Going viral

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, May 2013

A new film is making sure salmon are on the menu of the provincial election.

Here’s the good news: While the documentary Salmon Confidential is an incredibly disturbing exposé of government efforts to hide the truth about devastating diseases affecting the West Coast’s wild salmon population, it does end on a positive note. Both filmmaker Twyla Roscovich and wild salmon expert Alexandra Morton, the film’s protagonist, believe strongly that there is still time to save our wild fish. 

But during most of the 70-minute documentary, you’re more likely to gasp in outrage than cheer. Roscovich and Morton pull no punches. They not only link recent deadly disease outbreaks in our wild fish to the spread of European viruses from open-net Atlantic salmon feedlots situated on their migratory routes, they mercilessly expose the devious and contorted machinations of government officials denying this is happening, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. 

Infectious Salmon Anemia, or ISA, was first detected on Atlantic fish farms in Norway in 1984. A deadly internationally reportable disease, the ISA virus has since found its way around the world through the export of infected farmed Atlantic salmon eggs from Norway. The results have been devastating. Chile’s fish farming industry took a two- billion-dollar hit after ISA appeared in its salmon feedlots. 

But at least Chile doesn’t have wild salmon to worry about. BC does. Now ISA has arrived on BC’s coast as well, along with several other frightening diseases such as piscine reovirus (PRV). Judging by what Morton and her colleagues have discovered, the impact on BC’s wild fish is not merely overwhelming; it’s terrifying. 

Spoiler alert: this film may put you off eating any kind of fish for a while. Over the two months in 2012 that Roscovich follows Morton and her colleagues around with her camera as they collect samples of wild fish for analysis, they find diseased salmon in shocking numbers. We are shown graphic images of bloated, mottled organs—typical ISA symptoms—and the soft, flaccid hearts of salmon infected by PRV. Scenes from last year’s runs show tens of thousands of dead salmon, still full of roe, clogging streams. “PRV weakens the hearts of the fish, turning them from incredibly strong muscles to complete mush,” explains Morton. “They don’t have the strength to swim upstream any more, and they die before they can lay their eggs.” 

Morton wanted to test farmed fish as well, but with fish farms refusing to cooperate, getting samples directly proved impossible. There is an enchanting scene in which Morton and Roscovich wait breathlessly to see if a bald eagle will drop a farmed Atlantic salmon that it swiped from a nearby feedlot, allowing them the chance to test it. Morton turns to grocery store seafood departments to purchase farmed salmon for sampling instead, and even surreptitiously tests sashimi ordered in Vancouver restaurants. A shockingly large number of these samples tested positive for disease. “People who don’t know any better are eating these fish,” says Morton incredulously. “The fish are being inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), and cleared for sale to an unsuspecting public. It’s very disturbing.” 

Morton likens the destruction caused to wild fish from introduced European viruses to a “never-ending” oil spill that governments do nothing to contain. She is convinced that containing the spread of disease requires shutting down all open-net feedlots on wild salmon migratory routes, but to date she’s had no success in getting governments to listen. Indeed, as the film clearly demonstrates, the only thing governments seem to be interested in closing down is the truth: “It feels intentional,” she concludes. “It’s difficult to see how it isn’t.” 

Local Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) labs wouldn’t analyze Morton’s samples, so she was forced to send them to accredited ISA experts in Prince Edward Island and Norway. Their findings were unequivocal: ISA is present in BC. When that information became public, a vicious campaign to strike down the official accreditation of these scientists was immediately launched by DFO and the CFIA. 

At the same time their results were being dismissed out of hand by Ottawa bureaucrats, Nanaimo-based scientist Dr Kristi Miller, a DFO employee, was giving evidence at the Cohen Commission (struck in 2010 to investigate potential causes of the almost non-existent Fraser River sockeye runs of 2009) that she too had discovered the presence of viruses affecting BC’s wild fish. Dr Miller was prohibited by DFO from speaking further about her findings. Nonetheless, she stuck to her guns in her testimony, insisting her findings were legitimate. DFO then threatened to cut her research funding. 

What was behind DFO’s actions? Film clips of bureaucrats giving evidence at the Cohen Commission seem to provide the chilling answer: Both the federal and the provincial governments are apparently willing to go to any length, including outright deception, to protect the salmon feedlot industry at the expense of our wild fish. But why? 

“For the life of me I can’t figure out what the government has invested in fish farms that makes it fight so hard to protect them,” Morton told the audience at a film showing in Nanaimo in April. Dr Kim Klotins of the CFIA may have provided the answer when she told the Cohen Commission that if ISA was found to be present in BC’s fish, international trade markets would close. In other words: It’s more important to keep the farmed fish economy going than to admit there’s a problem for the wild fish. 

Whatever their motivation may be, anyone watching this film will be left with little doubt that neither federal nor provincial government officials are on the side of wild salmon. That’s why Roscovich and Morton are also saying that now, it’s up to us. “I think we have simply become too used to the stocks being so low,” observes Roscovich, a veteran independent filmmaker with numerous documentaries on West Coast environmental issues under her belt. “We’re taking the fish for granted. We need to get out there and use the opportunity of the upcoming provincial election to influence the political parties to do something about this.” 

Roscovich and Morton are currently touring the province with the film, encouraging audiences to put pressure on political candidates in the run-up to this month’s provincial election by demanding they commit to ridding the West Coast of fish farms situated along Pacific salmon migration routes. Morton points out that the provincial government, as landlord to the fish farm companies, holds the solution in its hands: “They have the right to terminate their licences of occupation. That’s what they should do.” 

The track record to date of the BC Liberals makes it pretty clear that isn’t in the cards should they be re-elected. The Green Party has committed to removing all salmon feedlots from wild fish migration routes, but the BC NDP, at time of deadline, had yet to release their policy position on fish farms. Alexandra Morton is sceptical: “We heard [Environment Critic] Rob Fleming say in March that the BC NDP would initiate a review to look at banning fish farms from key migration routes, but two weeks later, he back-peddled on that.” Now he’s gone completely silent on the issue. Fleming didn’t return calls requesting a comment.

In the meantime, however, Salmon Confidential is rapidly gaining the traction it deserves. “When Alexandra first asked me to make the film, I wondered who would be interested in seeing a documentary about salmon diseases,” recalls Roscovich wryly. “But it turns out a lot of people want to see it. The audiences are getting bigger, and the film is going viral online. I hope it will influence change,” she continues. “There’s never been a better time to persuade politicians to do the right thing.”

In Nanaimo, Morton shocked her audience after the film ended when she told them: “When the salmon farms moved into my home community in Echo Bay, I knew I had to do something to get them out again. That was 1989. I was so naïve. I thought I would have it sorted out quickly, but I’ve failed to achieve anything for 24 years.” 

Gasps of protest were quickly silenced as she continued firmly: “I realize now that of course I can’t do it by myself. What is needed now is all of you. You need to hold governments to account, and there will never be a better time than now. We can do this. We can save our fish.” 


Salmon Confidential can be viewed online here. The website www.salmonconfidential.ca has links to film showings and talks in various BC communities, and contact information to request a showing. Also see www.deptwildsalmon.org, and for other films by Twyla Roscovich, see www.oceanfilms.net. 

Katherine Palmer Gordon’s in-depth review of the Cohen Commission report, “A Damning Indictment,” appeared in the December 2012 issue of Focus. An award-winning author based on Gabriola Island, her sixth book, We Are Born With the Songs Inside Us, is scheduled for release by Harbour Publishing this fall.