and overwhelming the capacity of the community to fill the jobs.

Each year, Marine Harvest makes available a scholarship for a grade 12 graduate of Klemtu High School. currently employed by Marine Harvest for aquaculture training. The company also has a very well-developed Technician Advancement Program that allows staff to move through the four technician staff positions to assistant management positions and on to manager.

Farming and processing salmon on six sites brings revenue of approximately $1.5 to $2 million into the community through wages and benefits.

Salmon Farm 2

Credit: Marine Harvest Canada

Strengths Marine Harvest Canada brought to the Partnership:

  • Expertise in aquaculture – they know how to grow fish, have the required capital to grow it efficiently and can compete on the global market
  • Employment opportunities

Strengths Kitasoo/Xai’Xais First Nation brought to the Partnership:

  • The Kitasoo, having lived in the area since time immemorial, have an engrained local knowledge of the ocean, weather patterns, fish habits and an invaluable expertise on the water.
  • They are the government, they can interact with other governments to enact decisions that are quick and fair
  • An experienced labour force

Lessons Learned from Marine Harvest Canada:

Advice for companies that want to form partnerships with First Nation communities on finfish aquaculture:

  • Be patient; decisions do not happen overnight and the path to consensus takes time
  • Think long term – your First Nation partner communities are thinking long term in regard to building careers and taking care of their families
  • Be honest – don’t overstate what you can provide
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate; brag when you do things well, admit your errors
  • Enjoy the community and enjoy the personal relationships you have developed

Advice for First Nation communities that want to form finfish aquaculture partnerships:

  • Take the time to learn about the business of fish farming or fish culture
  • If you are looking at bringing in partners, develop a strong relationship with company representatives – this is a long-term commitment
  • Share information about what is important from your Nation’s perspective and listen to what is important from your partner’s perspective

Lessons learned from Kitasoo/Xai’Xais First Nation:

Advice for First Nation communities that want to form finfish aquaculture partnerships:

  • Community education and buy-in is essential, especially given the controversy associated with the industry; provide balanced information so that they can form their opinion
  • Look for a partner that shares similar values
  • Take time to understand your partner’s needs for the business
  • Choose a partner that can financially withstand the vagaries of the market
  • Keep community politics apart from the business development corporation
  • Recognize the equity within the First Nation – governance over traditional territory and labour force

Advice for companies that want to form partnerships with First Nation communities on finfish aquaculture:

  • Take time to understand your partner’s needs for the business
  • Community education and buy-in is essential, especially given the controversy associated with the industry; provide balanced information so that they can form their opinion