Salmon, herring and the ticking time bomb

By Briony Penn, September 2011

Two inquiries central to the health of coastal ecosystems are underway in Vancouver.

As Focus hits the street on August 30, schools of salmon researchers, fishers, First Nations, and advocates from all over British Columbia will be converging around the federal courthouse in Vancouver for the next stage of the Cohen Commission inquiry. They are coming to bear witness to the release of key evidence into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye stocks in 2009. This month, testimony shifts to the highly-charged topics of the role disease and aquaculture played in the deaths. 

Concurrently, upriver at Simon Fraser University, an enquiry is being made into declining herring stocks—with another school of researchers, First Nations, fishers and herring advocates.

Both the inquiry and enquiry will provide forums to address the range of issues facing these two critical species on a food chain that ends with us. Linking herring and salmon is obvious from just about every angle. They are interdependent and have endured the same depredations: overfishing, mismanagement, destruction of habitat and food sources, climate change, etc. But this year, evidence in the field suggests a new shared issue: infestations of sea lice from fish farms, previously found just on wild salmon smolts, are now also being seen on young herring, increasing their vulnerability to viruses. The implications have been described by the Alaskans—who have banned these farms and are watching the results down here carefully—as “a ticking time bomb.”

Most of the media buzz around the Cohen proceedings will centre around the testimony of two star women witnesses: the up-until-now muzzled federal fisheries researcher, Dr Kristina Miller, on August 24; and independent researcher Alex Morton on September 7. 

Miller’s research, published in Science this January, identified a viral cause of premature death of the sockeye—probably from one of two viruses typically introduced and incubated through fish farms: Salmon Leukemia Virus (SLV), which is highly infective to sockeye and chinook, and Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus or ISAV. American researchers point to sea lice as vectors for the latter. ISAV is as yet undocumented in these waters, but incidences of it already arriving could be revealed through the release of the data. This will be the first time Miller has been allowed to speak since the release of her research in January. 

Alex Morton has been doing research into sea lice/salmon interactions for years and will also be analyzing the fish farm disease records to determine occurrences and timings of outbreaks. These records were only released in the spring after public demonstrations around the same courthouse.

The evidence from Miller’s work will be pivotal, not just for the sockeye but for informing the herring experts at their own workshop, starting on August 31. Hosted by Simon Fraser University, the workshop is expected to draw attention to the importance of herring, and to document historical declines from various causes and the enormous impacts to the cultural and biological vitality of the coast. There will be less media buzz around herring as they definitely play the ugly little sister next to the more iconic, colourful spawning sockeye, but the discourse at both inquiry and enquiry will strengthen the cause of the other. 

Fish farms are interfering with herring in more ways than just disease vectors. Herring advocates will be back in the courthouse in October for a hearing against Marine Harvest, a fish farm corporation charged with illegal possession and dumping of herring for unspecified reasons. What binds the two schools of fish together is not just their interdependence and common foes, but their common advocates.

It was Alex Morton, looking for sea lice infestations on salmon smolts, who started turning up unusual sea lice infestations on herring, and who notified the herring research community last month. 

Morton is just one of thousands up and down the coast who are noticing the changes, sharing information, and galvanizing for action. This summer, during my own coastal travels by boat, I encountered people from Bella Bella to Masset and Hartley Bay to Sitka who are dependent on the wild fisheries and terrified about the potential impacts of these viruses to already compromised populations of salmon and herring. These are people who spend a lot of time on the water, watching fish and the other wildlife that follow them. They all know that Alaska has banned fish farms, BC hasn’t, and that therefore BC is jeopardizing the whole coast. These are the people who over the years have journeyed hundreds of miles to Victoria or Vancouver, to testify, bear witness and protest against fish farms—and who have been completely ignored. A wealth of experiences and local wisdom accompany those placard-carrying people you might see on the 6 o’clock news this month.

So here is my plea. Losing herring and salmon isn’t just about disappointing a bunch of sportfishers in ball caps, or missing out on fish dinner on Fridays, or losing one animal off the totem pole. Without food the whole darn show on the coast shuts down; all three rings of the circus and all the acts. No more elephants, tigers, bearded ladies or trapeze artists on our high waters. When suddenly there is a good year, like the sockeye in 2010, the show goes on and we are all the happier  and better off for it.

This year with optimal ocean conditions and a much better management record, Alaska is having a bumper year. One night this summer stands out as an example of life at its best on the fish-farm-free parts of the coast. It was around 10 o’clock, a midsummer’s night, and there were low rays of sunlight catching the ice-capped mountains and silver-splashed sides of herring, boiling in the otherwise calm waters. All around us were sockeye leaping out of the water; humpbacks lunged and fed on the salmon between blows and intakes of air. By midnight it was dark, but you could still track the movement of the herring ball and its predators from the sound of the blows, the splashes of the fish, and the accompanying bioluminescence of the diatoms that marked all their paths. The water began to mimic the starry sky above with all the flashes of light; the cosmos was one. Once the Salish Sea was like this—and could be again.

Both inquiries will be historic and have ramifications for all of us on the coast. If you want to bear witness, here are the coordinates: The Cohen Commission is holding the aquaculture hearings until September 8 in Room 801 at the Federal Court Building, 701 West Georgia St. The herring workshop runs from August 31 to September 2 at the Halpern Centre of Simon Fraser University.

Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.