The evidence is on their side: Everywhere salmon farms have appeared, from Norway to Chile, they have spread disease and parasites to local fish. This year, Ms. Morton told me, sea lice have for the first time shown up on juvenile herring and sockeye in the Strait of Georgia; she found large numbers of them near a fish farm in Clayoquot Sound (a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where the multinational Mainstream, which is 45-per-cent owned by the Norwegian government, has been allowed to operate 14 salmon farms).
This spring, thousands of newborn pink salmon are leaving the Broughton Archipelago's Ahta River and schooling near the 600,000 adult Atlantic salmon awaiting harvest at the Glacier Falls farm. Employees have already treated fish in the farm with a pesticide called Slice, a potent neurotoxin that kills not only sea lice, but also affects lobsters and other sea creatures we eat. (Though Slice has never been officially approved in Canada, "emergency" permits are routinely granted to salmon farmers by veterinarians, and Health Canada now allows trace amounts of Slice in the flesh of farmed salmon in our supermarkets.) But even this heavy-duty poison has not killed off all the sea lice this year. Samples taken by Ms. Morton show that 17 per cent of the juvenile fish next to the Glacier Falls site are already infested with the parasites.
In March, she announced plans to "medevac" the fish to safety. Using a technique that is standard in hatcheries, she would net the juveniles, put them in a tank full of ocean water and ferry them past the Glacier Falls farm and back to their migration route. On the day of the proposed operation, a seaplane touched down beside her boat, and she was handed a letter, informing her that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans had refused to give her permission to transport the fry.
"The department rejected the idea," Ted Perry of the DFO's Pacific Biology Station in Nanaimo told CBC Radio, "because we think it's the best thing for the fish. There's a lot of handling that goes on with the proposed moving. ... It's a very stressful process for young fish."
For Ms. Morton, the DFO's contention that it rejected her plea purely in the interests of the fish is just so much spin. She points out that the department currently has a team in the Broughton netting and killing thousands of juvenile salmon for scientific purposes.
"The government is still trying to make this sound like it's a really complicated issue," she says. "It's not. It's simple: Industrial salmon farms in British Columbia are spreading sea lice to wild salmon. Where political will is behind the wild fish and the salmon farms have been banned, the fish are doing just fine."
She points out that Alaska, whose economy depends on the wild catch and where salmon farms are strictly prohibited, had two of its biggest harvests in history for pink and sockeye salmon last year.
The salmon farmers have accused Ms. Morton of engineering a publicity stunt, using photogenic baby fish to draw attention to their industry.
She and her colleagues counter that their concern is genuine: These may be among the last generations of pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago. (Ms. Morton's funding comes in dribs and drabs from B.C. fishermen sympathetic to her cause. She is trying to raise money to challenge the government's decision at http://www.adopt-a-fry.org.)
Meanwhile, what is a consumer who is inclined to eat ethically to do? Oddly, the best way to save the wild salmon of the Pacific may be to eat them (in moderation, of course, and paying close attention to which species and stocks are abundant; pink salmon runs from other parts of B.C. are healthy, and Nass River sockeye and most Alaskan salmon stocks are in good shape).
Eating farmed salmon, in contrast, encourages an industry that is insidiously undermining wild stocks around the world. The industry could clean up its act by switching to land-based, closed-containment systems that don't spread parasites and pollutants to the wild. Until then, however, supporting well-managed sport and commercial fisheries, and subsidizing habitat restoration, is the only way to ensure that wild salmon will survive into the future. We need to look at salmon the way we used to: not as the cheap protein in a million in-flight meals, but an occasional luxury - one that is well worth paying more for.
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