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Industry has failed to keep sea lice, viruses and bacteria from putting wild stocks at risk, but challenges from First Nations and conflicts in court could finally compel governments to act

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Lice cover a young chum salmon near Gold River after it passed several samon farms owned by Grieg Seafood. Lethal infections of young wild salmon from lice, bacteria and viruses have escalated on the B.C. coast over the past few years.Tavish Campbell

Alexandra Morton is founder of the Salmon Coast Field Station and author of Not on My Watch: How a Renegade Whale Biologist Took on Governments and Industry to Save Wild Salmon.

Salmon farming in Canada was born on the wrong side of the law more than 30 years ago, and it has continued to bend the spirit and intention of Canadian fishery laws, no matter the successful legal challenges to its practices or the science measuring the harm it causes to wild fish.

For decades, federal and provincial bureaucrats have turned a blind eye to the damage wrought by this enterprise and softened the regulations intended to keep it in check. They created an industry that saw no reason to accommodate the people who depend on wild stocks. Salmon farming companies may adorn their vessels and websites with Indigenous imagery, but woe to the First Nation that has tried to defend its vanishing salmon runs from the viruses, bacteria and parasites unleashed from these floating feedlots.

But now, in a remarkable turn of events, the three foreign-owned companies that dominate salmon farming in British Columbia face a hard reckoning. It comes from the hands of Indigenous governments that place a high priority on the benefits provided by wild salmon. On Dec. 17, 2020, in a stark reversal of the status quo, the federal Minister of Fisheries, Bernadette Jordan, emerged from consultations with seven First Nations and told the industry that it was not allowed to restock its 19 salmon farms in B.C.’s Discovery Islands, and that their licences would expire in 2022.

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The Cermaq salmon farm at Venture Point in the Discovery Islands.Sea Shepherd Society

As far back as 1984, a lawyer named Bruce Wildsmith told the federal government, which seemed bedazzled by the promise of salmon farms, that unless Canada’s laws were restructured, the rights of First Nations would one day threaten the industry. The federal government ignored his warning, handing regulation over to the provinces, which branded these operations “farms” and leased tenures to the companies so they could drop anchors on the seafloor. While the provinces have the right to issue seafloor tenures, the floating pens tied to these anchors raised legal issues as they effectively walled-off portions of the ocean.

One of my own court challenges to the industry, Morton vs. British Columbia 2009, established that it is the same ocean inside and outside these pens. Since the ocean is federal jurisdiction, the judge ruled it was illegal for the provinces to regulate activities in the pens. The judge handed regulation back to the feds, and the salmon “farms” became a “fishery” – albeit a private one, which has no legal precedent in Canada. Furthermore, the decision made clear that who actually owns the fish in the pens is open to dispute. (Inexplicably, the provinces still regulate salmon farms in Eastern Canada.)

All this bending of our laws put the bureaucrats in charge of day-to-day salmon farming operations in a difficult position. The solid rules they relied on to run public fisheries became fuzzy around this private fishery. For example, all fish boats in Canada must by law display a visible licence number – except for vessels involved in the salmon aquaculture fishery. The Fisheries Act was written before salmon farms, and so rules on how to resolve conflicts between the private and the public fisheries do not exist.

Today, despite the drastic curtailment of commercial fisheries, many wild salmon runs in B.C. are in a state of utter collapse. Clearly something has gone wrong. Over the past 20 years, scientists from universities and government, as well as independent scientists such as myself, raised red flags in international scientific journals and connected disease amplification in salmon farms with declines in wild salmon runs. But even as Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) built a powerful Aquaculture Management Division, it assigned no one to oversee the health of wild salmon. All the science that could have been used to ensure both a vibrant wild fishery and an aquaculture industry was ignored, simply because there was no DFO inbox to receive this information. There is no one at the director level of the DFO to counterbalance the needs of industrial salmon with the needs of wild salmon.

In 2017-18, the First Nations of the Broughton Archipelago responded to the collapse of wild salmon runs by occupying the salmon farms located without their permission in their territories for 280 days. For the first time, myself and the other people occupying the farms put cameras in the pens and saw the reality of this industry: Atlantic salmon with open sores, tumours hanging out of their mouths, emaciated, deformed and pocked with sea lice, swimming in a stew of stringy brown feces. The water flowing out of these pens was saturated with larval lice, bacteria and viruses, even some no one knew existed on the B.C. coast.

The majority of the plagues that humanity has suffered came from animals we put in farms. And yet this hard-won knowledge is ignored when it comes to fish farms.

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This Atlantic salmon at Mowi farm has an open sore, one of the symptoms of an infectious bacterial disease called mouthrot.Courtesy of Alexandra Morton

To be clear, the issue here isn’t whether we should farm fish, but how. If these companies erected solid barriers between their feedlots and the ocean, they would solve a long list of problems. But the only solid wall is the one the bureaucracies of the provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the DFO’s Aquaculture Management Division built to protect the industry from anything that might reduce profits. Salmon farming revenues hinge on externalizing the cost of dealing with waste. Moving into tanks means companies would have to pay more for its removal, so they are not keen to do so.

I have spent my whole adult life trying to chase this industry away from wild salmon by uncovering its secrets, publishing science on its impact and forcing it to comply with the law. Meanwhile, I watched young wild salmon die every year, infested with the sea lice breeding in the farms. Eventually, I got a good look beyond the bureaucratic wall by using the Access to Information Act to obtain internal government communications.

