Camp Sea Lice
Sandra Bartlett: It was a cool and foggy August morning when we headed out for the hour-long drive from Port McNeill to Echo Bay. There’s an open stretch of ocean water that can be deadly to cross in a storm or in high winds. We cancelled our first trip because gale force winds were expected. This day, we left at 7 a.m.. when the water is at its calmest.
We pass island after island where no one lives until we approach Echo Bay. There are a dozen one-storey buildings tucked in a protected cove. Alex Morton’s old home is just outside the cove. As we pull up to her dock, I can see several buildings perched on the side of the mountain. Back in 2003, Alex decided that the answer to DFO’s rejection of her science was to do more science — with more scientists. Collaboration was the key and she could make that happen in her lab in Echo Bay.
Alexandra Morton: And DFO decided there was no sea lice outbreak. That really ramped me up. I applied for a scientific licence; I invited others who might want to study this problem to come and just live in my home for free. Because it is hard to find a base of operations at Echo Bay, you either have to be on a boat or at a fishing lodge. It’s very expensive and this began the sea lice years.
Sandra: She called it Camp Sea Lice. That’s where we’re going.
Sandra: Welcome to The Salmon People podcast. I’m Sandra Bartlett. This podcast is a co-production with Canada’s National Observer. We’re crowdfunding to cover the cost of the podcast. If you’d like to support us, you can find a link in the show notes telling you how. Consider giving us a five-star rating and leaving a comment. That helps more people find us. This is Episode 3: Camp Sea Lice.
I wanted to see the place where the research began. So Alex got her friend John to take us to Echo Bay in his fishing boat.
For three years, the researchers came and studied sea lice. But then Alex and her husband separated and she had to sell the property. The woman who bought it, made some upgrades — like installing a huge cook stove, solar panels and a micro hydro station that produces electricity from running water. Then she surprised Alex and offered to sell it back to her for a dollar so it could remain a research station.
Alex christened it the Salmon Coast Field Station, which officially opened in 2006.
Alexandra Morton: Hi, Amy. Hi, how are you? I’m good (laughs). Sandra, this is Amy. She’s our manager at the station…
Sandra: Once the boat motor is turned off, it is unbelievably quiet. No noise from cars, or dogs or people. We climb up the long gangway and then up, up, up the steep staircase. At the top, we are embraced by trees and bushes, and we walk along a narrow dirt path that connects the buildings. The first building is the bunkhouse. In the beginning, it was Alex’s float home, sitting on logs in the water below. Until Robin died, this is where she lived. Her neighbour offered to hoist the home up the steep slope and put it on some land that they cleared.
Alexandra: It didn't go easy. It was a lot heavier than Billy thought, and it broke a bunch of cables and ended up running back into the ocean. It's on skids, it's on logs, and the logs hit the beach and the house kept going for a minute. I can show you out the side here, all the floor joints are a little bit on an angle.
Sandra: I feel like I am in a settler’s museum. Every room is tiny. No paint or wallpaper or decoration — unless you count pictures of fish.
Alexandra: My son and I lived here. Did an enormous amount of canning in this kitchen.
Sandra: Bring back memories?
Alexandra: Yeah. But I've been back a lot since. I mean, there was a lot of sadness here, too, because, you know, I went through the loss of my husband, and just the trials of living alone as a woman in a small community.
Sandra: So who lives here now?
Alexandra: It's student quarters. So there's nobody here right today.
Sandra: The young scientists come in the spring and usually work on their research projects through the summer. But this year — a COVID year —- the bunkhouse is empty.
Alexandra: This little building had a washing machine in it that was run by a bicycle pump. We called it the Tour de pants (chuckles). It was a wonderful place for my daughter to grow up with the young researchers here, showing them and showing her that science was cool and instilled in her that work is fun. So this was my office. This was a standalone building for a few years.
