Saving the sacred salmon

Walk for wild salmon supports land-based, closed containment fish farms


by Alexandra Morton

Alexandra Morton

Get Out Migration is a call to action to make government aware that we want wild salmon to take higher priority than farm salmon. Farms belong on land. To promote the campaign, on April 23, Alexandra Morton and others began walking from Scintilla, at the north end of Vancouver Island, and they arrive in Victoria on May 8. The campaign calls on the Government of Canada to take the appropriate measures to get open-net aquaculture out of our federal waters. For a schedule of the walk, visit www.salmonaresacred.org

Sign the global petition for wild salmon at www.salmonaresacred.org/petition-protect-wild-salmon

Sign the letter to the Minister of Fisheries and also send a card to West Coast fisheries critic MP Fin Donnelly. See www.salmonaresacred.org

I found my way to the Broughton Archipelago 26 years ago, following a pod of whales I was studying. It was the perfect blend of wilderness and society. There was a one-room school, about 100 people and a post office serviced by seaplane; you can’t drive to Echo Bay and there is no electricity or supermarkets.

Every May, a large run of Chinook salmon ran into the inlets feeding on oolichans and herring and the A-clan orca followed, so beautiful in the light jade glacier melt-water. So many pink salmon were leaping as they swam to the rivers, you could smell them on the westerly breeze in August. Orca sisters Kelsey and Yakat brought their families to feast on these fish. Then in fall, the chum salmon arrived. Like schools of porpoise, their silvery backs broke the surface hundreds at a time. The A-clan orca hosted their neighbours from the north, G-clan – the chum salmon eaters – and together they feasted into November. In winter, the A5 sub-clan ghosted through quietly, hunting Chinook salmon that over-wintered in Broughton.

The whales and my community thrived on the rhythms of wild salmon, but this was brought to an end as the heel of a corporate boot descended upon my community. Our governments repeated the mantra “This will be good for you,” but they were wrong. There are only nine people left in my town. The school is closed, the A-clan whales avoid Broughton and we have 29 Norwegian salmon farm leases lodged precisely where my neighbours used to make their living fishing prawns, rock cod and salmon.

The past 20 years have been a hard lesson for us about what happens when the corporation comes to town. I now have firsthand understanding of the concept of “tragedy of the commons.”

Imagine a place where millions of salmon appear every year for free. Where fish carry ocean nutrients uphill to build the soil and grow billions of cubic feet of wood fibre that produces oxygen. A fish so reliable that it nourished a rich and unique culture into existence and then fuelled the economy of a greedy province, creating thousands of jobs and offering food security. Why would anyone sacrifice all this for a few low-paying jobs, to grow a foreign salmon – which has to be dyed pink – on a manufactured diet from Chile, and which is held in cages where no whale or local human can benefit while the profits are wired to wealthy European shareholders? Why indeed?

It would be generous to call salmon farming in BC a mistake because government wilfully ignored every one of its own reports commissioned on salmon farming. These government reports recommended the following: 1) No salmon farms be permitted on migratory corridors. 2) Salmon farms should be located at greater distances from rivers. 3) The farms should be removed into land-based tanks, thereby respecting the communities that don’t want them. They ignored the warning from Norway that stated the industry wanted bigger farms, saying, “Some of the fish farmers went to Canada. They said we want bigger fish farms; we can do as we like” (1991 Hansard). The province even created salmon farm-free zones, and then put salmon farms in them. The federal government also exempted salmon farms from all the fishery regulations that protect wild fisheries. It has been a breach of public trust from day one.

When government tells us there are no disease issues to worry about in these marine feedlots, they must think us simple minded. Salmon farmers are vaccinating every one of their fish. Salmon farms are feedlots and feedlots break the natural laws and intensify disease. We know this about chicken farms and beef and pork feedlots, but we are supposed to forget about this when it comes to fish. Our fish run the gauntlet with no protection. There are many runs of Fraser sockeye and only the runs that migrate to sea past fish farms failed to return last year. The Fraser sockeye that migrate to sea via Juan de Fuca returned in greater numbers than forecast.

I was so naïve 20 years ago. I thought government worked for the people. I thought I could write a few letters and government would fix things. All my neighbours ever asked was for the industry to move over as it ruthlessly displaced them and they lost their incomes. The First Nations said “no” and were ignored. Government has allowed this industry to bully people for 20 years. Why? I have thought about this a lot and still don’t know the answer, but consider this:

When the north Atlantic cod were declining, a government scientist named Ransom Myers said the reason was because the cod were being caught before they were old enough to spawn. Simple. But government could not have been actually trying to protect the fishery, because they told him to be silent. Dr. Myers is a hero to many and he quit, but he could not save the cod. As soon as the fishermen were tied to the docks, the Hibernia oil wells went onto the Grand Banks. One of Earth’s greatest food supply lines to the people was cut.

