Uniting and activating powerful voices for ocean conservation

Salmon feed the trees that make the oxygen we breathe

Alexandra Morton – @alex4salmon

I found Echo Bay on a wet October day in 1984 while following a pod of whales.

It is a small bay nestled in a remote archipelago in British Columbia on the west coast of Canada. Floating houses ringed the bay with woodsmoke curling out of the chimneys. My husband and I, with our little boy, made it our home. It was the perfect place to spend a lifetime studying whales. When industrial ocean pen salmon farms appeared, my first thought was good idea, but salmon farms changed everything.

The ocean chemistry became dangerously loaded with nitrogen and phosphorous waste sparking unprecedented algae blooms. Farmed Atlantic salmon appeared in Pacific rivers. Red-rimmed boils erupted on the wild salmon as they died and the disease furunculosis became a new household word in Echo Bay. The resident whales fled from the 198db ear-splitting underwater seal deterrents and never came back. Local salmon fisheries were closed, the herring crashed, the school closed and the town died. Only the tonnage of farm salmon increased.

The aboriginal Musgamagw Dzawada’enuwx nations said no to salmon farms, but one third of the Norwegian-run BC salmon farming industry is now using their territory to flush their farms. Fishermen turned to me, “you gotta tell government they are putting these farms in all the wrong places.” They meant the nursery, feeding and resting grounds for several species of wild fish.

BC wild salmon populations began fluctuating wildly in the mid-1990s coincident with the onset of salmon farming, while runs remained strong in neighboring Alaska where salmon farms are prohibited. By tracking migrating salmon DNA it was revealed that the portion of Fraser River sockeye that is exposed to salmon farms are collapsing, while those unexposed are increasing.

Similarly pink salmon in the Echo Bay region collapsed in 2002, due to heavy infestation with sea lice from salmon farms. Delousing the farm fish allowed the wild salmon to rebound, but sea lice are becoming drug-resistant worldwide, and catastrophic losses due to this parasite occurred again in 2015.

The problem with salmon farms is simple. When wild fish get sick predators eat them, preventing the spread of disease and parasites. When farm salmon get sick, they linger in their underwater cages highly contagious to the other fish in the farm, which can result in massive pathogen release on the order of 65 billion infectious virus particles per hour, spilling 40km beyond the pens. There is no place in the world where wild and farm salmon are thriving together.

I am now studying the spread of piscine reovirus infecting 80 per cent of BC farm salmon. When a salmon is stressed the virus can cause heart disease, an enormous handicap for wild salmon, which must be supreme athletes every day of their lives to survive. Placement of these industrial operations on juvenile salmon migration routes is like walking your child through an infectious disease-ward on her way to school.

Aquaculture is not the problem. The problem is breaking natural laws with severe consequences. The solution is simple: build tanks that provide a pathogen barrier between these marine feedlots and the ocean. The disease and sea lice problems have escalated to the point where a bank in Norway, the mother country of this industry, recommends investment in closed containment tanks. The only question is will this happen fast enough for wild salmon?

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Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist who has worked to protect wild salmon from the impact of salmon farming for 30 years.  She has been profiled by the New York Times and 60 Minutes.  Morton now tracks farm salmon viruses and is working through the courts to protect wild salmon. To contact her please email:  Alexandramorton5@gmail.com