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Alexandra Morton on New Hopes for ‘Fat and Sassy’ Salmon

Opting not to renew Discovery Island fish farm licences will ‘instantly affect’ millions of young fish, she says. A Tyee Q&A.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 27 Feb

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

On Feb. 17, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced it would not renew 15 open-net pen Atlantic salmon fish farms in the Discovery Islands, a key migration route for B.C.’s wild salmon.

“Pacific salmon have significant cultural, social and ecological importance to First Nations and British Columbians,” the federal regulator, which is responsible for both managing wild salmon and overseeing the aquaculture industry, said in the announcement. “However, they are in serious, long-term decline, with many runs on the verge of collapse.”

The announcement noted that wild Pacific salmon stocks have declined “significantly,” with many populations in the Fraser River — one of the largest sockeye-producing watersheds in the world — considered endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. From June through December last year, the department held consultations with industry, First Nations and other stakeholder groups on farm licences in the Discovery Islands, which are directly in the path of salmon migrating out of the Fraser River, it said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has a mandate to phase out open-net pen fish farms by 2025.

B.C.-based marine biologist Alexandra Morton has spent decades studying wild salmon. She has worked as an advisor to First Nations, and was an intervenor when a previous DFO decision to remove salmon farms from the area was overturned in the B.C. Supreme Court last April. She was also among a group that met with the federal team reviewing open-net farming last year.

Morton was at her home on northern Vancouver Island when she heard the news. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Did the announcement [by Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray] come as a surprise?

Alexandra Morton: I guess it was a surprise, because I'm just not used to good news. It was just an enormous relief. I felt pretty certain that this would be her decision, based on the fact that the farms are already empty in that area and the decision had been made twice before. I know the Fraser River First Nations were involved in speaking to the minister about their concerns. So, I was pretty sure, but I've just been so used to the salmon farming industry bullying their way through every junction where the DFO has to make a decision. So, I was surprised and enormously relieved.

What's significant about the Discovery Islands area?

Discovery Islands are very important, but the reason they're being treated separately goes back to 2010 when the Cohen Commission into the decline of the Fraser sockeye was called. [Cohen’s] mandate to look at what happened to the Fraser River sockeye reduced his focus on the coast to places where those fish migrate. The reason why the Discovery Islands are so important to the Fraser River sockeye is that when they first leave the river, the majority of those fish migrate north. They're in a very stressful stage of their life, which is entering saltwater. Anything that happens to them in those first couple hundred kilometres is incredibly important to the outcome of the survival of these fish.

Discovery Islands are special to the Fraser River sockeye and had an inquiry focused on them, but it's the same everywhere on this coast. That's what's going to be so interesting going forward, because the minister has to make the decision on the whole coast.

The minister called the situation over wild salmon “dire.” How significant is this move?

Let me just say this: Nothing else is going to matter if these fish can't make it to sea, and that's what the farms were preventing. I've done research on and off since 2005 in the Discovery Islands, counting sea lice on the young salmon going through that area. In December 2020, the previous [fisheries] minister Bernadette Jordan made the astonishing and incredibly brave decision to prohibit re-stocking of all those farms. Those 19 farms were allowed to finish growing what they had in the pens, but they couldn't put any more in. By the following spring, in 2021, there were only five, and then by 2022 it was only two.

In those three years, the average number of sea lice on the juvenile pink and chum salmon dropped by 96 per cent. When you look at the fish, they went from being destroyed — the lice changes their body shape [and] they become skinny — and then, last year, they were fat and sassy. Because I look at them all so closely, I could really see these fish were different.

Minister Murray's decision is going to instantly affect millions of young salmon. They're going to start migrating next month and Discovery Islands are sitting there empty still. That is going to boost survival. It's incredibly rare in my experience that a politician makes a decision that instantly benefits the natural world. But Bernadette Jordan and now Joyce Murray have done exactly that.

You shared a video where you say a DFO research scientist was trying to “seed doubt” about the risks of fish farms to wild salmon. What do you think are the biggest risks from these farms and how certain do you feel about them?

The risk from salmon farms is that they're releasing unnatural levels of pathogens that include parasites — sea lice, bacteria and viruses. The risk is enormous. It's catastrophic.

Since 2001, myself and my colleagues have done research where we look at these fish as they approach the farms and then they go past the farms. Because sea lice change their body shape every few days, for the first 30 days, you can see exactly where the lice get on the fish. It's like a pathogen with a timer. The fish approach the farm, boom, they get the juvenile lice. They move farther in their migration, the lice get older, until they get to another farm and get another generation of lice in addition to the older lice. And on it goes.

So, I'm 100 per cent certain, because I've been looking at these fish for 20 years.

Industry representatives have said there are “no clear scientific arguments” behind the federal government's decision. What's your response to that?

There's a very close relationship between some scientists in DFO and the industry. What I keep seeing repeatedly is the results of the actual work might show impact, but that does not come out in the conclusions. That's why I'm so disturbed by this recent [Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat] report on sea lice, because that research actually says there was a relationship between the number of lice on the farms and the number of lice on wild fish. [These results were omitted and the report] came out with the opposite conclusion, and 16 scientists did a very unusual and brave thing for academics — they wrote a letter to the minister and they said, “OK, there's these problems with this outcome. We would like to see the raw data and be given the opportunity to repeat the analysis and see what data says.” That data has not been forthcoming.

DFO is paying scientists who are coming out with completely opposite conclusions and, until today, we're only believing the scientists who were reporting that the farms were low risk. This is a serious problem that needs to be fixed.

BC Salmon Farmers Association put out a statement calling the decision “devastating” for coastal communities. What are the effects of not phasing out fish farms?

I lived for 26 years in Echo Bay. We were a tiny coastal community. Seventeen salmon farms moved in and we got wiped out. So, it didn't help us.

If you look at Vancouver Island, the centre for salmon farming is Campbell River. There are so many jobs in Campbell River, in Port McNeil, in Port Hardy — all over this coast. Jobs really are not the problem. The only place that might be different is Klemtu, on the central coast, where Mowi set up a processing plant. But if you speak to other First Nations, employment is tiny.

The processing plant in Port Hardy apparently processes a lot of farm fish and that's a job producer. But there's this value-added that could happen and I think these plants can be upgraded and used. I don't really think they need to go anywhere.

The federal government has also talked about transitioning to “sustainable next-generation aquaculture in Canada.” What would that look like?

That's a scary term, because I don't know what it looks like. For example, there's industrial kelp farming that is trying to happen on this coast. Kelp is so sensitive. There's a lot of genetic diversity. You can't just have massive farms as if this coastline is just empty water. All of this coast is absorbing carbon. It's raising all kinds of species, it's producing kelp.

The other thing we've seen is that nobody wants to do closed containment on this coast. Closed-containment salmon farming is growing rapidly in other parts of the world, but nobody in British Columbia wants it. Nobody's recommending it. The salmon farming companies don't want to do it.

The way I look at the ocean is that it's incredible at creating food and oxygen, and absorbing carbon. It is a machine beyond anything that we could create. The clouds come in from the ocean and hit the mountains along the island, and it just rips the bottoms off these clouds. The rain falls and induces these cool systems that produce salmon, that grow trees and the trees are sucking down the carbon and producing oxygen — I feel like the better thing to do is to use the remarkable science that is actually being developed in DFO and work with this system and bring this system up to its optimal performance, given everything we've done to it.

The system that is already there creates clean air, water and food. I think at this moment in time, there should be covenants put on all ecosystems still doing that.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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