An image from the Sea Shepherd website shows a B.C. aquaculture operation. The group has warned that deadly pathogens are being spread by fish farms and that the operations violate Indigenous rights. But Tslowitsis Chief John Smith has told Sea Shepherd to ”stay away from our territory.”

Sea Shepherd, fish farmers poised for face-off

Tensions mount as research vessel returns

Tensions are mounting in the aquaculture industry, with a major trade organization accusing the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society of harassing fish farm workers, and at least one First Nation telling the environmental group they’re unwelcome in their traditional territories.

But Paul Watson, the seafaring environmentalist who founded the group, has denied claims of harassment.

And the group has said it intends to continue research on the impacts of farmed salmon, saying the practice endangers wild stocks and that fish farms violate the rights of Indigenous people opposed to aquaculture operations taking place without their consent.

Fish farm technician Rebekah Norton, who works on a Marine Harvest fish farm near Swanson Island, said the Sea Shepherd vessel was present in the area from about the end of June until October last year.

“We were yelled at, told to go home,” Norton said. The epithet of “ocean killer” stuck with her, she said.

She said members of the Sea Shepherd crew knew the names of workers on the fish farm, though she didn’t know how. The experience made her feel unsafe, she said.

Most upsetting was Sea Shepherd’s practice of photographing the seven workers at the site, she said, adding that the environmental group had a professional photographer and filmmaker on board.

“All of this caused so much stress,” she said, and members of the group would advance towards the aquaculture facility “on a daily basis.”

Sea Shepherd crews would cruise by in the Martin Sheen, with closer approaches in a Zodiac-type boat bringing them within 40 feet of the workers’ float house, she said.

Being constantly on-camera was distressing for the workers, Norton said, who argued that such treatment wouldn’t be tolerated in other workplaces, such as restaurants.

“We’re just employees, that’s all,” she said, adding that none of them are looking forward to the return of the Martin Sheen this year. “Everybody that works in any industry has the right to work being harassment-free.”

A statement issued by the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) on June 1 alleges that Watson’s team “has harassed salmon farms for the last two summers.”

In the statement, Tslowitsis Chief John Smith said he asked Sea Shepherd last year “not to come to our traditional territory, and their response was that under marine law they can come anywhere they want.”

“Then, they came and harassed our partner’s employees in their workplaces,” said Smith. He added that his message to the group was to “stay away from our territory.”

Sea Shepherd didn’t respond to an email from the Mirror, but Watson – who is perhaps best known for bold anti-whaling actions like positioning a Zodiac between harpoonist and whale – has reportedly denied accusations of harassment.

“They’re lying,” he said in a media report. “We haven’t been harassing anybody.”

The Sea Shepherd website states that the Martin Sheen, arrived in Canadian waters on May 28 to carry out biological research about the effects of Atlantic salmon on the B.C. marine ecosystem, continuing work that began two years ago.

The group has raised concerns about deadly viruses and parasites being spread by fish farms. Sea Shepherd has also highlighted an Aboriginal title claim by the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation, which has said that several fish farms are operating without their consent in traditional territories.

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