It is early morning and Alexandra Morton has parked a small outboard near the Venture Point fish farm in the deep waters of the Okisollo channel just off Vancouver Island.
The private facility run by Cermaq, a fully owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation,operates on public waters and that very geographic fact allows critics like Morton to probe around.
The facility, surrounded by yellow buoys and anchored to concrete blocks, looks like a big cage plunked in the water with 12 separate pens each containing about 80,000 Atlantic salmon.
Together with three other fish farms, the Venture Point “system” – as fish farmers call their intensive feeding operations – floats on a channel where most of the famed wild Fraser River sockeye migrate every year.
Standing on the edge of the boat, the activist scientist, wearing a grey Outdoor Research sun hat, grabs her Canon SLR camera with a telephoto lens.
She is on a vigil to track down a quixotic fish virus that has plagued fish farms around the world and that she suspects is just one of several farm-incubated pathogens that has been killing wild salmon in British Columbia for decades.
While staking out the Venture Point farm and three other farms in the channel the previous day with drones, cameras and the imposing presence of a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessel, Morton spied what she thought were symptoms of ailing farmed fish.
They moved slowly with their fins poking through the surface on a hot day.
Now the biologist has come back for a second look. She starts clicking away at the Atlantic salmon in a pen.
“Holy jumping Jesus,” suddenly announces the 59-year-old. “There is a dead one there. A dead one there. A dead one there.”
Soon a bevy of lifeless, five- to eight-kilogram farmed salmon bob lifelessly on top of the water, while others line up lethargically with their noses towards one of a dozen open-net cages.
If they were wild fish, eagles and sea lions would be all over them, Morton says.
Within an hour, a worker wearing protective gear emerges from a floating green-coloured building and announces that there has been a “low dissolved oxygen event.”
Any other questions can be answered by Laurie Jensen, Cermaq’s communications and sustainability manager in Campbell River, adds the worker.
A trio of Cermaq employees then began to methodically scoop the dead fish out of the pens and fill four garbage cans as Morton and her well-known activist videographer, Tamo Campos, clicked away.
Later in the day, scuba divers entered the pens to retrieve hundreds of more “morts” that had sunk to the bottom of the cages.
“This is my biggest hope,” proclaimed Morton on the boat, “to witness an event that happens all the time but is rarely seen. Canadians need to know what’s going on out here on the ocean.”
In industry parlance, Morton has stumbled on a “fish health event.”
But with the help of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has loaned her a sleek sailing vessel (the R/V Martin Sheen) and a professional crew to “audit” and do research near the province’s 90-odd fish farms over the next month, the activist has provoked a raucous controversy on Canada’s once salmon-rich Pacific waters.
On July 26, Mike Ballard, an enforcement officer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, warned Morton that his agency was getting “complaints” from industry about how close she and the Martin Sheen were getting to the farms, along with the ship’s use of drones.
Ballard also advised Morton to update her license to take scientific samples from the ocean and warned the scientist not to touch open-net cages owned by the industry.
Morton assured the officer that in 20 years she had never touched an industry cage and had no intention of doing so.
Speed Air, which checks on all marine traffic on the coast, also flew over the Martin Sheen six times one afternoon.
“You made a big splash,” explained Ballard during a phone call. “It is definitely something of big interest.”
The fish farm industry, which regards Morton as a considerable foe, has complained of harassment, invasion of privacy and even accused the scientist of strange and unsettling behaviour.
“I find it incredible that a militant ship flying a pirate flag with known militant activists on board would assume that they would be welcome to hang out at our farms, fly drones and scare the fish, and peer into staff houses with a high-powered lens and not get a negative reaction,” wrote Laurie Jensen of Cermaq in an email to The Tyee. “And then, to twist the stories to make us look like we are doing something wrong!”
When The Tyee informed Jensen that the reporter had sailed aboard the Martin Sheen for three days and had some questions about the “die-off” observed at the Venture Point farm, Jensen declined an interview.
She wrote, “I assume you were one of the paparazzi harassing the site and stressing the fish.” (For the record, this reporter doesn’t own a camera. Industry employees also photographed and videoed Morton and her Sea Shepherd crew.)
Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, explained the industry’s prickliness towards cameras and drones flying over their facilities: “I don’t think anyone would want that in their workplace.”
As for Morton, she considers the crowding of 80,000 fish into one pen already a stressful and unnatural situation. In her view, scuba divers and workers retrieving hundreds of “morts” probably added more stress to the high density feeding system than one outboard circling around the farm, she said.
In response to the complaints, Morton plans to limit drone use, but stir the pot even more in coming weeks: “I want to get Justin Trudeau’s attention. I want him to know that this industry is not properly managed.”
She also wants the industry to be moved out of the ocean and into closed systems on land where waste and pathogens can be contained. Instead of regulating fish farms the government should be protecting wild salmon, a food source still as important to First Nations today as buffalo was once to the Blackfoot and Lakota, Morton says.
In contrast, the industry says it is providing needed jobs and growing food sustainably which means, says Cermaq, “that we operate in such a way that we do not reduce the potential for future food production based on the same natural resources.”
Morton disagrees and argues that fish farms incubate and spread disease in the ocean the same way Asian chicken factories amplify and spread influenza viruses. One provocative banner hanging on the rails of the Martin Sheen says it all: “Got Piscine Reovirus?”
‘An increasing threat’
Although the sign has startled some summertime yacht owners, the virus is no stranger to the multi-billion fish farm industry.
