As Alexandra Morton watched her supporters pour on to the legislature lawn Saturday, she couldn't help noticing that the final leg of her fish-farming protest walk looked an awful lot like the kind of healthy, wild-salmon run she has spent the past 20 years trying to save.
"I was really, in the true sense of the word, overwhelmed to stand on the legislature steps and see the surge of people coming down Government Street," Ms. Morton said. "The lawn was full, the streets were pouring. … I felt like I was watching the sockeye go up the Adams River."
In one of the largest environmental demonstrations the city has ever seen, close to 4,000 people turned out for the culmination of Ms. Morton's 500-kilometre "Get Out Migration" walk that began April 23 in Campbell River.
For Ms. Morton, the event was a turning point in her ongoing battle against open-net salmon farming on B.C.'s coast, much of which she waged in relative anonymity from her home in the Broughton Archipelago, where as much as one-third of the province's farmed salmon is produced.
"I've lobbied government and done the studies and gone through all these steps and nobody would listen. About two months ago, I realized what we need here is the people," she said.
"I think we're past the point where people are going to sit there and let them take this resource away."
Research by Ms. Morton and others indicates that farmed salmon pens in the Broughton Archipelago, home to some of B.C.s most important salmon runs, are breeding grounds for pathogens and parasites such as sea lice that infect wild salmon.
Salmon farming companies say they're equally concerned about the region's disappearing salmon stocks, but reject the idea that salmon farming is to blame.
"Something is happening out there in the ocean but to point the finger at the aquaculture industry is irresponsible," said Nick DiCarlo, sales manager for Mainstream Canada, a division of the Norwegian seafood farming giant Cermeq.
"When you hear someone get up there and make these kind of accusations against your industry, it's tough to swallow."
But to her supporters, Ms. Morton is an icon of B.C.'s environmental movement, living proof that one determined individual can make a difference.
"We pay millions of dollars for [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans]to do this job and it gets done by somebody who does this for nothing," Gabriola Island resident Gunther Rudicher said during the protest's mid-afternoon stop in Victoria's Centennial Square.
Francine Trevelle, also from Gabriola Island, said she took part in the walk out of concern that the fate of West Coast salmon stocks is in the hands of foreign-owned corporations.
"There's a time when you have to stand up and say, 'Wait a minute this is wrong,'" said Ms. Trevelle, who last attended an environmental rally "in the 80s."
Ms. Morton urged the crowd at Centennial Square to demand that all B.C. salmon farms be moved from open water to closed containment systems on land.
"We can have our salmon farms on land and we can have our wild salmon back," she said. "We can have both."
Ms. Morton and her supporters set out from Sidney around 8 a.m. Saturday morning and made the 26-kilometre trek to City Hall in less than seven hours, blocking major roads along the way and drawing the occasional honk of support from passing motorists.
The crowd of about 500 protest walkers swelled to well over 1,000 at Centennial Square before continuing to the legislature where an even larger crowd was waiting.
Saturday's rally was notable as well for the broad cross-section of people it attracted - young and old, male and female, first nations from across the province and a mosaic of other ethnic groups.
Ms. Morton said the walk gave Vancouver Island aboriginal groups an opportunity to set aside their political differences and unite with non-natives in common cause of saving B.C.'s wild salmon.
"We are, all of us, being asked to accept the loss of what was ours," she said. "The native folks are [saying] 'Now you know how it feels.' "
Special to The Globe and Mail