Sandra: This is the biggest building, two storeys. The station manager lives upstairs with her family. There is a 20-foot-long table on one side of the room. A clothesline with rubber gloves pinned up. A boot rack. Rubber wader pants hanging on hooks.
There is a large window that takes up the wall above the long table. The trees outside the window have been cut back to give a perfect view of the whales when they swim by.
Alexandra: Yeah, when I was here, whales were the priority and so I maintained the view. And I had a cable running up the beach with the hydrophone piped into the house. I was listening24 hours a day. And even if I couldn't get out with the whales because it was night, I knew who it was from the calls. So I was able to keep track of them.
Sandra: When Alex left the orcas behind to study sea lice, she knew she couldn’t be everywhere so she started to gather an army of sea lice helpers — people who live all over northern Vancouver Island willing to collect smolts and count sea lice for her research.
Alexandra: Well, Steve Burg is a commercial fisherman down in the Discovery Islands and he was very concerned about the media he saw on the sea lice infections and he said, “Is there anything I can do to help?” and I wrote him back: “Yes. Are you willing to catch juvenile salmon for me so I can count sea lice on them?” and he said, yes.
Sandra: Farlyn Campbell and Jody Erickson were teenagers when they joined Steve on his boat. This is Jody.
Jody Erickson: I mean, anything to do with catching fish seemed like a fun idea. I didn't know much about fish farms one way or the other at the time. My brother used to work on one. It was just a job, pretty much.
Sandra: I met them on a rocky beach on Quadra Island. Farlyn and Jody boated over from Sonora Island, where they live. They are in their early 30s and married. They have lived in the area all their life. And like everyone who lives along the coast, they started fishing as children. This is Farlyn.
Farlyn Campbell: Yeah. Like my brother started fishing with Steve and Alice when he was 12. And being a homeschooled kid who didn’t go to school, he loved fish. Then they needed another deckhand. And Tavish, my brother was like, “Oh, Jody, do you want to come, as well? Because you love fishing, too.”
Sandra: When the fish farms arrived in the nearby strait, they didn’t think much about them. So when Alex said she had concerns about the farms and wanted them to catch smolts — the juvenile fish — Farlyn and Jody were curious. No one catches smolts.
Jody: Well, the thing about salmon smolts is you see them jumping out in the channel, and I'd seen them my whole life right in the bay in front of my house, but nobody has a reason to catch them.
Farlyn: They don't bite the hook. They're really small. You would never catch them incidentally. We have a purpose-built little hand seine net, which is kind of the only way to catch them.
Sandra: And because they had never really looked at the smolts, they were surprised by their catch.
Jody: I remember being pretty much shocked. They were covered in sea lice, like literally covered, and some that were maybe two inches long … almost 100 per cent of them had lice and some of them had like 50 lice.
Farlyn: We went to Nootka Sound and the fish out there had like an average of, I don't know, in the teens of lice per fish. And we had up to like 45 lice per smolt. They were like swimming on the surface, lethargic. Like if you know anything about fish, you can see they're on their last legs
Yeah, we were in tears. It was really, really heartbreaking. They're dying in front of your eyes. Oh, yeah, we just did a set of like hundreds and they're all dying.
Sandra: If fish die in a fish farm — and they do, in large numbers — farm workers scoop them out of the pens and dispose of them. But wild salmon that are sick are easily picked off by birds or bears or seals. And when that happens to a large number of wild fish, there is no evidence they were sick, they are just gone.
Jody: You can have 90 per cent of the Fraser sockeye go missing in the Discovery Islands and nobody would know, like, until four … years later. They go fishing and they go, “Why are there no fish coming back?”
Sandra: So, the work of the sea lice army all over northern Vancouver Island provided solid intel that should have been invaluable to DFO in trying to understand the ups and downs of the salmon fishery. Farlyn and Jody took note of where they were finding the smolts and bit by bit figured out where the lice were coming from. Now they understood why Alex was concerned about the fish farms.
