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Alexandra Morton's Fight for BC's Iconic Salmon

Her crusade is 'fueled by love.' Second in a series on People's Order of BC winners voted by Tyee readers.

By Amanda Sage 31 Aug 2012 | TheTyee.ca

This article is based on a previous article written by Amanda Sage, which is available here.

Special pins for People's Order of British Columbia winners provided by the good folks at Ultimate Promotions.

[Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a longer piece written by Amanda Sage as part of her Kick Ass Canadians series, which you can find here.]

Every year of her youth in Lakeville, Connecticut, Dr. Alexandra Morton watched The Wizard of Oz with her four siblings. Every time, she was terrified, watching as Dorothy went through so many struggles. But at the end, there was always relief. Dorothy realized she had possessed the power to fix her problem every step of the way; all she had to do was click those slippers...

Now, as a biologist living in Echo Bay, British Columbia, Alex sees The Wizard of Oz as a keen parallel to our current situation with local salmon farming practices, which appear to be depleting sockeye in the Fraser River and serving as a breeding ground for lice, viruses and bacteria in our waters. "The Wizard of Oz is really poignant because, although we've been going down a destructive path, biologists have enormous knowledge of how our planet works and can provide alternatives to farming," she says. "We have the power to put those alternatives into effect."

For example, getting fish farms out of the ocean and introducing hydroponic alternatives that don't interfere with wildlife and make better use of the ocean protein that feeds farm salmon. "Wild salmon have proven to be resilient," says Alex. "We should find ways of working within their natural habits to figure out how we can bring them back to abundance, while safely farming fish without altering the wild salmon. The sooner we start working with these natural systems, the better."

A Canadian citizen since 1997, Alex has spent nearly 30 years in coastal B.C., raising her children and devoting herself to the region’s ecosystem. It's that dedication and conviction that earned her The Tyee's People's Order of British Columbia award last fall.

Call of the whales

In 1979, having studied marine mammals in captivity in the U.S., Alex leapt at the chance to participate in wild whale research conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). After getting word about the opportunity, Alex and two friends made a beeline for Alert Bay with an old inflatable boat.

As they waited at the dock, the very killer whales Alex was seeking swam up. "I dropped my hydrophones overboard and instantly heard the same calls as the ones made by the whales in captivity," she says. "But now these calls were just rolling on and on through the mountainous landscape under the sea. It was pretty wonderful."

In that moment, Alex knew she'd found not only the whales' true home, but also her own. She returned to Alert Bay the next year, where she found the whales and her future husband, Robin Morton. Robin, "a very cute Canadian filmmaker," was filming the whales and needed a scientist to interview. They soon began collaborating and "I was married, pregnant and living on a boat within a year," says Alex.

In Oct. 1984, a pod of whales led the Mortons into a cluster of islands called the Broughton Archipelago in Echo Bay, and the couple decided to make it their home. The Mortons enjoyed a few short years together before their fortune took a sad turn. In the summer of 1986, Robin drowned filming whales.

Then, in 1987, the first salmon farm showed up in Echo Bay.

Defending wild salmon

It was the older fishermen in the area who were the first to wave warning flags about the farms. "They were saying to me, 'They're putting them all in the wrong places... They're putting them exactly where the salmon like to hold,'" says Alex. As the only person in Echo Bay with a word processor, she agreed to write a letter to DFO on the fishermen's behalf.

Over the next 10 years, as the concerns and evident problems associated with the salmon farms grew, she went on to send 10,000 pages of letters. "I was convinced for a long time that if I just lined up my words in the right order, [the government] would understand that there was a problem here on a lot of levels, but that it was solvable," says Alex.

In response to her letters, the government repeatedly stated that there was "no evidence" of the problems she reported. So when sea lice became an issue in 2001, Alex took it upon herself to do the research and provide the evidence. With the help of experts in Norway and Scotland, she became well versed on the subject; her work on the impact of farm lice on wild salmon has since been published worldwide.

With support from several environmental organizations, Alex was able to prompt salmon farmers to change their practices to reduce the lice population, protecting "perhaps a billion young wild salmon," she says. But Alex wasn't able to move the farms away from the wild salmon migration routes, because the farmers argued that medicating farmed salmon would protect wild fish from the lice.

This logic, Alex says, is a fallacy. "Trying to get away with breaking the natural laws by putting a feed lot in the ocean isn't going to work. The pathogens will always take advantage of this kind of feedlot situation, and while the farm fish are getting drugged to prevent them from dying, wild fish get no protection and die. Meanwhile, sea lice become resistant to the drugs, so larger quantities of more toxic chemicals are required for the farm fish. It's a losing battle, and one we’ve lost with every parasite we have attempted to control with drugs."

