Pink Alert

The perils of Pacific Salmon

Pink Alert

During my phone interview with Alexandra Morton, renowned author, whale and salmon researcher, and environmental advocate, she discusses the plight of pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago, which is located between BC’s mainland and the north end of Vancouver Island.

“I feel the public is becoming immune to the pink salmon situation,” she says. “There is a sense of, ‘Oh well, it’s just another species about to go extinct.?

Morton, who has been studying marine life in the region since 1980, is convinced pink salmon in the archipelago are on the brink of extinction because of the 22 tenured fish farms that raise net-penned Atlantic salmon.

Welcome to the Neighbourhood

While Morton was cautiously optimistic that marine wildlife could coexist with farmed salmon when the first farm opened in 1987, she soon observed startling changes in the ecosystem. As the number of farms increased, the orcas disappeared from the area, toxic algae blooms became widespread, and thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped from their pens.

Morton also became concerned about the fish-farming practices she witnessed. The farms were being located in migratory route ways, which she says “block the arteries where wild salmon swim.” In addition, the penned fish, which are prone to a variety of diseases, were treated with potent drugs, and the waste was dumped in the ocean.

In 2001 Morton noticed that juvenile salmon were infected with an inordinate number of sea lice–parasites that consume fish mucus, blood, and skin. While adult salmon can withstand a few sea lice, merely a couple of the parasites on juvenile salmon put them at risk of serious illness or death.

Alarm Bells Ring

Then, in 2002, disaster struck the archipelago. Only 147,000 spawning pink salmon, out of an expected run of 3.6 million, returned to the archipelago. The extremely low numbers across all the Broughton rivers, but not rivers to the north, were cause for major concern.

Within a month of the collapse of the pink salmon run, Morton wrote on her website, “My research … revealed 78 percent were lethally infected with sea lice when they went to sea (approximately 1.6 lice/gram host weight), and coho, chinook, and sea-run cutthroat were also seen covered in lice. Sea lice are the leading and only factor suspected to have caused this very specific, profound crash.”

A few months later she noted, “I have met with every level of government, participated in every government salmon-farming initiative, written 10,000 pages of letters, had lunch with the farmers, invited them into my home, had lunch with the Queen, done the science, and borne witness to the destruction of this ecosystem.”

Can You Hear Me?

Responding to the BC government’s position that fish farms hadn’t contributed to the high occurrence of sea lice recorded in the area, in 2003, Morton contacted all members of BC’s legislature.

In her letter, she explained, “Two of our salmon species, the pink salmon and the chum salmon, are unique. What sets them apart is they do not spend a year feeding and growing in the rivers. As a result they go to sea four to five times smaller than any other salmon. Unfortunately the smaller a salmon, the fewer lice it can bear. So when our little pinks and chums go by the farms and pick up more than one to two lice, they are doomed.”

Four years later, Morton and 17 environmentalists and scientists appealed to both Prime Minister Harper and BC Premier Campbell. Their joint communiqu?ead, in part, “Based on the published scientific evidence, the only management action that can ensure the protection of wild salmon stocks from farmed salmon is a complete physical barrier to pathogen transmission between wild and farm salmon (closed containment) and/or removal of salmon farms from major juvenile salmon migration routes.”

Not surprisingly, her pleas for the government to protect wild salmon have gone unheeded. After years of lobbying and dealing with federal and provincial politicians, Morton dryly states, “The government makes it look like they’re doing something, but they’re waiting for a crisis before they’ll respond.”

The Facts don’t Lie

In a study published in Science in December 2007, Morton and five other researchers reported on the occurrence of sea lice on pink salmon whose migratory routes were in the path of stocked fish farms, as opposed to fish that swam past unoccupied farms.

The two-year study concluded that a definite link exists between fish farms and the proliferation of sea lice plaguing the juvenile wild salmon population. “Sea lice is the easiest science that I’ve ever done,” says Morton. The study warns that if the sea louse problem isn’t quickly alleviated, the archipelago will experience the local extinction of pink salmon within four salmon generations (eight years).

The biologist likens pink and chum salmon to the electrical cords of their surrounding environment. Pink salmon feed the other species of salmon and move the greatest amount of nutrients from the open ocean into our forests. If they vanish from the archipelago, Morton warns the whole ecosystem would be dimmed and placed in peril.

In addition, the researcher and a dedicated network of colleagues have found sockeye on the Fraser River migration route and herring in Georgia Strait to be heavily infested with sea lice near fish farms off Campbell River. “Now we are talking about BC’s two most important fisheries,” Morton says.

Although the prognosis for the wild salmon in the archipelago isn’t promising if the current trends continue, she remains positive. “Salmon can survive a lot of things. If we would work with the wild fish, we could have huge numbers of them.”

Morton is also optimistic that concerned citizens and responsible consumers will help to preserve these precious natural resources. She urges people to shop locally and organically and “to stop feeding the problem”; they can do this by refusing to purchase farmed salmon.
As our conversation nears its end, Morton says, “I believe that the power of one is all we have–but we all have it.”

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