Farlyn: Up to a million farmed salmon on a farm and they all have a few lice on them. It just has to be the farms. There's no other way to describe where the lice are coming from. And in some ways, that hasn’t been our work. We just have been taking the samples and then Alex and other people are the ones actually computing the numbers.
Sandra: They felt a responsibility to report what they were seeing — to tell the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that something pretty dramatic was happening to the salmon.
Jody: Like, I was quite naive. I was just a teenager when I started doing this work. Um, after like the first year, me and the guy who I started with, we're like: we've got to talk to somebody about this. These fish are actually dying, like by the millions, in our channel. So we tried, like … the DFO office in Campbell River, and we got directed to the senior aquaculture habitat biologist at DFO.
Sandra: Back then, Jody saw Fisheries and Oceans as an agency that charged right in when something was wrong.
Jody: If somebody was fishing illegally for some other kind of fish, you would have an enforcement officer out there that day.
Sandra: But not this time.
Jody: You tell them that there's a huge problem with baby fish going out to sea and nothing happens. And we thought sitting down with these people and explaining what we were seeing would have some effect, and it really didn’t. We basically weren’t believed.
Sandra: Jody says they were just brushed off. No one was interested in what they were seeing in the water.
Jody: It wasn't like we went to the local office and told them that millions of fish are dying and they're like, “Oh, let's come and have a look.” It wasn't like that at all, which I found very disheartening and discouraging and eye-opening.
Sandra: Each fish farm has anywhere from half a million fish to more than a million. So, if each fish has just one or two or three sea lice — who are sucking blood and breeding — it’s not hard to imagine the waters near a fish farm being full of sea lice looking for fish to attack. But DFO had never examined the fish in the farms or inspected what was coming out of them.
Jody: In my view, they tried everything they possibly could to say there’s not a problem, starting with not looking. The first decade or two that the farms were here, they didn't even bother looking… Once people like Alex brought it to their attention, they did make some effort to go out and look at fish. But even that is flawed. They would go out and sample in the middle of Georgia Strait, 10 miles from a farm.
Farlyn: They're doing science, but actively trying not to find the problem. We talk about it often: Why some part of the bureaucracy in DFO decided that farms were the way to go and did everything in their power to push that agenda.
Sandra: What is it that the young scientists do here that would give them such a solid grounding?
Alex: The sheer joy of figuring out how to answer certain questions, scientific questions. And so they would come with an idea and a concept and a plan, but everything had to get modified because things wouldn't work or the environment was different than they expected. And so there was a lot of creativity. There's no failure.
Sandra: Between 2003 and 2008, dozens of papers on sea lice were published. But there was no reaction or action from Fisheries and Oceans. Alex was fed up. The B.C. and federal governments still appeared to be bending over backwards to protect the fish farms. It didn’t seem to matter how many different researchers published papers about sea lice and fish farms, the governments always found a way to dismiss them. It was time to try something else. But what?
How about the courts?
In 2008, Alex put together a coalition of groups representing fishermen, tourism and the environment. They petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to rule on whether B.C.’s regulation of aquaculture was unconstitutional. Lawyer Greg McDade took on the case.
Greg McDade: As I thought about it more, I realized there's a huge constitutional problem here because the Canadian Constitution is really just divided into two shopping lists of topics, one for the provinces and one for the feds. And the federal power over sea, coast and inland fisheries is explicit.
Sandra: Under Canada’s Constitution, the regulation of the fisheries is a federal responsibility and can’t be given to the provinces. Greg McDade has spent his 40-year career in environmental and Indigenous law. He was the first director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, now known as Ecojustice. Today, it’s Canada’s largest environmental law organization.
Greg: And this was my first experience with fish, with fish farming. When Alex came to me, I hadn't actually ever looked into it before, but I couldn't understand how the province had the legal authority to be regulating fish farming, and I didn't, frankly, like the idea that fish farmers were, in effect, privatizing the ocean.