Alex explains that adult wild Pacific salmon die in the river after they spawn. The common rationale among scientists is that this behaviour breaks the cycle of disease; when the parents die, so do most of the diseases they carry, leaving the youngsters free to swim to sea with the majority of pathogens gone. But the farms hold salmon on the migration route, so when the adults come home, they spread lice, viruses and bacteria to farm salmon, which breed these pathogens all winter and then infect the new crop of salmon in the spring at extremely high levels.

"That is the fundamental problem with salmon farming," says Alex. "It breaks the natural laws that hold disease in checks and balance."

Rallying the public

After feeling helpless for too long, Alex describes "a really wonderful coming together" of herself and a number of environmental organizations in 2001, including the David Suzuki Foundation and Living Oceans Society. Together, they formed the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR).

In 2005, when the fish farm companies and environmental organizations wanted to triple the size of the feedlots in the area, Alex and her lawyer petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court. The result was a ruling that the provincial government of B.C. could no longer regulate salmon farming and was thereby denied the right to grant expansion of the farm sites.

In spring of 2010, Alex organized a 500 kilometre walk from Echo Bay to Victoria with the goal of giving the public an opportunity to stand up for wild salmon and ask that salmon farming "Get Out" of the ocean. The Get Out Migration started with about 10 people. By the time they reached the B.C. Legislature their numbers had grown into the thousands.

That show of support buoyed Alex and proved to her that her efforts weren't in vain. "I'm quite convinced that if enough people stand up and say, 'We don't want this in our waters,' it wouldn't happen," says Alex.

In Oct. 2010, Alex and friends organized a seven-day canoe paddle down the lower Fraser River with 100 people. The Cohen Inquiry was getting underway to investigate the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River; Alex and the canoeists arrived in Vancouver on the Inquiry's opening day to request that all fish farmers be required to submit their disease records.

"The paddle was really an incredible event," says Alex. "[As with the walk], I was surrounded by the best of humanity." It became a largely First Nations event, with Aboriginal communities offering band halls as sleeping areas and welcoming the paddlers with drum ceremonies and full regalia. In spite of the chilly October weather, "everyone was just so deeply happy to be part of something like this."

They got their message across. Justice Cohen agreed to their request.

Protecting the home front

In the end, close to one million documents were submitted to the Inquiry on a range of issues. As a participant in the process, Alex had full access to the files and began reading. She testified in Aug. 2011 about the precarious situation for sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, and later blogged about the "depressing experience" of being attacked on the stand by fish farm industry lawyers. But she held her ground and made her case that B.C.'s wild salmon run a grave risk from disease and parasites spreading from fish farms.

A few months later, Alex's words on the stand were validated when researchers announced they'd discovered the infectious salmon anemia virus in Fraser River sockeye. The New York Times reported that "such a virus could have a deep impact on the survival of salmon in the Pacific Northwest."

The Cohen Commission's final report is due at the end of Sept. 2012.

In spring of 2012, Alex took on another battle, this time against a proposed bill that would make it illegal for journalists to report on the outbreak of agricultural diseases, including in salmon farms. After public outcry, the bill was scuttled.

Answering the call

There's a long road ahead for Alex. All her work is volunteer-based, and she's supported by contributions from friends. Legal and research costs have been funded through the "thousands of small donations" she's received at salmonaresacred.org and raincoastresearch.org, but she's under pressure to find further support. Still, she wouldn't dream of stopping until her home is safe.

"I deeply, deeply love this place," she says of Canada's west coast. "It's really where I belong. It's given me a real sense of home, and it's been incredibly generous to me and I'm trying to be generous back. A lot of people ask what's behind my motivation; it's love. When somebody really falls in love with something, it's one of those things that doesn't actually need any fuel."

The other reason Alex will not give up is that she knows it isn't too late. She admits that we don't yet see "how far how far off the cliff we've gone." But while "we've boxed ourselves into this," she says we've also developed the science to fix it. "It's like in The Wizard of Oz. With her slippers, her red, beautiful ruby slippers, Dorothy had the power all along. She went through living hell, but she didn't know that she just had to click those heels together. I feel like we're in such a similar place right now. We don't realize that we as individual human beings on this planet have the power."

Next Thursday The Tyee profiles our third People's Order of BC winner: Anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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