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A Fish Farm Critic Vindicated

New research bolsters Morton's claims of sea lice devastation.

By Rafe Mair 9 Oct 2006 |

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Alexandra Morton

Here is the wire story.

"The world's wild salmon population is being ravaged by sea lice infestation from fish farms, new Canadian research has confirmed.

"Up to 95 per cent of young wild salmon that migrate out to sea die after swimming through plumes of lice from infected fish farms, according to results of the research, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America.

"We know that fish farms raise sea lice levels, and we know that sea lice kill fish," said Martin Krkosek, the report's author and a mathematical biologist at the University of Alberta.

"This is the first study to estimate the total impact."

First, a quick geography lesson. The Broughton Archipelago is a series of islands near Johnston Strait where the mainland and Vancouver meet. Try this. Put your hand face-down and spread your fingers. The gaps thus simulate inlets. At the top of these spread fingers are salmon bearing rivers. Between these fingers are fish farms that, because of the hundreds of thousands of hosts -- the caged Atlantic Salmon, are home to millions of sea lice. The tiny pink and chum smolts must run the gauntlet of these farms as they migrate for their time in the ocean.

This is not, as you can see, rocket science.

Smearing a researcher

For five years, biologist Alexandra Morton has been testing and reporting on the horrible impact of sea lice on the pink and chum salmon runs in the Broughton Archipelago. Her findings have been consistently proved by independent scientists, yet she's been pilloried, threatened with arrest, slandered and libelled beyond belief. People like Dr. Dan Pauly of UBC, called by Time Magazine one of the top 50 scientists in the world; Dr. Patrick Gargan, probably the world expert on the impact of lice on salmonids; Dr. Neil Frazer and Dr. John Volpe, British Columbians and fish biologists; plus the David Suzuki Foundation have not only supported Alexandra Morton but have said the situation is even worse.

Every paper published in a recognized journal has backed what Morton has to say. She herself has had paper after paper peer reviewed and published. Put another way, you will look in vain to find an independent scientist in the world who disagrees with her.

Hear now the response to this devastating study from the president of the fish farmers' Campbell River-based Positive Aquaculture Awareness, (now isn't that a cute name!) Ian Roberts. True to the fish farmers' double speak he says that Morton used "net methodology for sampling fish, which erroneously selects for already sick and dying fish that float to the surface."

Permit me to put this in terms that fish farmers, Mr. Roberts and even flacks understand: that's horseshit.

Here is Alexandra Morton's devastating response. "Everyone working near us will know Ian Roberts is misinformed. The many salmon farmers who see us working around their sites know we use beach seines. They often visit us to see what we are doing and we talk. DFO, who some of us work with, know we don't use a dip net; the permits we apply for clearly state beach seines. Some days we are in the field side-by-side where all can see what we are doing and how."


How the devil do you deal with corporations and often governments when they plainly tell lies, and hope that some of it sticks?

For the purposes of this article I'm ignoring other problems: the drug-filled fish crud all over the bottom of the sea under fish cages; dyes in that crud from farmers dying the flesh of their fish to suit customers' wishes; SLICE, a compound that kills the sea lice the farmers claim they don't have, also poisoning nearby crustaceans; the diseases from the cages; the toxins passed on to humans consuming these fish; and by no means least, the escape of these fish and their potential crowding of our wild fish off their spawning grounds. To all of this I must add the near extinction of some types of fish caught off the coast of South America and used for food for caged salmon. In fact it takes about seven pounds of someone else's fish per pound of caged Atlantics!

How has this been allowed to happen?

Every caucus that ever existed has leaks and this B.C. Liberal one is no exception. The self-serving excuses and explanations flowing among B.C. Liberal backbenchers, premier and cabinet include these:

"Rafe Mair is mentally ill, you know." (In fact he has been treated for depression for nearly 20 years.)

"Alexandra Morton is a California lefty who, while a specialist on Orcas, isn't a fish biologist." (She never said she was, but all her methodology and findings have been certified as proper by the best fish biologists in the world and her work is consistently printed in scientific journals.)