Sandra: The B.C. government had always put the fish farm industry under the heading of agriculture.
Greg: By getting a licence from the province, they were able to take up, you know, two or three or four hectares of ocean.
Sandra: Justice Hinkson’s ruling in February of 2009 took control of the fish farms away from the B.C. government and dropped it in Ottawa’s lap. Fisheries and Oceans could no longer refuse to regulate the fish farms because fish farms are not farms at all. They are fisheries. And that’s a federal responsibility. The judge gave the B.C. government and Fisheries and Oceans 12 months to make the transfer of power.
Greg: You know, it's pretty obvious that it should be a fishery. Just because you call it a farm, doesn't make it one.
Sandra: One fish farm company, Marine Harvest, appealed the decision with the argument that it owned the caged fish at its facility and those fish constitute a fishery that is “private property.” It said industry should be given ownership rights to the ocean where it raises fish. This opinion had never been challenged before. Now Marine Harvest wanted the court to confirm its ownership of the ocean underneath its fish farms.
Alexandra: It was a fascinating case. We argued for a whole day. I think it was about whether farmed salmon are more like chickens. You own the parent, you own the egg, you own the chick. That's what the fish farmer said. But the judge said, “OK, wait a minute. So when a cow gets out of a farm, do you need a licence to go get that cow?” Well, the answer to that was no. You own the cow. You go get the cow. You don’t need a hunting licence. But when he asked,“Do you need a licence to catch your fish when they get out of your pens?” The answer was yes. “Well, he said, “You don't own your fish.”
Sandra: In the end, the court didn’t choose to rule on whether the Marine Harvest fish farm was private property.
Greg: The biggest impact was that we slowed the rate of growth of that industry. Up until then, it was huge. If you're losing a chess game, what do you do? You knock over the board. So, this knocked over the board and provided a chance to readdress the federal role and re-establish things. And for a period of at least three or four years, no new fish farms could be licensed because the province didn't have the power to license, and the feds hadn't set up their structure. So that delay was significant.
Sandra: For Alex, the ruling gave her hope that Ottawa would finally put wild salmon ahead of the fish farms. But she points out a strange fact.
Alexandra: In Eastern Canada, the provinces still regulate the industry and the only reason … is because nobody took them to court.
Sandra: While Alex waited for the transfer of power, she decided it was time to confront the fish farm industry on their home ground — in Norway. Most of the farms are owned by Norwegian multinationals. One company, Marine Harvest — now called Mowi — is the world’s largest supplier of farm-raised salmon. Grieg Seafood is also Norwegian. Cermaq is now owned by the Japanese company Mitsubishi. For the previous two years, First Nations chiefs joined tourism operators, scientists and environmental groups from Canada, Scotland and Chile travelling to Norway to attend shareholder meetings of the three big companies in Norway. Alex had not gone along with them.
Alexandra: Well, I'm afraid of flying, and as much as I wanted to go to Norway, that was a block for me. And so next thing I knew, I was flying into Norway. The first thing I noticed when we were landing in Oslo is how much Norway looks like British Columbia.There were these, you know, conifer-clad mountains, steep mountains, and these big inlets, which they call fjords. And it looked very similar to British Columbia. I could see why the industry felt at home in British Columbia.
Sandra: Her group met with Norwegian scientists and compared notes on sea lice and fish diseases.
Alexandra: And I went out into Hardangerfjord and got to see the farms. I mean, I was shocked at how many farms there are and there weren't any wild fish left at all.
Sandra: Then came the first shareholder meeting — Marine Harvest.
Alexandra: Oh, well, I put on my dress from the thrift shop, which was the nicest thing I could conjure, and I met the daughter of the biggest shareholder of Marine Harvest … and, you know, she was polite, but we were clearly the riff raff. They looked at us all nervously. And sitting next to me was a guy wearing powder blue cowboy boots. And on the other side was a woman wearing a tight leopard-print jumpsuit.
