The Salmon People

Episode 2
August 9th 2022

The Gold Rush

Read the transcript

Sandra Bartlett: If you take a boat along the coast of northern British Columbia, you’ll see towering deciduous trees and snow-capped peaks, small islands, big islands, and scattered throughout it all … fish farms. Dozens of them.

Alexandra Morton: When I first saw the first one go by behind a little tugboat, my first thought was good idea, relief for the wild fish, But they turned out to be the storm.

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 this 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 2: The Gold Rush.

Music out

Sandra: Back in 2001, as Alex stood on her dock trying to figure out if she was going to be arrested for hauling in the sample smolts covered in sea lice, she knew almost nothing about fish farms and how they operate. But she remembers being told they were coming. Everyone along the coastline between Vancouver Island and the mainland received an invitation in the 1980s from the B.C. government to come to a meeting about this new industry. Gatherings were held up and down the coast. The government said it wanted community help in deciding where to place the fish farms.

Alexandra: Well, I trusted government at that time. And I felt it was very important to give them as much information as we could so that they could make the right decisions. They told us that they were not going to put the salmon farms where we didn't want them.

Sandra: Many people — especially the commercial fishermen — were suspicious.

Alexandra: They do not want to tell strangers, or particularly the government, about where the best fishing spots are.

Bill Mackay: And we were asked by both the feds and the provincial bureaucrats where would be the best place to place these fish farms or put your finger exactly where you think they should not go. And so we did that.

Sandra: That’s Bill. Bill and Donna Mackay are the couple who took Alex in after her first husband died. They run a tour boat company in Port McNeill, taking tourists out to see the whales. So they know where the whales gather to eat, where the salmon congregate. And they were happy to tell the government which areas to keep the fish farms away from.

Bill: We're not biologists, but we certainly understood that there were areas where the prawn-fishing fleet would be working, the crab fishers, the commercial vein fishers, the gill netters, where we like to go and observe wildlife such as orcas …

Alexandra: And I was telling them, “This is where the whales go” and other people were saying, “These are the important places for the kayak industry, where people are camping on the beaches and obviously, we don't want an industrial industry in front of them.”

Sandra: Tourism is the life blood of B.C. And international visitors are a big part of that — more than six million a year. They provide a large part of the income for lodge owners, fishing charters and whale tours. Bill Mackay has an international clientele.

Bill: Put your finger anywhere on the planet. They've come from there. From the very beginning when we started this, I was just astounded asking people where they would come from … why are you here? And they just simply say, “Because we don't have this at home.”

Alexandra: The problem was the farms, the salmon farms, wanted to be in the places where wild fish were.

Sandra: The fish farms wanted locations where the water currents would provide a flow of fresh water and sweep away the fish waste.

Alexandra: And so after that meeting, a few months later, we all received a glossy foldout and there was a big map of the Broughton Archipelago. And it was all the water was either yellow, green or red, and the green zones were where fin-fish aquaculture would be encouraged and applications for licences would be accepted. The yellow was these are places where we're going to have to do more work, sort of like go with caution. But the definition of the red zone was that they would not accept even an application for a fin-fish farm in the red zones. Well, I could see from this map that there were already farms in the red zones.

Bill: We were seeing the pattern. Both provincial and federal had actually put

these sites right where we said it was not a great idea.

Sandra: It turned out that every company or individual who applied for and got a licence before the coloured zones were created could choose any location. Then, they were grandfathered in even after the new regulations came into force. From the beginning, it seemed like the fish farms were running the show. The government was just along to make sure the road to success was smooth and barrier-free. That became abundantly clear with a task force report on developing the industry.

The federal task force presented its report in 1984 in a penthouse ballroom of a Vancouver hotel. The majority of the task force members were from industry. Like member David Saxby, who said they had to move fast or “lose a commercial and employment opportunity.” It was too late for the biologists and fish people in the audience to raise their concerns because the message of the report — speed was of the essence. So it was a done deal. Fish farms were coming and the task force report provided the road map. And the road map included government loans, operating grants and even a plan to give ownership of the ocean around the farms to the fish farmers.

That was a stunner. It seemed someone had forgotten that rivers and lakes and oceans within Canada belong to all Canadians. No one person or business can own them. In addition to turning over Canada’s waters to the fish farm industry, the plan would also gut First Nations land rights — rights that in 1973, the Supreme Court of Canada forced Ottawa to acknowledge. But at this meeting, no one in government or industry blinked at the idea of turning over this resource to the fish farms.

