10/23/2015 02:42 EDT | Updated 10/23/2016 05:12 EDT

Vancouver Island Teen Soccer Player 'Muzzled' From Voicing Opinion About Sponsor

"You can find another program to play in or choose to do a different sport," a Marine Harvest spokesman said.

Riptide Soccer

Freyja Reed has two great passions: soccer and wild salmon.

That's why the 14-year-old says she was shocked to discover her elite soccer team's newest sponsor: Marine Harvest, the biggest operator of open-net fish farms in B.C.

Now, the goalkeeper claims she's being pressured to stop protesting the company's activities.

"I believe they cause great harm to the wild salmon, and the wild salmon feed the coast here that I love so much," says Reed.

The teen's mother, Anissa Reed, is a long-time opponent of fish farming. 

She's balking at what she describes as a "gag order" that bars her and Freyja from voicing their opinions. But they fear the lack of competitive soccer programs in their hometown of Comox offers them little choice but to comply.

Marine Harvest won't say how much it pays to sponsor the teams fielded by the organization formerly known as the Upper Island Riptide Soccer Association.

But the eight teams of young people aged 14-18, playing under the newly named Marine Harvest Riptide banner, were issued jerseys, track jackets and rain jackets featuring the company logo.

The association is also talking with Marine Harvest about having players sell candied salmon product at Christmas as an additional fundraising program. 

'Strike one'

The Reeds moved to Comox last year from their home in the remote community of Sointula, specifically so Freyja could play Tier 2 soccer.

"I've made a lot of friends," says Freyja. "I have a lot of fun. I believe I can use my skills and talent to get an education and play at college."

Then this fall, the Riptide announced its corporate sponsor was Marine Harvest Canada. A press release states funds would be used for "unprecedented" skill development for its players, including video analysis, an online coaching library and player-mentor coaching camps. 

When Anissa Reed objected to youth teams being branded by a fish farm company, the association told her Freyja could have her fees back and find another club. 

Reed says the closest Tier 2 club is over an hour's drive away. Instead, she reached an agreement with the Riptide that Freyja wouldn't have to wear Marine Harvest gear, appear in promotional photos, or participate in fundraising activities. 

But the association required both mother and daughter to stop all "sideline chatter" or social media discussing their views of Marine Harvest.

If they didn't remove a Facebook page created to oppose the Marine Harvest sponsorship, they were told Freyja may have to play elsewhere. "This email will be considered a "strike one," wrote the Riptide Steering Committee.

"Someone asks me why I'm not at the fundraiser and I'm not allowed to talk about it?" says Freyja. "It's odd and awkward to say that with people I trust and I play soccer with."

The association declined CBC's request for an interview, but pointed to its parental code of conduct, which states any parent who engages in "negative comments in social networks, texts, emails, websites blogs, correspondence, bullying, gossip, misinformation, intimidation or any other such activity as related to soccer is subject to discipline." 

Anissa Reed says her opinions and social media comments on fish farming have nothing to do with soccer.

"I do not want to help this corporation, which trades on the stock market, be more accepted, because I totally disagree with them being here at all."

Fish farm controversy 

Fish farms in B.C. coastal waters have long been controversial, blamed by environmentalists for leading to increased sea lice in wild salmon.

In 2012, the Cohen Commission called for a freeze on development of fish farms in the Discovery Islands, saying farms shouldn't be located near migration routes of wild salmon.

Anissa Reed has been in the thick of environmental protests. She joined vocal salmon farming critic Alexander Morton testing for viruses in farmed salmon and co-produced a documentary about Morton's efforts called Salmon Confidential. The self-employed graphic artist also sells clothing branded with her trademarked "Salmon Wild" logo. 

A Marine Harvest spokesman says it's disappointed by objections to youth soccer sponsorship.

"It's important to sponsor all different kinds of programs to bring quality of life to small coastal communities," says Ian Roberts. 

The Norwegian-owned multinational estimates it pumps more than $500 million into B.C.'s economy, operating 30-plus seawater farm sites that employ over 500 people. The company sponsors more than 100 community organizations on Vancouver Island, including sports for young people.

"It provides youth an opportunity to not only participate in sports but participate at a reasonable cost," says Roberts.

Amy Griffith, who has one son playing in the Riptide organization, supports the Marine Harvest funding. "The sponsorship is of real value to a whole lot of inspired, passionate young Island soccer players," says Griffiths.

She admits she prefers not to eat farmed salmon, but appreciates the company is "sticking its neck out, even though they know they may get pushback."

Marine Harvest says it was unaware of Reed's concerns until contacted by CBC, but Roberts invited the family to contact the company. He adds that it's legitimate to ask parents not to "speak ill" of the sponsorship.

"You can find another program to play in or choose to do a different sport," says Roberts. 

'Corporate opportunism'

The Reed family contacted Margot Young, a University of British Columbia law professor who specializes in gender discrimination in sport. 

"She is being muzzled. To say: 'You give up soccer or you give up free speech' is outrageous," says Young, though she adds charter rights of free expression don't apply to soccer teams or corporations.

"What a shame that we live in a country where the state is so hollowed out that it's not providing that funding so we don't have to depend on corporate opportunism to fund our children's sports activities."

Freyja Reed hopes to continue her season, but feels "awkward" she can't explain to her teammates why she doesn't appear in team photos, or why she didn't join them on a recent team trip to a fish farm.

"I like (my teammates and coaches) a lot," says Reed, who worries about hurting her club. "I really don't want to let my team down, but I really don't want to promote Marine Harvest."

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