PORT McNEILL—Alexandra Morton has achieved an international reputation as a passionate defender of B.C.’s wild salmon and antagonist of the West Coast’s salmon-farming industry.
But she dropped something of a bombshell on 35 guests at the monthly Speaker’s Corner series last week when she informed the audience she had decided to stop butting heads with Canada’s Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans.
“I’m tired,” said Morton, who journeyed from coastal B.C. from California nearly 30 years ago to study whales before finding her niche in salmon advocacy, and who, in 2011, earned a spot on the Cohen Commission. “I’m done with the government.”
But that isn’t to suggest Morton is finished with her crusade to ensure the protection of wild salmon stocks that must traverse a gauntlet of net-pen farms between their spawning streams and the open ocean.
“I’m talking straight to the consumer, now,” she finished.
In her discussion at St. John Gualbert Church, Morton said she has come to the realization that DFO has become a corrupted institution at the executive level, quashing or silencing the work of a diminishing number of dedicated and ethical employees still working at the research level.
That realization struck home with stark finality, Morton said, after she travelled to Norway to attend the annual general meeting of Marine Harvest ASA, an international company that operates several farms off Vancouver Island.
“The last day I was there, the CEO of Marine Harvest (Åse Aulie Michelet) invited me in for a meeting,” Morton said. “She said, ‘Look, what do you want?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to get these fish off our (wild salmon) migration routes.’”
What Morton heard then was a revelation. Michelet, according to Morton, said she was required to raise the shareholders’ stock prices four times a year. She either had to put more fish in, make the price go up or stop fish from dying of disease. But she couldn’t afford to be moving farms.
“That’s when it went off in my brain,” Morton said. “They will never be satisfied, ever. Because they don’t make money on selling the fish; they make money on share price.”
Morton was not always a critic of B.C.’s salmon farms. After moving to B.C. to study killer whales in the wake of the first surge of research by pioneers like Michael Bigg and Paul Spong, Morton eventually settled in the remote float village of Echo Bay to raise her family. When she first learned of the Norwegian fish-farming industry’s plans to set up shop off the Island in the 1980s, she anticipated a benefit.
“When the first fish farms showed up, I thought, ‘great idea.’ We thought this would be good jobs, would take pressure off wild salmon, and loved the idea there would people there in other houses.
“Very quickly, though, as the farms started to go in, the (local) fishermen came in saying, ‘You know what, they’re putting these in all the wrong places.’”
Morton said she and local fishermen noted the farms were going in right in the heart of the wild salmon migration routes, as well as on top of local rockfish grounds and prawn fishing grounds where her neighbours fished and made their living.
“We could have averted this; we could have had a small aquaculture industry and a thriving wild salmon industry.”
Instead, she says, disease outbreaks have devastated the wild salmon stocks on the B.C. coast, the result of young smolts traveling through net-pen farms riddled with sea lice and diseases like ISA (infectious salmon anemia) to get to the ocean. Since then, Morton has dedicated her time to collecting samples and trying to spread the word about the risk of salmon farms to wild salmon.
“My community of Echo Bay, basically, doesn’t exist any more,” Morton said. “There are, like, eight people left. There are 27 Norwegian feed lots. It didn’t really work out for us.”
The next Speaker’s Corner event at St. John Gualbert is scheduled for Mar. 20, when Colleen McCormick discusses tourism on North Vancouver Island.