Alexandra's Pink Revolution
When Alexandra Morton documented a farm-fueled plague of sea lice, DFO threatened to prosecute her.
By Buck Meloy
To her admirers among fishermen and environmentalists, she's a scientific hero who exemplifies "speaking truth to power" doing independent research that documents hazards to wild fish from salmon farms. To her detractors in the aquaculture industry and in government, she's a noisome critic whose credibility suffers from her status as a darling of the eco-crusader set. But these days not even her staunchest opponents will tell you that Alexandra Morton is irrelevant.
In early January of 2004, dozens of scientists, government bureaucrats, environmentalists, fishermen, Natives, and other interested parties braved the worst winter weather in recent memory to attend a workshop on recent sea lice research findings, held in remote Alert Bay off Vancouver Island's northeast corner. Most of the government employees didn't want to be there.
They came because Morton's work has made the sea lice problem impossible to ignore.
In 2001, she found sea lice on juvenile pink salmon captured near salmon farms in the remote Broughton Archipelago in northern British Columbia, where she and her family live. That finding delivered scientific ammunition to aquaculture critics, who were gaining momentum and funding and knew just how to grab headlines with her data. Morton also accurately predicted a population crash among pinks. And she vigorously debated government scientists who denied that a farm-fueled plague of sea lice was to blame.
Her arguments won over some respected scientists, including one well-known apostate from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, biologist Otto Langer. A 32 year veteran of the agency, Langer quit in 2001 and went to work for the David Suzuki Foundation, an organization that has sharply criticized B.C.'s salmon net-pen industry. When DFO issued a report denying that salmon farms cause sea lice infestations in wild salmon, Langer condemned it as "more of a cover-up than science," according to the Vancouver Sun.
In many circles, the mention of Alexandra Morton's name provokes either angry outbursts or gusts of reverent talk.
"Oh, she's the worst!" exclaimed one prominent British Columbia
aquaculture researcher at a dinner among colleagues in January.
Many fishermen disagree. One is Jeremy Brown, a scholarly salmon troller who these days also holds a Kellogg Foundation fellowship on food and social policy with the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy. "Alexandra brings a third voice to an otherwise very partisan discussion, the important voice of a truly independent scientist," he says. "She has resisted being bullied by or inducted into any of the factions."
But Morton has a following far beyond the fish business and its
factions. Nature-minded readers all over America and Europe know the
long-time whale researcher as the author of Heart of the Raincoast,
Listening to Whales and several other books. For many of these readers, Morton is a scientific and moral icon a modern saint who combines the virtues of Jane Goodall and St. Francis.
Why does she care about sea lice?
As every fisherman knows, sea lice (Lepeophtheirus salmonis) are a
common sight on adult salmon. But the discovery of a heavily infested
baby pink by a neighbor alarmed Morton, who was already concerned by the massive expansion of fish farms and their impacts in this once nearly pristine wilderness. Lice aren't normally found on juvenile wild salmon in North America; the only prior incident known to scientists at the Alert Bay workshop was a 1960 outbreak of a different species, Caligus clemens, that apparently was related to abnormally high water temperatures.
In 2001, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans was uninterested in the reported presence of sea lice in juvenile wild fish. But severe infestations had been plaguing Atlantic salmon in their net pens in the Broughton. Morton strongly suspected that these fish farms were the source of the infestations she was finding in young 0.25 to 3 gram pinks. These pens were, after all, located directly in their migration paths. So she took to a small boat and systematically dipnetted baby pinks with an 18" diameter hand net on an 8' pole at various distances up- and down-stream from the farms. She found potentially lethal loads of sea lice on 75% of the sampled fish whose journeys had exposed them to infected penned salmon, and no or few lice elsewhere.
DFO's response: to threaten her with arrest for illegally dipnetting
Morton's response: to do careful calculations based on her findings, and to predict a 90% failure of returning adults in 2002 to the rivers from which these louse-infested fish had come. She could have been closer Ñ only 2% of those pinks returned, a shortfall of over 3 million from the expected levels. This was despite excellent marine survival and enormous returns of pinks to virtually every British Columbia system that didn't have netpens. In 2003, the failure of pink returns in several rivers near the salmon farms again highlighted the issue. "Even Fisheries and Oceans Canada (the new name DFO has taken) predicted low returns this year as a result of sea lice," Morton notes.
