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Expired · 9th May 2010
Ray Grigg
The case against the multitude of Norwegian-owned industrial-scale open net pen salmon farms that have been despoiling the marine ecology of British Columbia's natural West Coast for almost two decades has just moved from the rational to the emotional – from the head to the heart.

The change of tactic was a long time coming. Biologists like Alexandra Morton and others have been meticulously measuring, counting and studying the effects of these farms for years. The damning evidence just continues to build. Although scientific studies can go on indefinitely and still never reach absolute conclusiveness, the circumstantial evidence that salmon farms do cause significant damage to wild stocks is strong enough to warrant corrective action. Furthermore, this damage is confirmed by the disastrous legacy of the same kind of industrial farming operations in Norway, Scotland and Ireland. Yet the industry continues to quibble and equivocate while the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) still refuses to protect the wild salmon it is mandated to safeguard. What's any rational person to do?

Morton has tried the scientific approach. And she has tried legal recourse – many times. The courts have finally forced the federal government to accept its rightful authority over wild salmon – it can't delegate that authority to the province to create a bureaucratic game in which each government assigns responsibility to the other so neither is accountable for the fate of wild salmon. And the latest prosecution initiated by Morton concerns illegal by-catch, the smolts and herring and other wild fish species lured into the open net-pens by food and lights then eaten by the farmed fish or harvested with them. This personal initiative has now been undertaken by the Department of Justice that allegedly had to force DFO to press charges for this blatant violation of fisheries regulations.

If a private citizen were to harm one migrating smolt, catch one herring out of season, damage one square metre of sea bottom, DFO would act with the full force of the law. But salmon farms have been exempt from these same laws. Their accumulated sewage beneath net-pens creates vast wastelands of toxic sludge that may not recover for many years. Their disease and sea lice are now so implicated in failed runs of wild salmon that further denial has become farcical. Their acoustic devices have permanently alienated orcas from salmon farming areas such as the Broughton Archipelago. Other marine mammals such as seals and sea lions are similarly threatened, shot or drowned by getting entangled in the farms' protective nets. Any private citizen engaging in such acts would be subject to immediate prosecution.

And these are just the obvious and documented transgressions of responsible environmental policy. Morton's home in the Broughtons, Echo Bay, had a thriving population of 150 people and a school when she arrived in 1985 to study orcas. Since the fish farms moved in en masse, the orcas are gone, the school is closed, the population has dwindled to nine, and the local aboriginals describe an unfolding ecological collapse: damaged or destroyed local salmon runs, few herring, shellfish beds contaminated by fecal waste, and poisoned crab and shrimp from Slice, a potent toxin used by the farms to control the epidemic outbreaks of sea lice.

From a detached perspective, any objective observer could discern that these open net-pen salmon farms are an unfolding ecological disaster abetted by a government agency in collusion with an industry fixated on perpetually rising stock value. Chief Bob Chamberlin from Guilford Island summarizes the industry's strategy as "delay, deny, distract". As Morton kindly noted, "It's generous to call this a mistake." Nothing else explains the sorry environmental consequences that have accompanied the arrival of the Norwegian corporate presence to BC's coast.

On April 27th, when Morton stepped off the Columbia III at Heriot Bay on the Quadra Island portion of her "Get Out Migration" to Victoria and spoke to the 200 people assembled for her arrival, she didn't look or sound like a raving fanatic. Her round face was almost cherubic, framed by two long greying braids and topped with a dark ringed touque. Her eyes were soft, calm, patient and understanding. She presented herself similarly to the 300 at Campbell River's Spirit Square the next morning.

Speaking quietly and rationally, more like a scientist than a revolutionary, she expressed concern for the families now dependent on salmon farming. These jobs could be supplied by sustainable, land-based, closed-containment operations, she argued. Aquaculture has a future here, just as it has been practiced elsewhere for millennia. But the farms must "get out" of our oceans. As they presently operate, they are a brooding catastrophe. The 10 million healthy sockeye smolts that recently left the Fraser River and turned north to migrate through the "Wild Salmon Narrows" and past a gauntlet of fish farms suffered 98 percent mortality. Those that avoided the farms by migrating west, returned to spawn in excess of anticipated numbers.

Wild salmon are too ecologically critical for their wellbeing to be risked for the benefit of Norwegian corporate profits. These fish bring $1.6 billion in direct revenue to BC's wilderness tourism industry. They are a keystone species supporting the entire structure of wildlife on the West Coast. They are a biological wonder defining the traditional lives of West Coasters and they are essential to First Nations people. As the life-blood of an entire coastal culture and environment, they are as important as any single species could be. "Salmon are sacred," Morton said in her Spirit Square comments. "Everywhere they go, life thrives."

People are beginning to sense the full impact of this truth. More than science, more than economics and even more than culture or ecology, our wild salmon are the living heart and soul of this Pacific Coast. "It's amazing to me that it's come to this," said Morton, somewhat astounded that protecting wild salmon has evolved from research science to a protest march. Amazing, too, that a simple gesture from three people around a dining table has grown into a symbolic migration supported by thousands. "We have always been peaceful," she said in her quiet plea to each of us. "Now we have to be numerous."