Alexandra Morton has researched the impacts of salmon farms on wild stocks and campaigned for an end to ocean-based aquaculture.

Alexandra Morton has researched the impacts of salmon farms on wild stocks and campaigned for an end to ocean-based aquaculture.

Fish farm foe challenged at salmon probe

Morton testifies before Cohen Inquiry into decline of Fraser River sockeye

Biologist and anti-aquaculture activist Alexandra Morton was scorned Wednesday and accused of ethical breaches in her crusade to tie ocean salmon farms to the collapse of the Fraser River’s wild sockeye runs.

Morton, executive director of the Raincoast Research Society, defiantly stood her ground in the first of two days of grilling before the Cohen Inquiry.

She was pressed on how she can categorically say salmon farms cannot safely co-exist with wild runs when most other scientists testifying before the commission have said – with varying degrees of certainty – that it should be possible.

“I am completely independent,” Morton replied, adding she doesn’t work for a university, government or other vested interests.

“You are pure, are you? You’re the only one that isn’t corrupted by business, by government, by a university?” asked Aboriginal Aquaculture Association lawyer Steven Kelliher in cross-examination.

“Perhaps,” she said.

The exchange came after lawyers for the provincial and federal governments and B.C.’s salmon farming industry sought to exclude from evidence a new report Morton wrote summarizing her findings for the inquiry.

“The document is full of hearsay and speculation,” charged Alan Blair, representing the B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association at the inquiry.

He said Morton drew scientific conclusions “far beyond her expertise” and suggested the report is biased, amounting to a violation of the code of ethics requiring professional biologists to be objective.

Federal government lawyer Mitchell Taylor said Morton’s report contains statements that are “simply contrary to the evidence.”

Justice Bruce Cohen, the federally appointed head of the commission into declining sockeye, did not immediately rule on the report’s admissibility.

Morton recounted her key findings after years of examining sea lice infestations and other possible risks to migrating salmon.

She told the inquiry salmon farms act as a reservoir that amplifies pre-existing parasites and diseases along the wild salmon migration route, which runs through narrow channels off northeastern Vancouver Island.

Natural runs of salmon die when they spawn, Morton said, breaking the chain of disease, but salmon farms act as a place where pathogens can breed and spread back and forth, both as juvenile salmon head out to the ocean and mature adults return.

“Fish farms definitely amplify sea lice,” she said, rejecting the findings of other researchers who suggested the lice aren’t likely playing a pivotal role in the salmon decline.

Morton said returning Fraser sockeye began to nose-dive in 1992, the same year many salmon farms began operations on the migration route.

“In the biological world, you rarely get patterns this bold,” she said.

She also noted Harrison Lake sockeye are an anomaly among Fraser River runs in that they have bucked the downward trend and done surprisingly well.

That run migrates around the west side of Vancouver Island, avoiding the main cluster of salmon farms on the east side, she said.

Other sockeye that follow the same route, including Columbia River and Alberni Inlet runs, are also doing “quite well.”

Another quirk of the Harrison run is that its newly hatched juveniles head out to sea very quickly, unlike most other sockeye that can spend up to a year in their birth lakes.

Morton suggested that means the young Harrison fry aren’t in Harrison Lake when mature adults return to spawn, unlike other runs in the Fraser watershed where spawning adults may arrive and mix with juveniles, transmitting disease to them.

“The Harrison are gone,” she said of this year’s fry. “They already left in May and June. So they don’t get that exposure, plus they’re not going by the salmon farms.”

Industry or government lawyers frequently raised objections and sought to limit Morton’s testimony, which was at times punctuated with applause from supporters at the hearing.

Morton conceded much more research is needed, and said the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans should restore funding to geneticist Kristi Miller, who has argued a newly detected virus may be hurting Fraser sockeye.

Marine Harvest Canada environmental compliance director Clare Backman, who testified on the same panel, challenged some of Morton’s claims, noting there are salmon farms in Puget Sound and Chinook salmon are farmed on the west side of Vancouver Island.

Morton agreed but argued any pathogens coming from western farms are more easily dispersed into the open ocean, while those on the island’s east side are densely concentrated in narrow inlets, posing a greater threat to wild stocks.

Backman said the salmon farming industry has conducted pilot projects on closed containment aquaculture using a recirculated water system.

That’s believed to reduce risks from the environment to farmed salmon, although he said the technology so far doesn’t look profitable without considerable improvements to make it more efficient.

A juvenile sockeye salmon infected with sea lice.

Just Posted

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

Kalyn Head, seen here on June 4, 2021, will be running 100 kilometres for her “birthday marathon” fundraiser on July 23. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Woman’s 100-km birthday marathon from Chilliwack to Abbotsford will benefit Special Olympics B.C.

Kalyn Head hopes run raises awareness, advocates for inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities

Missing Abbotsford man Adam Hobbs was found deceased on Thursday evening (June 17).
Body of missing Abbotsford man Adam Hobbs found

Hobbs was reported missing Monday after leaving his job site in Langley

UFV athletes were honoured for their strength and perseverance during the pandemic. (UFV photo)
Fraser Valley athletes recognized in year without sports

UFV Cascades athletes honoured for strength shown during the pandemic

web
Mission students hold rally, say everyone welcome at school

Ecole Christine Morrison Elementary School hosted an Anti-Racism Day on June 15

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Surrey Fire Service battled a dock fire along the Fraser River late Friday night (June 18). It was on Musqueam Drive, near Industrial Road, around 10:45 p.m. (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
VIDEO: Fire engulfs pier on Surrey side of the Fraser River

Dock has reportedly been unused for a long time

People in Metro Vancouver can expect to experience a short wave of heat just in time for Father’s Day, according to Environment Canada. (Black Press Media files)
Short-lived heatwave headed for Metro Vancouver this weekend

Temperatures are expected to be up to 10 degrees higher than average Sunday and Monday

Most Read