After the task force presentation in Vancouver, things moved fast. It seemed that everybody was applying for a fish farm licence. It wasn’t just that the fish farms were setting up shop in the best fishing areas, it was that so many wanted to set up shop.

Bill Mackay remembers his whale boat being hired to take investors out to see the early fish farms.

Bill: It almost reminded me of a gold rush. They needed investors to invest in the industry and that it was a safe investment. Right up to one of the Rockefellers, for goodness sake, came up from Florida. And were looking at making some kind of major investment in these systems here.

Sandra: Within months, leases had been approved for 55 sites and 38 more applications were waiting for approval. The newspaper, The Fisherman, reported that most licences were approved within 24 hours. It reported that only 10 of the companies had been around for more than a year. And many of them were foreign investors. Alex Morton watched as the gold rush moved towards Echo Bay.

Alexandra: This was the beginning of the understanding of the betrayal of public trust that

was going down here. The industry was applying for every single day they might even

possibly want, and they had to advertise these in our local newspaper, the North Island

Gazette. And so we saw them. And every week, there was two or three of these applications. They were applying for bays that we lived in, had our float houses tied.

Sandra: By 1990, there were 150 fish farms operating along the coast. One government official pointed out that many of the potential fish farmers had no idea how to operate one. That lack of knowledge about running a fish farm led to a lot of dead fish. Bill Mackay also had commercial divers and soon his crew was hired by the fish farm insurance companies. His four divers would go under the fish farm pens and clean out the dead fish.

Bill: Dove in. Wow, there was death everywhere. It was just horrendous. And I would make sure that the divers at the end of the day would log exactly what they saw, how many fish they would put out of each of the pen systems. And the numbers were staggering. I mean, into 40 to 50, 60 per cent … almost 60 per cent mortality.

Sandra: But industry kept moving forward. Smaller fish farms sold their licences to bigger farms and the bigger farms eventually sold out to multinational corporations — mostly from Norway. As early as August of 1985, The Fisherman ran an editorial titled, Fish Farms: A bad idea getting worse.

Fisherman newspaper: More recently, the DFO allowed a foreign corporation to import Atlantic salmon eggs to B.C., without any discussion with the rest of the industry. No matter how you see it, the introduction of a new species involves the risk of spreading new diseases. Shouldn’t the decision which increases the disease risk to wild stocks be taken in

consultation with the people who depend on the resource to live?

Sandra: It seemed that Pacific salmon didn’t take to being in cages. They weren’t happy spending their lives in captivity.

So, the fish farms switched from Pacific Salmon to Atlantic salmon — a non-native species. Then there were reports of sewage coming out of the farms into local waters and reports that antibiotic-resistant bacteria was developing because of the drugs used in fish feed to keep diseases in check. Suddenly, the locals realized fish farms were just ocean feedlots with crowded pens, stressful living conditions — a breeding ground for diseases.

Fisherman newspaper: Sunshine coast residents … learned that environmental impacts of salmon farms include: sewage equal to the annual production of a town of 4,000 from a

five-acre salmon farm.”

Sandra: And soon — on top of the conditions the salmon were living – and dying in

and the mounting threats to the local ecosystem — another tension was added to the pile.

The Fisherman ran an editorial asking a question that never seems to have occurred

to the B.C. and federal governments.

Fisherman newspaper: Can fishermen, fish farms co-exist?

Sandra: More and more people, including the commercial fishermen’s union, demanded

a moratorium on new fish farm licences. On Halloween 1986, B.C.’s newly elected premier, Bill Vander Zalm, gave in and announced a moratorium. He didn’t call a news conference, he just made his decision known through a handwritten note.

The fish farm industry was pissed. It called the decision “sheer lunacy” and demanded a meeting with Premier Bill Vander Zalm. A local weekly, the Press, slammed commercial fishermen by describing them as, quote: “As people employed in seasonal work that puts them on unemployment for much of the year, while fish farmers are employed year-round.”

The moratorium gave a breather from new farms, but commercial fishermen were still upset at having their best fishing spots taken over by fish farms.

One of Alex Morton’s neighbours asked her to write to Fisheries and Oceans — DFO.

She wrote the letter, but the response she got was classic government runaround.