This isn't the first time Morton has become a burr under the saddles of salmon growers and their allies in government. In 2000 Morton began examining the stomach contents of escaped Atlantic salmon that were captured in commercial fisheries. She quickly undercut the fish farmers' claim that such fish could not survive in the wild and had no impact on wild salmon: she found wild fish, including young salmon, in the bellies of Atlantics (in up to 24.4% of them after 3 weeks of freedom).
Then MortonÕs source of guts to examine, from the processing plant, was abruptly cut off without explanation. Fishermen responded by donating their captured Atlantics, which were fetching coho prices at the time, so that she could continue her work. In total, over 10,000 of these Atlantics were documented as incidental catch in the Aug-Sept commercial fishery.
"Fishermen have been wonderful supporters,Ó Morton says. "As soon as they realized that I didn't work for DFO, they helped me every way they could." She was familiar with them and their lives through five years deckhanding on a coastal salmon troller in the late '80s to early '90s. "Those were good years to make a living on the water," she says. She wrote a book about it, Heart of the Raincoast. Earnings from her books have helped support her family, who live economically in remote Echo Bay, enabling her to continue her work.
She was first brought to these islands by her long-time fascination with marine mammals, which she had studied extensively, especially the killer whales that were abundant in the area. The whales disappeared after the arrival of the net-pens. Morton blames the loud underwater noise-makers that salmon farmers deploy to drive away marauding seals and sea lions.
Morton also is a fan of pink salmon: "They may be the best and most underrated protein source there is. Because of where they live and their short lifespans, they don't have a chance to pick up any contaminants. They seem to be designed to feed the whole ecosystem us, the bears, the eagles, the trees, everything and they are abundant. Their energy flows back in from the ocean all the way up into the forests, and comes back down in microorganisms that feed everything on the way. I love pinks!"
Morton believes that salmon farms could be good neighbors to the fish and ecosystems around them, but says they aren't making the grade yet. "Aquaculture doesn't have to destroy the wild resources to thrive. Take it away from the migratory paths of wild salmon, improve containment to lessen its contribution to escapes and disease, and aquaculture could make salmon for those who want them, make jobs, and thrive as well. But the aquaculturists are driven by greed, and are just sloppy. They are not viable as they currently exist. Their foreign owners don't care what happens here."
Some DFO scientists dispute MortonÕs lice findings, but so far their research has failed to lay the question to rest. Richard Beamish, the head of DFO's Pacific Biological Station at Nanaimo, has downplayed MortonÕs research, citing results from his own trawl survey that failed to find evidence of serious lice infestation in salmon. That survey was conducted offshore, far from the inshore habitat of juvenile pinks that Morton believes salmon farms have fouled with lice. Morton says the young pinks are almost certainly dying from effects of the lice long before they mature enough to move into the offshore waters that Beamish sampled.
Langer, the former DFO biologist, agrees. ÒYouÕve gone to the airport to count how many people die in air crashes,Ó he says of BeamishÕs survey. In other words, you canÕt count the bodies if you donÕt look at the crash site.
On Beamish and other scientists who have sidestepped what she believes are the real impacts of salmon farms, MortonÕs judgement is harsh: "I don't know how they can sleep at night." Beamish, she says, Òhas a long history of scientific accomplishments and honors, and he is throwing it away with pseudo-scientific support for the (aquaculture) industry."
She is deeply sympathetic with the Native fishermen who predominate in her area: "I encourage them to hang onto their permits, their way of life. 'Wild' is better than 'organic'. There is no way to duplicate wild salmon as food. We must learn how to market them, must get the message out and make them available, especially underutilized species such as the pinks. Butterfly fillet a pink and shrink-wrap and freeze it there is nothing better. As people gain understanding of what 'wild' means, the value of these fish will come back."
"The thing is that if you take away the wild salmon from this coast, you're pulling the plug on everything even the trees need the salmon, and on and on. The salmon go out and they collect a lot of energy from photosynthesis on the surface of the ocean. The salmon eat the plankton and the little fish that eat the plankton, and then they carry the sun's energy in the form of those animals created into their flesh right up the mountainside. On the mountainsides, the nutrients are continually draining off as water runs downhill, but the salmon are carrying nutrients back up. You've got to look at the flows of energy, and salmon are one of the most essential flows. From them come all these other species."
copyright 2004, Buck Meloy
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