I have read the words of senior bureaucrats as they denied, played down and suppressed any DFO science that reported the impact of salmon farms on wild salmon. For example, on March 1, 2020, DFO senior management lowered sea-lice regulations to the point that a farm can remain dangerously loaded with the parasite for six weeks – long enough to infect entire runs of juvenile wild salmon – and still remain in “compliance.” They made this decision even as the department’s own veterinarians and conservation and protection staff tried to make companies reduce the number of breeding sea lice.

The DFO’s aquaculture managers also stubbornly refuse to acknowledge evidence from their own scientists and others that a virus traced to Norway, called PRV, appears to cause the red blood cells of chinook salmon to rupture en masse and cause heart damage in sockeye. This denial means that PRV-infected farm fish were transferred by the millions from freshwater hatcheries, where they were born, into floating farms, where they were raised. The virus then spread unchecked into B.C. waters and infected wild salmon, which have carried it up the Fraser, Skeena and many other rivers.

Research by DFO scientists that linked the salmon leukemia virus that surged through chinook salmon farms in the Discovery Islands in the 1990s to extreme Fraser sockeye prespawning mortality rates was defunded and the researchers muzzled. Our own Canadian Food Inspection Agency says in a July 24, 2019, memo that it doesn’t want to test farmed salmon for certain foreign viruses because the results might trigger restrictions on shipping the fish out of the country.

The First Nations’ principled occupation of the salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago led to a year of talks between their governments and the province, which ultimately affirmed the Nations’ authority to remove 17 farms from the B.C. coast. The recent decision by the Minister of Fisheries to prohibit the restocking of 19 salmon farms in the Discovery Islands will clear another 300 kilometres of migration route, giving wild salmon on the eastern side of Vancouver Island a fighting chance for survival.

But these victories don’t mean the battle has been won, given that the three companies that dominate salmon farming in B.C. are now suing the Minister of Fisheries because – in one of Canada’s boldest acts of reconciliation – Ms. Jordan stood to honour the demand by the Homalco, Klahoose, K’omoks, Kwiakah, Tla’amin, We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum First Nations to protect wild salmon.

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Hereditary chief Charlie Williams arrives to support the First Nations occupation of salmon farms in his territory in the Broughton Archipelago in 2017.Courtesy of Alexandra Morton

And despite reading thousands of pages of internal government communications, I was not prepared for what was revealed in documents I obtained on Feb. 23, 2021.

A team of DFO and Pacific Salmon Foundation scientists discovered that the bacteria causing widespread mouthrot in salmon farms is accumulating in seawater in the Discovery Islands. Their data suggested that this pathogen might be causing as much as an 87.9-per-cent reduction in the survival of young sockeye, and lowering populations of chinook and coho salmon as well. Some of the affected stocks are just a few fish away from extinction.

In October, 2020, the scientists took their findings to senior DFO managers, some of whom were involved in the Discovery Islands consultations. On Nov. 4, 2020, DFO managers gave the BC Salmon Farmers Association a heads-up that this research should concern the industry because the high rate of infection in their farms appeared to be spreading to wild salmon. These managers did not inform the seven First Nations involved in the consultations nor, it would appear, the Minister of Fisheries.

On Dec. 16, two months after senior staff were first briefed and the day before the federal licences expired and the minister had to make her decision, the DFO regional director for the Pacific Coast wrote in an e-mail to an assistant deputy minister in Ottawa: “I feel like this issue should be raised to the Deputy Minister asap, given the current context.” This was a bit late, and I found no evidence that Ms. Jordan was told about it.

While she relied on the position of the First Nations in this case, her department effectively left her unprepared to make an informed decision critical to preventing the extinction of the Fraser River sockeye and other wild salmon runs.

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Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Only 5 per cent of the late-run Fraser sockeye lived to return to the river in 2020. Some spawning grounds saw as few as 20 fish. Almost 10 years ago, Justice Bruce Cohen wrote an extensive report on the $23-million inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser sockeye. In it he warned that DFO loyalties were “divided” when it came to salmon farms.

“Divided,” however, does not begin to describe the act of hiding evidence of an epidemic that could wipe out the last of the salmon in the Fraser – the largest salmon river in the world, and a legacy we owe our children. The DFO communications reveal a serious rupture in the flow of scientific information required to make the best decisions for all Canadians.

As the salmon farming industry takes the Minister of Fisheries to court, it will be first time that the federal government, First Nations and many scientists and environmentalists are all on the same side, leaving the corporations standing alone. In January, one of the companies also sued the Norwegian government over an order to reduce the number of farmed salmon in pens because their sea lice was affecting wild salmon. On March 17, the day before the first hearing in Canadian court, they lost. Farm salmon production worldwide hinges increasingly on the courts.

As I write, young wild salmon are wriggling up through the gravel nests dug by their mothers in cool clear rivers throughout B.C. They are preparing for an epic 3,000-kilometre round trip to the open Pacific Ocean. They will feed 100 species, and on their return trip they will benefit every town they pass, providing fishing and tourism dollars and food security. They will nourish the ancient ceremonies essential to First Nation culture. They will provide for our forests. Whether many of these little fish make it through B.C. waters alive will be decided in federal court.

As a biologist and a grandmother, it is my duty to issue a warning. This is a moment after which B.C. will never be the same. Many wild salmon populations can no longer decline; if this abuse continues, they can only vanish. I offer foresight. Seize this moment while there is still time. Put the salmon farms on land and allow wild salmon to survive. They are a gift we will not be given twice.

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