Sandra: Alex had only a few minutes to speak, so she got right to the point.
Alexandra: Your farms are on the Fraser River migration, which is our biggest salmon river … and everywhere you look around the world, salmon farms are associated with the decline of the wild salmon. We want to be neighbours with you, but it has gotten so extreme that many of us, and myself included, think you just need to leave British Columbia or go into closed tanks. Thank you.
Sandra: As Alex walked back to her seat, past the management table, the chairman of Marine Harvest lifted his head.
Marine Harvest: Thank you for your friendly comment. I have to disappoint you. We are not going to leave Canada.
Sandra: Chief Bob Chamberlin of Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation was the last speaker. He reminded the meeting that Norway had signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And that meant Norway must talk with First Nations about their fish farms.
Bob Chamberlin: It is a principle that guides your operations as a company. And I ask you to bring that principle to the Broughton Archipelago where we have seven wild salmon rivers on the verge of extinction and the only thing new in our territory is aquaculture. I’m tired of having conversations that have no end. I am tired of having conversations simply to be heard, knowing full well that Marine Harvest has not demonstrated to me a willingness to change anything at all.
Sandra: Bob had gone to these meetings for the past two years. But this year was the last.
Bob: So, when I spoke to industry as well as the media, I am here to tell you they are not welcome. They do not have our consent. And the executive director internationally of one of the companies said to me: We do what your country allows us to. And that's when I knew I was no longer making trips to Norway… I doubled down and focused on our Canadian government.
Sandra: Chief Chamberlin finished his speech by making sure the meeting knew where Alex Morton stood in the First Nations community.
Bob: I need to express to all of you the gratitude that I have for Alexandra Morton. The work that she has done, the commitment that she has shown to our people’s territory is astounding. And when she speaks, she speaks for us.
Sandra: The group went to other shareholder meetings, but the response was the same — they were allowed to speak, but no one addressed their concerns. Back in Canada there was bad news. The sockeye salmon didn’t come back. Normally up to 13 million sockeye salmon would come back to spawn after spending up to three years out in the Pacific growing into adults. In the summer of 2009, there were only two million returns. Two million instead of 13 million. It was the smallest fish return since 1941. No fish to catch. But even more disturbing — if the fish don’t spawn, there will be no eggs to hatch, no smolts to go out to the ocean. No adult fish to return. It’s a really bad cycle.
Sandra: Everyone was asking — What happened? Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to answer that question.
Harper: Mr. Speaker, I thank the minister for West Vancouver for his question and for his interest. Tomorrow, Mr. Speaker, the minister of International Trade and the regional minister for British Columbia will be making an announcement outlining the terms of reference for a judicial inquiry as well as the judge who will lead that inquiry.
Alexandra: I've basically won every battle… but it did not win the war. The industry just kept moving, it just kept encroaching, it just kept growing. And even though we succeeded in everything we did — whether it was me writing the papers or this trip to Norway or going to court, you know, winning again and again and again — it just never really got a grip on the monster. It just stepped over whatever it is I had done and just kept going, basically uninterrupted.
Sandra: Next time on The Salmon People: The Gamechanger.
Sandra: The Salmon People podcast is researched, written and produced by me, Sandra Bartlett. It is a co-production with Canada’s National Observer.
Story editing by My Frozen Headphones production. Sound engineering by Damian Kearns and Ben Ramos-Salsberg.
Special thanks to John Macko for taking us out to Echo Bay in his fishing boat.
And it would be great if you could give us a five-star rating and maybe even leave a comment. That helps others find us.
When Alex left the orcas behind to study sea lice, she knew she couldn’t be everywhere, so she started to gather an army of sea lice helpers — citizen scientists from all over northern Vancouver Island willing to collect smolts and count sea lice for her research. Jody Erickson and Farlyn Campbell started as teenagers and were devastated to see baby fish with dozens of sea lice eating through their bodies.