Why allow people access to free food, when you can force them to pay for every bite? Do not allow thriving local economies because those people expect an old age pension. The Fraser River cannot be dammed as long as wild salmon must be considered and the salmon farmers’ country of origin is Canada’s best friend in the tar sands. Norway, Statoil. All these things go through my head as I see government favouring farmed salmon – and the foreign owners – over wild salmon and the public of Canada every step of the way, even though the Fisheries Act is very clear that government is obliged to protect wild fish, the commons. The government talks about the precautionary principle, but it doesn’t use it.

If this industry were content to have a few farms off the wild salmon migration routes, there would be no issue. But these are publicly traded companies and so they cannot stay at just any size. They have to grow. The only thing that matters to them is the share price and whatever makes it rise is acceptable. This is not good for the biological world or the people in it. They contaminated their Chilean farms with a Norwegian virus and now they are profiting from this because losing 70 percent of their Chilean salmon increased the value of their Canadian stock. But what about the Chilean fishermen? How are their fish affected by the virus? They don’t have fish stocks in BC.

The tragedy of the commons is very common, but we do not have to be this tragedy. We still live with a modicum of democracy and we can bring the government back on track. If you drop the European shareholders from the equation, this issue becomes easy.

Apply the laws of Canada to the three Norwegian fish farm companies that constitute the “BC” fish farm industry and if they can’t comply, send them home.

Encourage the Canadians who are trying to build a sustainable industry on land in tanks. They have been at it for 60 years and government is ignoring them. They can farm a range of species, not just salmon.

Use the wealth of knowledge on wild salmon to harness their remarkable biology and allow this fish to restore itself. Their remarkable genetic diversity is our best hope to continue to benefit from them through climate change.

Government has made a mistake and must be responsible to the families dependant on salmon farms; there are not many.

Market farmed and wild salmon in a way that restores the value of wild salmon, rather than subsidizing farmed salmon with wild and starving small communities.

No one loses. The shareholders will be fine. Politicians just want to be re-elected and will change if people are clear. Fish farmers don’t care as long as they have a job. The only people who lose are those who might be waiting for wild salmon to go extinct so they can exploit rivers and such, but I doubt they will starve.

The reason I am walking through the towns of eastern Vancouver Island – fish-farming country – is because this industry is the emperor with no clothes. It is not good for our towns; it is not sustainable and it is certainly not feeding the world. It is not well regulated and it is definitely not liked. I am doing this because I have received hundreds of emails from government, fish farmers, business operators, First Nations and scientists who all want this industry out of the ocean, but they can’t see each other. They don’t know how many like-minded others there are. I thought for two years before I dared say “salmon are sacred.” But I am saying it now because any species that is so generous that it can feed over 200 species has to be recognized as essential to life. Every place on Earth that makes clean air, water and food has to be protected. Everyone who wants wild salmon must make themselves visible.

Make no mistake; this is not about saving the salmon. This is about saving the humans.

Alexandra Morton is a registered professional biologist. She will receive an honorary doctorate of science from Simon Fraser University in June. For 25 years, she has lived without electricity in her home at Echo Bay, studying whales and salmon.


Backgrounder: Regulations & jurisdiction

The clash between BC’s aquaculture industry and wild salmon interests is partly due to the fact that aquaculture has historically operated under provincial jurisdiction, while management of the wild salmon fishery has been a federal responsibility. As is often the case, the two governments don’t always know how to work together. However, in February 2009, the BC Supreme Court (BCSC) ruled that control of salmon farms would be transfered from the Provincial government to the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). December 18, 2010 would be the date of transfer.

As a result, the DFO is developing its own “sustainable, well-regulated and environmentally-friendly” policies toward aquaculture. Following standard procedure, public consultations were held until this past February. Now, the Department of Justice is putting pen to paper and drawing up the new regulations on behalf of the DFO. A draft will be posted in the Canada Gazette in June 2010. A review period will follow, allowing the public to comment. Go to www.gazette.gc.ca.

The new regulatory arrangement will still allow some regional control. While the DFO will assume responsibility for both the aquaculture industry and wild fish habitat in B.C., the Provincial government will continue to lease the seabed where, if allowed, future aquaculture operations take place.

- P. S. Bromley

Photo of Alexandra Morton by Nik West
Photo of protesters by Mark Worthing