The Salmon People

Episode 4
August 21st 2022

The Game Changer

Read the transcript

Sandra: One hundred people in canoes left Hope, B.C., on Oct. 10, 2010. Mixed with the regular 17-footers were some giant, traditional 25-foot Voyageur canoes. They paddled 160 kilometres along the Fraser River to Vancouver for the opening day of the Cohen Commission — or as it was called in full: the “Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.” The paddlers were making the five-day voyage on the water to demonstrate their support for the salmon that were missing from it. As they travelled, the non-Indigenous paddlers learned Indigenous protocols. The first lesson was how to treat your canoe and, most importantly, your paddle. Alex Morton was there.

Alexandra Morton: I remember, I think it was on the third day, we had this fabulous young First Nations man, Aaron Williams, and he had this really raspy voice. And he suddenly stops in the middle of the Fraser River, which is this huge brown roiling thing. And he's like … you guys need to know some rules. Your behaviour is disgraceful. And he said, “When you come into a village, you raise your paddles and you sit there until you're invited. And then when you're invited, you turn the canoe around and you back in. Because that is a sign that you're not planning to raid the village.” The first village that we went to when we had learned this behaviour, we came in the evening. Ten big canoes, 100 people, and we raised our paddles. And the chief is standing there looking at us. This had not been seen on the Fraser River for a long time, and he sang. And everybody felt the power of the moment. It was incredible.

Greetings: As travellers on this Fraser River, I welcome you ashore to come break bread.

So come and share our bread on our land.

Sandra: It was the catastrophic loss of salmon in the Fraser River that prompted Ottawa to create the Cohen inquiry. The salmon had been returning to the rRiver in the millions for hundreds of years. In 2009, they simply didn’t.

Parliament question period: Mr. Speaker, as the prime minister is aware, reports indicate that nine million sockeye salmon went missing during last summer’s migration in the Fraser River. Will the prime minister tell this house what action this government will be asking to respond to the problem.

The right honorable prime minister: Tomorrow, Mr. Speaker, the minister of International Trade, as 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.

Sandra: B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen was asked to find out what happened and make recommendations to fix whatever was hurting the salmon.

Alexandra: And you know, people were encouraged because Stephen Harper was not a man known for promoting science.

Sandra: There were 50 applications from people and organizations wanting the right to appear before the inquiry. Fifty applications but only room for 20. So Justice Cohen put some of them into groups by expertise, trying to make space for everybody.

Alexandra: Justice Bruce Cohen went around to a whole bunch of communities first and talked to them, which was really great. Arriving in Vancouver by canoe after paddling down the Fraser River was an important symbol. The river is home to many First Nations and many species of salmon. The favourites, sockeye, chinook and coho, are key to local economic and cultural survival.

Sandra: It took five days to paddle down the Fraser River. As the brigade approached Jericho Beach in Vancouver, they followed tradition — stopping the canoes near the shore, turning their paddles over and holding them like flagpoles. They announced it was a peaceful visit and waited to be invited to land.

Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis spoke on behalf of the paddlers.

Bob Chamberlin: I ask to come aboard your shores, to walk your lands and celebrate the work that we are doing here today to find a solution to keep our wild salmon alive.

Ernie Campbell: Very proud, very honoured to welcome you to Musqueam territory. We share the same cause.

Sandra: They brought the canoes onto the shore. Now they would walk from the beach to downtown Vancouver — in pouring rain.

Alexandra: When we arrived at the Cohen inquiry, Chief Bob Chamberlin stood in the middle of an intersection and stopped all the traffic and began to drum on a very, very wet drum and sing. When that was done, we turned in. A small group of us got into the elevator and went up to the actual hearing, and we were soaked.

Sandra: It was decided that just 10 people would enter the inquiry room.

Alexandra: And we walked into the commission and the water was just pooling off of us. I felt like we had taken the river with us. Cohen was listening to somebody and there was a map of the Fraser River up on the wall. And I remember looking at that map and going, “Boy, I know what that feels like. I know that place now.”

Sandra: It was quite a scene. Ten people — First Nations in regalia and Alex in her rain pants and jacket — all dripping water onto the floor of the inquiry.

Alexandra: And we stood there silently. And finally [Cohen] turned and he nodded at us and we nodded at him and we left.

Sandra: They weren’t there to speak — that opportunity would come later — but to send a message: This is important. Get it right. We are watching.