In 2010 Norwegian researchers identified the virus in the heart of a farmed salmon with heart and skeletal muscle disease (HSMI). Ever since the late 1990s the disease has caused significant mortality in Norway’s salmon fish farms and spread to corporate subsidiaries located in Scottish, Canadian and Chilean waters.
And just this year, federal scientists with Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported that they had identified HSMI in fish samples taken between 2013 and 2015 on the very Cermaq farm that Morton is now stalking with cameras and drones.
Although Norwegian researchers say the virus is now common in farmed fish, likely causes HSMI and can spread to wild fish, the BC Salmon Farmers Association argues that the virus has been around for a long time and poses low risk to wild fish.
But to Morton, the piscine virus is but a symptom of a greater industry problem: due to crowding, open-pet nets often support a constant cycle of viral outbreaks and infectious diseases and all in the migration paths of wild fish.
Some scientific papers now ask: “Can we get the upper hand on viral diseases in aquaculture of Atlantic salmon?”
Viruses not only spread faster in the ocean than on land, but high density crowding in fish pens can also make some viruses more virulent.
Despite a host of improvements in the fish farm industry, scientific studies still conclude that infectious diseases remain “by far the biggest killer of farmed fishes” and that climate change will make the matter worse, especially in tropical waters.
From February to March this year, the industry suffered a major blow when a deadly red tide wiped out 25 million farmed fish in southern Chile, resulting in the lay-off of some 500 workers and even riots over industry practices and the lack of effective regulation.
Moreover, ecologists warn that “Aquaculture operations may be an increasing threat to wild stocks... if disease is not considered in the implementation of open aquaculture facilities.”
The 2012 Cohen Commission, which examined the decline in Canada’s greatest wild salmon populations over the last 18 years as fish farms boomed on the coast, concluded the same. The $26-million study recommended that the government revise criteria for siting salmon farms to protect wild salmon and prohibit fish farms in the Discovery Islands by 2020 unless less-than-minimal harm to sockeye can be proved.
But documenting the impact of farmed fish viruses on wild stocks has always been tricky for researchers. Unlike a sick farmed fish, which can recover from disease and still be sent to market, an ailing wild fish doesn’t last long enough in the wild for scientists to study it: predators just eat them and the evidence disappears.
Greeted by fans and foes
Ever since Morton announced her virus-hunting venture in Vancouver on July 16, she has encountered a variety of supporters and some detractors around the Discovery Islands off Vancouver Island.
In some places such as Heriot Bay and Surge Narrows, a flotilla of well-wishers have greeted the Martin Sheen with hand-painted signs on their boats. One read: “Salmon Farms kill life on the coast.” Another supporter in a rowboat carried a plank that read “Thank You 4 Baywatch” in reference to Pamela Anderson’s support for the campaign and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
But in other places such as Hotham Sound, Morton experienced a different reception. There Tom May, a long-time industry supporter, greeted Morton with the words, “I despise you” and then invited Morton in for coffee.
On the internet, pro fish farm blogger Laura Braden, a molecular biologist at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown, described Morton as a “professional activist in BC” who “has repeatedly confused the benign fish virus PRV with a disease and now she stands behind the well-known environmental terrorist Paul Watson on a ‘virus hunt.’”
One First Nation banned the Martin Sheen from its territory. Chief John Smith of the Tlowitsis First Nations, which has partnered with the multinational Grieg Seafood, said “The Sea Shepherd Operation Virus Hunter group are not welcome in our Territory.” His press statement was released by the BC Salmon Farmers Association.
George Quocksister, a hereditary chief of the Laichkwiltach Nation and long-time commercial fishermen, took a different view during a demonstration in Heriot Bay on July 24 in support of Morton’s mission.
There he called fish farms “a poison” and asked the federal government to remove “these dirty salmon farms out of our territory.”
Quocksister also brought along photographs that he said showed young herring and wild salmon in the salmon pens being eaten by farmed Atlantic salmon.
“These facilities are not licensed to kill off our food source,” he said.
Quocksister added that lots of First Nations opposed the industry but were too scared to make their views vocal. “The industry has lots of money and is very powerful.”
Meanwhile, Morton has asked Fisheries and Oceans Canada to investigate the die-off at the Venture Point farm and to test the “morts” for HSMI disease because the condition has been known to revisit farms it has already infected. She’d like samples sent to a lab she uses as well as private and federal labs.
The department replied in an email that it wouldn’t visit the farm because “the behaviours you described are consistent with previously observed feeding reactions during periods of depressed oxygen levels.”
“If low oxygen really is the cause of death of all the farmed salmon, why not come out and confirm it?” replied Morton on her blog, My Voyage For Salmon.
The Connecticut-born biologist, who considers Jane Goodall a mentor, admits that she makes some people uncomfortable in the environmental movement.
She has published more than 20 peer-reviewed papers on the impact of the industry on wild fish.
At the same time she taken the industry to court several times (and won), and is also an activist with a clear passion for wild salmon, the emblem of British Columbia.
“My funders,” she says, “wish I were two people.”
Environmentalism, she adds, “is not a spectator sport. I am out here to inform the Canadian public that this industry is putting our coastal way of life at risk.”
In the next two weeks, Morton plans to take the Martin Sheen, which does fly a small Jolly Roger, to Alert Bay and her home ground in the Broughton Archipelago, Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory where she has been culturally adopted by First Nations.
Since 1984 she has raised her two children in the wilderness and established a field station in Echo Bay.
“It’s pretty cool having a ship and a crew,” Morton says.
She said that she hopes that the presence of the Martin Sheen, staffed with volunteers from around the world, might nudge the government to take a closer look at the industry and work towards land-based aquaculture solutions.
“I’m actually having the time of my life.”