Alexandra: And DFO, the federal agency, they are in charge of what happens to salmon and to whales and everything that lives in the marine environment. And so it was you would write to DFO and you'd say this impact is happening and they would say, “Yes, OK, but it's the Ministry of Agriculture that are issuing the licences. And then you write to the Ministry of Agriculture and they say, “Well, it's the Ministry of Environment and DFO who are making sure that when we write these licences that they're not having any impact. And then you write to those other agencies and you just go round in the circle.

Sandra: At this point, Alex was helping the fishermen, writing their letters without really thinking about the fish farms. Writing letters was just a side activity — whales were her job. One day, she watched a group of orcas swimming with their heads out of the water. Orcas don’t swim above water. They swim below and just come up for air.

Alexandra: And I dropped my hydrophones. And immediately when I turned on the tape recorder, the needle just slammed into the red zone and just stayed there. I thought the tape recorder was malfunctioning and so I turned it off, but as soon as I did that, I realized I could hear the noise through the hull of the boat. And it was like this huge cricket noise. And I had no idea what it was. And the whales cruised past with their ears out of the water and took off and never, ever came back. Like never. And it took me a while to track down what it was, but it turned out to be these acoustic harassment devices playing at 198 decibels, which is the same as a jet at takeoff. They were to create pain in the ears of the seals and, in that way, you know, prevent the seals from getting too close.

Sandra: Seals can be a big problem for the fish farms. They depend on high-fat food like salmon.

Alexandra: These animals were built to pursue salmon. And so that's what they do. And they don't care whether the salmon is in a net or not. The seals were attracted to all those juicy salmon on the other side of the fish farm nets. And they were pretty successful at pulling fish through the nets.

Sandra: Industry’s first solution was to shoot the seals. Each fish farm had to get what’s called a nuisance seal permit from Fisheries and Oceans to do that.

Alexandra: And I had the experience of sitting there for hours recording

whales and hearing gunfire coming from various sides of me because they were shooting these seals.

Sandra: This isn’t as common anymore.

Alexandra: Now it's quite a procedure. They have to get a, you know, an actual permit to do it. And it's a problem for the industry because the United States doesn't want seafood sold in the United States that required shooting any marine mammal.

Sandra: But even back when they could be shot, there were always more seals to come after the fish. So that’s when the farms tried something else — loud acoustic devices. But that deafened them.

Alexandra: Seals are normally pretty cagey animals, but suddenly, seals were popping up, like, right in front of our boats, like they had no idea we were there, and they would see us and completely just freak out.

Sandra: And the noise didn’t stop the seals from finding their way to the fish farms. But the whales — the whales couldn’t stand the noise.

Alexandra: And when I began to realize that these whales were not coming back, which, of course, you don't know on the first day or even the first week and on and on. It was the first thing that I really was able to notice that the fish farmers got away with. So then it became personal. It became about an animal that I was studying but also that I had a great fondness for these whales.

Sandra: For a time, Alex thought about leaving. Accepting defeat. Following the whales to Alaska.

Alexandra: I began to feel embarrassed that I stayed because I was a whale researcher and there were no whales. But I was home. This was my home now. My son was in school. I had figured out how to live there. But I also thought back to the situation with Corky. I had bailed on that situation, I knew it was wrong.

Sandra: She felt guilty about leaving Marineland in California. Leaving Corky.

But now here in their B.C. home, she was faced with dozens of orcas at risk.

Alexandra: And here I was in a similar situation, in that something very bad was happening, it was being done by people. And did I just walk away from it or did I try to change it and restore the place so that the whales could come back?

Sandra: So. It’s that day, in the summer of 2001. Alex had told Fisheries and Oceans there was a problem with the salmon smolts. A representative from the department had asked her to go get some smolts and send them to their office. But then a fisheries officer showed up at her door suggesting she could be charged with poaching.

Alexandra: It felt like a setup. It had to be a setup. It had to be a setup. I mean, the person

who asked me must have known I would have needed a scientific licence.

Sandra: Still, Alex thought if she provided Fisheries and Oceans with evidence from different areas of the coast, the agency would realize there was a developing problem. So she applied for that research licence and spent the summer out in her boat catching salmon smolts and looking for sea lice.

As Alex moved around in her boat, it dawned on her that there must be some connection with the fish farms. The smolt were dying near the fish farms. By the end of the summer, Alex had examined 751 salmon and counted the lice on them. There was an average of five lice per smolt but, many had dozens — she counted 69 on one.

Despite what had happened with the fisheries officer, Alex was still optimistic that if

she got the data, the department of fisheries and oceans would be interested.