Sandra: Welcome to The Salmon People podcast. I’m Sandra Bartlett. This podcast is a co-production with Canada’s National Observer. We are 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. Also, consider giving us a five-star rating and leaving a comment. That helps more people find us. This is Episode 4: The Gamechanger.

Sandra: There had been many studies and conferences and reports over the years, but the Cohen Commission was different. This was the first where there was time and money and judicial authority to try to figure out what was happening with wild salmon. People would testify under oath. Documents going back 20 and 30 years poured into the inquiry office on Justice Cohen’s orders — including information on the salmon farm industry. This review had the potential of unearthing long-ignored facts and maybe a few secrets about how governments had managed the wild salmon fishery.

Sandra: Alex was scheduled to testify. She would talk about her research and the documents submitted to the inquiry by the B.C. and federal governments. As a participant, Alex was given the password to the Cohen database of reports, studies and emails. She was included in the select group of scientists, First Nations, commercial fishermen, government bureaucrats who had access to it. At first, she didn’t think there would be any secrets to find. And there were 500,000 documents — how would she do it?

Alexandra: I was doubtful, and I said to my lawyer, Greg McDade, “Really, half a million documents that we need to look through? There's not going to be anything in there.” And he said, “Are you serious? Oh, yes. Half a million documents. There's going to be a lot in there. Alex, you start looking.”

Sandra: Her plan was to look through the database and put together a report on all the documents she thought the inquiry should pay attention to.

Alexandra: And I spent so much time at my computer. Nine months I had my computer strapped to a walker thing [so] I could get some exercise while I was doing this.

Sandra: Hunched over her makeshift mobile desk, Alex would walk and walk. Reading. Making notes. Trying to control her mounting anger. She knew she had to read or look at every one of the 500,000 documents because once the inquiry was over, they would disappear into a locked database. She was looking for anything about sea lice or diseases on the fish farms.

Alexandra: And sometimes they'd be dead ends, but then suddenly you're fanning out on this whole other series of investigative lines. I really wish that I'd paid attention in the very beginning to my organization of all this data because at the end of it, I was like, “OK, there's not one more thing that can fit in my mind right now. I’m just full.”

Sandra: And her lawyer was right, it wasn’t long before the secrets started surfacing. There were descriptions of hundreds of tests done for the fish farms by the province’s veterinarian Gary Marty. Gary Marty is a fish pathologist at B.C.’s Animal Health Centre. It is B.C.’s lab for animal testing. And even though he worked for the B.C. government, he also did lab work for the fish farms. The test reports Alex found in the files were PCR tests — just like the tests used to confirm COVID infections.

Alexandra: So I've had a lot of conflict with Dr. Gary Marty. But let me tell you, that man is organized. And when he reported all the symptoms he was seeing in the farmed salmon, he did it in such a methodical way.

Sandra: Alex saw correspondence to Gary Marty from the fish farms describing what they were seeing in their Atlantic salmon — cloudy eyes, open sores, bloat, blood in the brain were just some of them.

Alexandra: He cited scientific papers for every symptom that he saw and thought might relate to things like infectious salmon anemia virus, piscine reovirus. He was seeing them. He’s the reason that I went searching for these viruses. And his records were decipherable to somebody like myself, who is not a virologist.

Sandra: In case after case, Gary Marty wrote that he found “classic lesions” associated with ISAV infections. ISAV — I-S-A-V — stands for infectious salmon anemia virus. This virus is a part of the influenza family — think swine flu and avian Flu. And when it is found, all the fish are supposed to be killed. And though he found the lesions, Gary Marty didn’t make a diagnosis of ISAV.

Alexandra: And yet again and again, he kept saying he was seeing these classic lesions. I was a little confused why he didn't resolve whether this was infectious salmon anemia or not because this was kind of important.

Sandra: It was important because ISAV is an internationally reportable disease to the World Organization for Animal Health. So if Gary Marty had diagnosed ISAV or sent the samples to another lab for confirmation of what he was seeing, he would have to report his results. At the inquiry, Gary Marty downplayed his test results.

Gary Marty: ISAV has … never been identified in British Columbia.

Sandra: He said his lab had been testing for it for almost a decade.

Gary: Throughout the audit program, we have tested between 600 and 800 fish every year since 2003 with a highly sensitive and specific PCR test, and those have been all negative. And so that gives me a great deal of confidence that we don't have ISAV in British Columbia.

