The fight is on

By Judith Lavoie, September 2016

The salmon farming battle heats up with the Sea Shepherd’s voyage and eviction notices served by First Nations on fish farms.

Young salmon swim close to fish farm net pens. Photo by Tavish Campbell.AS THE FULL EXTENT of this summer’s catastrophic Fraser River sockeye salmon returns unfolded, sending shock waves through fishing, First Nations and scientific communities, the dismal numbers did not surprise independent biologist Alexandra Morton. For more than 25 years she has warned of the dangers of allowing fish farms along salmon migration routes.

For Morton, the collapse added urgency to her virus-hunting voyage from Vancouver to northern Vancouver Island, aboard the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s research vessel “Martin Sheen.”

“I think people will be amazed at how well wild salmon will rebound once they are no longer exposed to the disease that farm salmon release into BC’s salmon migration routes,” said Morton. During the voyage, Morton took samples in the vicinity of fish farms, intent on scientifically proving they are spreading diseases, viruses and sea lice to wild fish.

It was projected that one million fish would return to spawn in the Fraser River this season—less than the 1.4 million 2009 returns that sparked the Cohen Inquiry. By mid-August, the Pacific Salmon Commission noted only 644,800 returns and all salmon fishing on the Lower Fraser was shut down.

Few would claim that the 70-plus active salmon farms which dot the BC coast are the sole cause of BC’s disappearing wild salmon. Climate change, warm water in the Fraser, and ocean survival are all acknowledged factors and the Cohen Inquiry concluded there are multiple stressors.

The low returns, however, are fuelling a growing conviction that all possible measures must be investigated and acted upon quickly. Such measures would include moving all salmon farming onto land as the ‘Namgis First Nation on northern Vancouver Island has done.

Ernie Crey, chief of the Cheam First Nation and fisheries advisor to Sto:Lo Tribal Council, who affectionately calls Morton the “Mother Earth biologist,” suspects the answers are more complicated than salmon farms. “But I don’t think people can dismiss it. It deserves attention…Something has happened out there over the past two decades, resulting in this decline,” he said.

“Some people want to see all the net pens along the coast closed down. I don’t know that that is necessary, but we need to be very cautious and somewhat suspect of what is going on,” said Crey, who is also director of the Fraser River Management Council, representing 84 First Nations in the Fraser River watershed.

The federal government has promised more scientists and more money for research and hopes are high that some answers will come from the study of microbes in Pacific salmon, being conducted by the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, a partnership between the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Genome BC and Fisheries and Oceans.

Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, is happy to see the emphasis on science, but also wants quick action on fish farms.

Government should be adhering to the precautionary principle until all the gaps in science are filled, Chamberlin said.

“That means stop expanding fish farms, stop creating new licences, and stop setting the table for the industry. Science needs to be at the table,” he said.

A major concern for Morton is whether piscine reovirus (PRV), a muscle and heart-wasting disease that has raged through European farms and is now common at BC farms, is spreading from farm fish to wild fish and whether there are hotspots around the farms.

PRV has been linked to Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation, a disease found in farms in Norway, Scotland and Chile and which was confirmed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Kristi Miller to be present on a BC farm in Johnstone Strait this past May.

HSMI is not necessarily fatal to farmed Atlantic salmon, but wild Pacific salmon have to be supreme athletes. Muscle weakness combined with lethargy is likely to be a death sentence, Morton said. “The potential threat to wild salmon is enormous. A wild salmon with a weak heart is a dead salmon,” she said.

Coincidentally, while taking samples near the Mitsubishi-owned Cermaq farm where HSMI was confirmed, Morton and crew members witnessed a fish die-off. Photos show totes full of dead fish, but the problem was explained by Cermaq as mortality due to a “low dissolved oxygen event.”

Possible, but not likely, said Morton who tested water outside the farm and found dissolved oxygen levels suitable for salmon. “The behaviour of the Atlantic salmon fits the description of fish suffering from HSMI,” she said.