"The other biologists are a bunch of wackos not capable of belief." When you consider that these MLAs are paid to, amongst other things, look after the environment, you must wonder why it has not occurred to them that the fish farmers have not one single independent scientist in the world that agrees with them and the government's policy!

Orwellian public relations

The entire sad story can be likened to the Mad Hatter's tea party or perhaps to Orwell's 1984. Truth is fiction and lies are the truth. The Red Queen shouts "off with their heads" to all she doesn't like. Like Alice, those who understand fish farms see egregious crimes against nature, smothered with dissembling and lies, and can only shake their heads and cry out.

In the early days of the Liberal administration, Dr. John Volpe, a British Columbian then at the University of Alberta, told us that hundreds of thousands of escaped Atlantic salmon were now in the rivers on Vancouver Island. He didn't do this from a computer in a lab or a soft chair in the legislature, but by getting in the rivers with associates in wetsuits and counting. The then Agriculture Minister, in charge of licensing fish farms, John Van Dongen, easily the dimmest politician I've ever met (and that says something), told me that only three Atlantic salmon had ever been found in B.C. rivers!

What the hell can you say to someone like this?

He was followed by Stan Hagen, the minister of economic development, a man who corrected his colleague, saying that only two Atlantics had been found in B.C. streams! Is it any wonder that the Mad Hatter's tea party keeps coming to mind?

I have been struggling to figure out how this terrible propaganda has prevailed. I found the answer in last week's Guardian Weekly story of how Exxon keeps polluting and tobacco companies keep on maiming and killing. They use the very best of public relations companies (the biggest, Hill and Knowlton, works for the fish farmers), who exploit every doubt to raise more doubt. One example is the fish farmers' local high-priced flack, Patrick Moore, who stands accused by Dr. Helen Caldicott, the famous environmentalist medical doctor, of being in the pay of the nuclear industry.

Moore's own website discloses no published scientific papers that he has written. Moore knows the lingo and asks questions like "how do we know that the lice that allegedly kill the smolts come from the fish farms? After all it could have been lice that are prevalent in the oceans anyway."

This was knocked to hell by another, earlier study by Martin Krkosek, assisted and supervised by Dr. John Volpe, who in fact traced lice straight from the cages to the smolts.

Tell the truth

That wasn't good enough for the government. Most reluctantly, they forced the fish farms to fallow some of their farms to clear away the lice from a channel or two, and when nearly a million pinks that had used those lice-free channels returned, Moore bleated, "See, the sea lice aren't affecting the salmon." Doesn't this remind you of 1984? Are you beginning to visualize that Mad Hatter's tea party now?

British Columbians are victims of a fraud of the most egregious sort. The fish farmers, all from outside B.C., are raping our environment with the enthusiastic support of both senior governments.

We have seen the effects of fish farming on native species in Norway, Scotland and Ireland and learned nothing. A few years ago, Wendy and I went fishing on Lough Corrib in Galway with Dr. Patrick Gargan (the world expert on these matters). We visited his station and a technician asked, "Can't you people in British Columbia read? Don't you know what's happened in Europe to our salmonids left to the tender mercy of sea lice donated by fish farms?" I had to mumble, "Some of us can."

The fish farming companies, in my view, are utterly heartless and care not a whit for our environment. I believe that British Columbians have been systematically lied to.

Corporations, with full knowledge of what harm they will do, are deliberately destroying the symbol of our land, the Pacific salmon and it's all done with the enthusiastic support of governments -- governments that care nothing for our environment if a corporation that funds their elections can make a buck out of it. Premier Campbell, instead of admitting he is wrong -- I'm told that the thought of having to admit that Rafe Mair is right appalls him -- bluffs his way through, hoping it won't matter when the next election is called.

And he'll get away with it if we let him.

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. His website is

Related Tyee stories:

Sea Lice and Government Lies

Tories Mum on Open Net Farms

Hot Button: Fish Farming  [Tyee]

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