Sandra: OK, 800 tests sounds like a lot. Let’s unpack that. Each fish farm has about a million fish. During that time period, there were about 120 fish farms, so when they are all active, there could be 30 million fish. Gary Marty said the province did 800 tests a year, so doing the math, he was testing less than half of one per cent. Still, Gary Marty said the tests, spanned out over years, were consistently negative.

Gary: And sometimes the fish farmers … actually just request the tests. The reason they would request the test is to build up a history that we have something that might be considered a suspicious lesion, [but] we've tested for it month after month, year after year [and] it's consistently negative. That is very good evidence to international regulatory bodies that we're testing suspicious lesions [and] they're negative. That gives them a lot of confidence that, indeed, we do not have this virus in British Columbia.

Sandra: Alex wanted to see the details of those tests for herself. But those detailed records were missing. The B.C. government hadn’t sent them in.

Alexandra: And I requested the disease records for the salmon farms because I knew the companies were sending samples to Dr. Gary Marty’s lab. And I wanted to have those records. I wanted to know what was going on in those farms.

Sandra: The B.C. government resisted for a time, but eventually relented under public pressure and gave the inquiry the reports. As Alex continued to look through the document database, she came across bits and pieces of information that painted a different version of events than what Fisheries and Oceans had been saying to her over the years. Whenever she told them about a problem with the wild salmon — sea lice or reported signs of rotting fish in the farms — they would tell her they checked it out and there was nothing going on.

Alexandra: Basically, I realized that DFO had been lying to me and to others for 20 years. They knew how bad this whole thing was — there were emails about sea lice outbreaks in 1995, six years before I found them, and they played dumb like they'd never heard of it.

Sandra: The documents also introduced her to the research of a geneticist who worked for Fisheries and Oceans on Vancouver Island.

Alexandra: And I stumbled on her work a few months into this process.

Sandra: Kristi Miller was using genetics to examine the immune systems of salmon, but her work seemed to be hidden.

Alexandra: Well, when she went and looked at their immune systems — which nobody else was doing, this very new science — she realized that the configuration of the immune system suggested that they were fighting a virus that was causing an infectious form of leukemia.

Sandra: Kristi Miller would be one of the most important witnesses at the inquiry. Her work was groundbreaking and provided critical evidence about what might have caused the 2009 sockeye salmon fishery collapse. But her testimony would reveal how efforts to muzzle her went all the way up to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The inquiry was held in a small modern courtroom in Vancouver. It had none of the gravitas of the old, cavernous courtrooms with wooden church pews we are used to seeing in films and on TV. It had the railing that separated the lawyers and witnesses from the public and a door behind the judge where he came and went, but aside from that, people sat in chairs in what might have been any hotel meeting room. The room could hold about 100 people, but most days, there were only a handful in the audience.

The players making up the scene? Representatives from the federal and provincial governments, First Nations, industry, environmental organizations, scientists and other private citizens. The commission was not meant to find fault — to point a finger at who or what was responsible for the decimation of the Pacific wild salmon. Justice Bruce Cohen was just tasked with trying to figure out what was hurting the wild salmon, why they weren’t coming back to spawn and what might be done to improve conditions.

Sandra: Alex was hoping if she could make her case — that the fish farms were responsible for introducing devastating diseases to the native salmon — then DFO would be mandated to get the fish farms out of the ocean. And it would mean her science, her years of research would be validated, that she couldn’t be dismissed anymore. If she failed? The result could be what’s called a “weak report” — essentially, the inquiry findings being inconclusive. Saying: We’re not sure what is happening, we don’t know if the fish farms have anything to do with the problems. A weak report could mean inaction. Delay. More dead fish. And for Alex, more dead ends.

The witnesses didn’t come up one by one, they testified in their subject group, so there might be two or three or four people being questioned by each of the dozen lawyers. Or maybe just some of the lawyers. The hearing began with witnesses who had written reports at the inquiry’s request. One of the first discussed was a report by a former Fisheries and Oceans scientist Michael Kent. His report was on diseases that could have an impact on Fraser River sockeye salmon. This is Alex’s lawyer, Greg McDade questioning him.

Greg McDade: if I might start with your report, report number 1. As I understand from reading it, you've been away from B.C. for 11 or so years?

Michael Kent: Yeah, 12 years.

Greg: So it was primarily based on published literature and published studies.