The combination of Morton—a thorn in the side of fish farmers—and the Sea Shepherd Society, which has been known to take direct action such as ramming Japanese whaling boats, put up alarm signals for fish farmers, although Morton emphasized the voyage would be peaceful.

But Jeremy Dunn, BC Salmon Farmers Association executive director, said the use of cameras and drones has put stress on fish and employees. Salmon farmers are passionate about the health of their fish and their licences could be revoked at any time if they are not living up to licence conditions. Dunn also disputed Morton’s claim that Cermaq mort totes—crates for fish that die before harvest—contained some Pacific salmon. “I have spoken to Cermaq and they are pretty unequivocal that there were no Pacific salmon in their mort totes,” he said. Dunn applauded federal funding of more scientists and the aim of making science-based decisions for all Canadian fisheries. “But it is important to distinguish between advocacy and science,” he said.

When the virus-hunting voyage was first broached by Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson, Morton—who has fought long and hard to prove the validity of her science—was reluctant to tie herself to such a controversial organization, with a ship that flies the Jolly Roger. After talking to the group, however, she became convinced of the advantages of having a research vehicle at her disposal.

It is not a decision she has regretted.

“I am so grateful to Paul Watson. At first, when he put it up on Facebook, I literally asked him to take it down, but the crew are highly-trained volunteers. They are dedicated and honourable,” Morton said.

The launch also gained high-profile support from celebrities, ranging from actress Pamela Anderson to veteran environmentalist David Suzuki, who took the opportunity of a news conference to make his views on fish farming absolutely clear: “As a scientist, it makes no sense to grow animals in open nets where you use the ocean as a shithouse,” he said.

However, fish-farming foes were dealt a blow in August when Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the government would not implement the 2012 Cohen Commission’s recommendation to separate the department’s duty to protect wild salmon from its promotion of aquaculture.

That has some First Nations, including Dzawada’enuxw (Kingcome) councillor and fisheries coordinator Melissa Willie, wondering about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise to build a new relationship with indigenous people.

“There are 27 farms in Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory and we have never given them permission to be there. We just continue to write letters opposing them,” said Willie, who spent time on the Martin Sheen. (The Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw are an alliance between four tribes: Gwawa’enuxw [Hopetown], Kwickwasut’inuxw [Gilford], Haxwa’mis [Wakeman] and Dzawada’enuxw [Kingcome].)

Damage from the farms is evident not only in declining salmon runs and the number of sea lice, but also in clam beds, Willie said. “All that shit going into the water. I don’t believe it is being flushed out. And the beaches are becoming muck. It’s our whole food chain. We want them totally out of our territory and I just hope someone is listening,” she said.

While some First Nations have accepted fish farms in their territory and did not welcome the Martin Sheen, the ship and its crew were welcomed in Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory, which contains one-third of all farms, and whose leaders have been resisting them for 30 years. Indeed they used the visit as an opportunity to conduct a ceremonial eviction of a farm, with letters and copies of the notice going to the federal and provincial governments. Morton wrote on her blog: “The rudeness with which the salmon farm employees were told to conduct themselves was in stark contrast to the integrity of the people performing ceremony with cedar bows. It was hard to witness…This Nation is on the front lines for all of us and for future generations.” 

Hereditary chiefs say notices will be issued to all 27 farms in their territory. The four-tribe alliance is demanding that no more farm fish be transferred into their territories, removal of all salmon within three months, access to all farm fish “so that we know what diseases exist in the farms,” and that the band office be contacted prior to harvest so an observer can be on site.

In a widely-shared video, the leaders emphasized that the fish farmers are trespassing and destroying their way of life.

Last spring, 40 percent of young salmon leaving the territory were killed by sea lice, said band spokesmen. “The salmon farming industry is infringing on our way of life by breaking the natural cycle of life that has sustained First Nations people for time immemorial,” said hereditary Chief Willie Moon. “Our people have spoken. We want salmon farms out of our territory.”

“One of our youth asked if we were prepared to die for this and I said ‘I think we are now,’” said Melissa Willie. “The fight is on.”

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.