Alexandra: It's hard to even remember back to being at all naive about the intentions of DFO, but I really thought that if I did the science for them, that they would make the changes that would protect the wild salmon.

Sandra: A fellow whale scientist who was a statistician did the data analysis and in 2003, they published a paper on Alex’s findings. This was the first study to count sea lice on juvenile salmon. And to examine salmon as they were swimming past the fish farms.

Alexandra: And I was not thinking about removing the industry at the time. I was thinking about moving it over to get it off of the major migration route where the juvenile salmon were the smallest.

Sandra: With the help of some environmental groups, Alex managed to get a bit of media attention for her work. And that prompted Fisheries and Oceans to take a look. The problem was the DFO went out in a large boat using a big net that the tiny smolts could swim through. The DFO boat did manage to get seven juvenile fish and said they saw no problems with these fish.

Alex felt Fisheries and Oceans was dismissing her research and her published paper. And she wasn’t alone in thinking that.

Rick Routledge remembers being at a meeting with Fisheries and Oceans people

who were talking about Alex’s work.

Rick Routledge: The personnel in the department were attacking her credibility because she didn't have a graduate degree in scientific research. By that time, I knew enough about her to know that she was one smart lady who was perfectly capable of doing the kind of science she was doing.

Sandra: Rick offered to work with her.

Rick: And so I talked to her after the meeting and said, “Look, Alex, if it'll help you, I'll analyze your data because I'm a statistician, amongst other things, and you can put my name on the paper and you can use my PhD as credibility and I'll back you up.

Sandra: Rick Routledge was a fish population statistician and biologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He’s now retired. He taught classes in environmental science and has published dozens of research papers. And over the years, was a member of several reviews about the health of wild salmon. And he could tell that Alex was on to something.

At the time, Alex was still living in Echo Bay. She had remarried. She describes the dating as Echo Bay-style. She got a phone call from Eric, a man she had known casually from his summer visits to the area.

Alexandra: He had a big, old tugboat called the Gabriola and he phoned me up one day. He was a log salvager and he asked if he could tie his logs to my float. And out in Echo Bay, that's basically asking you for a date. So that's how it goes out there. Well, there's lots of places to tie your logs. You didn't need to tie them to my float, but he was very handsome And so we met and fell in love. And yeah, he eventually tied his boat to my float (laughs) and stayed.

Sandra: And she had another child, a daughter.

Alexandra: But then I had this fabulously adorable daughter who was out with whales when she was five days old. And yeah, it was very, very wonderful to have a little baby again. I loved being a mom.

Sandra: Alex was excited to work with another scientist. She asked Rick for help in designing a study to determine how many lice it took to kill a smolt. Research done in Scotland and Norway showed that just one louse could kill a juvenile salmon. Her idea was to go low-cost and low-tech. Everybody pitched in — including her new husband.

Alexandra: So I got my partner to make this series of barrels, these plastic barrels. And he put netting over the ends of the barrels and cut out part of the side and it became a lid.

Sandra: Alex went out and caught juvenile salmon and sorted them into barrels

according to the number of sea lice on them. Sixty fish went into each barrel. They were fed for just over a month.

Alexandra: And then I put those barrels … I tied them to my float. And I did that whole set-up three times. And in the first barrel, I only put fish that had no lice. In the second barrel, I put fish with one louse, and the third barrel, two lice, and so on.

Rick: I came up to have a firsthand look at it so I wouldn't just be analyzing a bunch of numbers that didn't come with an actual image about what these fish looked like.

Alexandra: And every morning, we’d go around, open the barrels and just see how many fish were alive and how many fish were dead and feed each group of fish exactly the same. The trick was to treat the fish exactly the same. And my daughter would look in and say, “Mommy, there's a deady.” Of course, the deadies were the fish that had died of lice.

Sandra: The fish without lice grew fast and were set free at the end of each trial — but if only one louse remained attached long enough to become an adult, the fish died.

Rick: And those results, they were overwhelmingly significant. We found very convincing evidence that the presence of one immature louse on a fish would cause, by itself, a huge increase in the probability that fish would die within the next month or two.

Alexandra: Another researcher, Marty Krkosek, was a PhD candidate at the time. He also redid my study, but he did it in a different way — with more fish, more effort — and he got the same result that I got.

Sandra: The Department of Fisheries and Oceans ignored it. A department scientist said his study showed a smolt could withstand seven lice.