Kent: Yes, my report was based on published literature.

Sandra: Michael Kent was with DFO for 10 years, mostly in the 1990s. For his report, he reviewed published science, Fisheries and Oceans documents and interviewed DFO fish scientists. Dr. Kent’s report concluded that diseases were not to blame for the missing fish. Greg McDade represented the Aquaculture Coalition, which included two environmental groups and Alex Morton. He asked about the studies Michael Kent relied on for his report.

Greg McDade: Most of the published studies available on disease are related to diseases on fish farms or hatcheries.

Michael Kent: That's correct, captive fish.

Greg: In particular, your work, for much of your career, is based on … reviewing fish farms and the diseases that affect farmed fish.

Michael: When I was working in British Columbia, most of my work was on working on diseases in hatcheries and in fish farms.

Greg: So, you are primarily an expert in diseases in fish farms. You haven’t really looked at the question of diseases found in fish farms that are transferred to wild fish.

Michael: No, I have not worked too much in that area.

Greg: You haven’t done any original research into the 2009 decline, have you?

Michael: Not directly.

Sandra: Michael Kent had written a report on diseases in fish farms and hatcheries, but that was not what the commission was looking at. The commission was looking at diseases in wild salmon. But there wasn’t much research on wild salmon — a glaring gap. It became apparent Fisheries and Oceans had done very little research on the health of wild salmon. There was another surprising gap in the research. If there is one problem that is a big nuisance for fish farms and wild salmon alike, it’s sea lice. Several times, Michael Kent explained why he hadn’t gone more in-depth or provided more detail or looked at sea lice by saying that was not the mandate he had been given by the inquiry.

Michael: The main disease that has been of most concern in B.C. has been with sea lice and that’s been discussed in a separate report, so I did not give much emphasis to that.

Greg McDade: So, you’re saying the commission told you not to deal with fish farm diseases?

Michael: No, they gave me the OK …they did not say not to deal with the fish farming diseases … not to deal with sea lice.

Greg: Let’s just be clear. You didn’t spend any time studying the role of fish farms in the causation of disease?

Michael: I disagree.

Greg: Did you look at the Fish Health Database?

Michael: I scanned them. They are pretty extensive. I didn’t go through them in all sorts of detail.

Sandra: This was an important oversight considering Michael Kent was asked to report on diseases that could have an impact on wild fish. And sea lice were certainly having an impact on wild fish. Just how much impact was the question.

Professor Larry Dill was first asked by Justice Cohen to write reports on the potential impacts of fish farms on wild salmon. He was a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, just outside Vancouver.

Larry Dill had seen the sea lice problem up close. He went along when a colleague at Simon Fraser University was invited by Alex Morton to go near the fish farms and look at the juvenile salmon swimming by. This is Larry.

Larry Dill: Well, it was pretty striking. But to see these very small pink and some salmon fry loaded with [sea lice] was pretty shocking and it didn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that this was going to be having a pretty negative effect on these fish. The analogy would be like having several dinner plates attached to your body, sucking your blood.

Sandra: Larry understood. Alex was thrilled to have other scientists see what she was seeing.

Larry: And, you know, people weren't listening to her, and … in particular, DFO wasn't listening to her. And when she got some independent scientists to go up there and look at it and confirm what she was seeing, I think I said, “Well, Alex, I think you have reason to be concerned.”

Sandra: Once back in Vancouver, Larry took on a graduate student to work with him on sea lice research. Then he published papers that pointed to a connection between sea lice on farms and sea lice on juvenile salmon. And that in the eyes of industry and government made Larry Dill an activist. And they didn’t want him writing a report for the commission.

Larry: The Cohen Commission wanted to hire someone to write this report, so they put that out there as me. And there is all kinds of negative feedback from the aquaculture industry and probably from DFO, because I already had, you know, gone on record as being pretty negative to aquaculture. So, then they said, “OK, well, why don't we do Don Noakes instead?” And so, when they put Don Noakes’ name forward, then, of course, all the people on the other side of the issue said, “Oh, no, no, no. He's just a paid hack of DFO, so we can't have him do that.” So, in the end, they hired both of us to write alternate reports.

Sandra: Donald Noakes spent almost 20 years at Fisheries and Oceans, including the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. He was there during the ’90s when fish farms were expanding — and when questions about them began. Donald Noakes’ report concluded that salmon farms had no impact on wild salmon.

Greg McDade: Dr. Noakes, you've looked at the material and found that there is no evidence to support any causal or connection between farms and the survival of Fraser sockeye; is that right?

Donald: Yeah, that's basically correct. What I did was I tried to focus on the evidence and minimize any speculation. And looking at all of the information as a whole, I didn't see any evidence. I would be leaning towards acquittal rather than just a finding of not guilty.

Sandra: Fish farms not guilty of hurting wild salmon fit perfectly with what Fisheries and Oceans had been saying for 20 years. And Larry Dill disagreed.

Larry: I believe there is a signal there that tells us that there is a relationship between farm salmon production and the health of wild sockeye. And despite the fact that there is some uncertainty about that, that's what the analysis tells us.

Sandra: Larry pointed out that lack of good data prevented him from saying fish farms contributed to the wild salmon decline, but he said it was also true that he couldn’t say fish farms weren’t part of the problem. He suggested it might be a good idea for Fisheries and Oceans to create a database on fish farm health.

Larry Dill had hit on something that many people wondered about: Why wasn’t DFO collecting data on fish farms and doing studies to find out if disease in fish farms were infecting wild salmon? It’s hard to know if the two reports cancelled each other out in Justice Cohen’s mind, but it definitely shone a light on the gap [in] the science. This became more shocking as witness after witness revealed that the sea lice problem went back a long way.

Stewart Johnson was head of the Aquatic Animal Health Section of DFO’s Pacific Region Science Branch. He supervised staff who investigated or monitored pathogens and diseases. He was questioned by B.C. government lawyer Tara Callan about heavy outbreaks of sea lice in fish farms in the 1990s.

Tara Callan: In your experience with DFO in the 1990s, were you aware of situations in which sea lice, and specifically L. salmonis, infested Atlantic salmon in sea farms?

Stewart Johnson: I can remember one instance where there was a heavy enough lice load on fish in the Sunshine Coast which necessitated the sea lice treatment.

Tara: So it is fair to say that sea lice infestation of farmed Atlantic salmon in the 1990s was fairly common?

Stewart: I would say that in the 1990s, based on my recollection of being able to go to salmon farms to collect sea lice, it was easier to find sea lice on salmon farms … than it is now, because of the use of SLICE treatments.

Sandra: The drug SLICE is the treatment used to kill sea lice. Or it was. The fish farms had to apply to Ottawa for special permission to use it. It was commonly used for a number of years. Then the sea lice became resistant to it.

As more and more government people testified, many watching the inquiry became suspicious that this work wasn’t being done because Fisheries and Oceans did not WANT science that pointed a finger or a fin at the fish farms.

Alexandra: The demise of the Fraser sockeye was due to the salmon farms. That's what the documents said. And furthermore, they indicated that there had been a coverup around some of this.

Sandra: Alex’s lawyer Greg McDade says the thousands of internal documents made it easy to spot the contradictions in testimony.

Greg: So, you'd get a bureaucrat saying one thing and then you could find their own darn document where they said something exactly the opposite in an internal memo. And there were sometimes you'd realize that they would realize: I've just been caught lying. And there's nothing, really, they can do about it and they're mad, they're embarrassed.

Sandra: Greg says it was clear that the government bureaucrats were trying to divert attention away from the fish farms.

Greg: And ultimately, we found in the Cohen Commission that people could concoct all sorts of reasons for why fish were disappearing — from climate change to pollution and to natural predators to all sorts of things. I was surprised at the extent to which the federal and provincial governments actively strived to suppress information. But you know, it wasn't lost on anybody, and I'm sure it wasn't lost on Judge Cohen that [the B.C.] government, the DFO, the federal government [were] actively working on the side of industry and didn't seem to be working on the side of salmon.


Kristi Miller: What I would not have known at the time was whose decision that was. I only learned through the inquiry process that the decision of not allowing me to speak to the press after the Science paper came out, came out of the Privy Council Office


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 Scott Renyard for the Cohen inquiry material. Check out his website, The Green Channel.

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.

The salmon had been returning to the Fraser River for hundreds of years. In 2009, they didn’t. Or barely did. Nine million sockeye salmon were missing. Stephen Harper, prime minister at the time, was not a man known for promoting science, but the catastrophic loss forced him to call an inquiry. For the first time, there would be money, time and people testifying under oath about events leading to the disappearance of the wild salmon.