Alexandra: That was such a difficult time because I just, you know, I definitely got a twitch under my eye, was waking up in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh, I should put this in a letter. I should write to this guy or I should copy the letter to this person. My mind was just in overdrive to stop this because I could see a whole generation of wild salmon was going down.

Sandra: Then a miracle. A scientist at DFO heard about her work and wanted to see for himself.

Brian Riddell: She was under lots of criticism. And I went up as a member of the council to really see what it was that she was observing. And, you know, were her samples credible in a sense because we were certainly defending her position at the time.

Sandra: Biologist Brian Riddell was on a secondment to the Pacific Fisheries Resource

Conservation Council. It’s an independent council created by the B.C. and federal
governments to monitor the health of B.C.'s wild salmon. For the moment, Riddell was

freed from DFO oversight.

Alexandra: I got a message that he wanted to come up to the Broughton to take a look at these fish. I was thrilled. To have somebody from DFO, a senior scientist, say he actually wanted to look at the fish was fabulous. I invited him up to my place. I took him out on my boat. I could hear him talking under his breath and he was saying, “Tthis just isn't right. This is not right, this is not right.”

Brian: We were seeing small fish with seven, eight, nine varieties of sea lice on them and they were not healthy. There was no way they were going to survive.

Sandra: Brian brought a colleague from Fisheries and Oceans with him.

Brian: I took a biologist up with me who worked for me directly before I went and took the secondment, And when she went back, she reported that she hadn't really seen a major problem.

Sandra: Brian thought the biologist’s analysis was crazy but typical of the thinking in the agency at the time — no one wanted to see the problem.

Brian: And so, from the very, very beginning, Alex was up against this sort of bipolar debate: that it is a problem, it isn't a problem. And so it's been that conflict from the very, very beginning.

Sandra: Alex was surprised when a few weeks later, Brian arranged a meeting.

Alexandra: There was a meeting called in Campbell River. And I was invited and Brian Riddell was going to chair the meeting and DFO was there.

Sandra: Brian called the meeting to talk about sea lice on juvenile wild salmon. Alex spent hours preparing for it. And during the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Campbell River, she rehearsed over and over again what she would say at the meeting.

Alexandra: Oh, I was totally in fight mode, but I was going to fight with information. I had my data and I had coloured charts and I was going to lay it all out.

Sandra: This was her big chance to show them her evidence. And she was ready to

demonstrate just how devastating even one louse could be on a juvenile salmon.

Alexandra: I get to the meeting and the meeting starts and Brian Riddell opens the meeting and he says, “Well, I think we should just take all the salmon farms out of the Broughton for one year and see what happens.” (Laughs.) I just remember the feeling of the internal brakes going on in my brain and the shock and feeling like I don't even know if I can stay in my chair. I was so unbalanced.

Sandra: Brian’s suggestion went over like a bomb among the federal and provincial bureaucrats and the industry.

Alexandra: And, of course, the fish farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture pushed back.

Sandra: But Brian put it to them that it was the perfect test to see what effect the salmon farms were having on the wild fish.

Brian: Why don't we follow the Broughton Archipelago for a year and see if you stop the transmission, does that stop the concern on the wild salmon? So you would have a direct link.

Alexandra: And in the end, Brian said, “Well, what we're going to do is we're going to follow the major migration route for the pink salmon and Alex is going to pick that route.” I did pick the route and the fish farmers played with it.

Brian: There was a lot of pushback. We couldn't do it everywhere all at once. So essentially, the main passage area for juvenile pink and chum, they were followed. So all those farms … weren't removed, they were just emptied.

Sandra: The results were astonishing. In the spring of 2003, the salmon smolts swam by the empty farms towards the ocean — and they had no lice on them. Not even one. For Alex and Brian, it couldn’t have been more clear.

Brian: And that did drop the infection down to almost nothing. And that was the first direct evidence that clearly the source of the sea lice is from the farms.

Sandra: But industry and government didn’t believe it. Or didn’t want to. Brian’s colleagues in government were angry with his experiment.

Brian: You know one of my most memorable experiences I had in those early years? I had someone who I described as a good friend just ranting at me over the phone about how could I say such a thing.

Sandra: Brian says this was a very senior manager in the B.C. government and typical of the thinking at the time.

Brian: People just simply didn't want to acknowledge that this industry that they were supporting had a risk... I think most people didn’t expect to see the sea lice effect to the magnitude that it was. There was no other source. It was very, very clearly the farms.

Sandra: For more than a decade, government and industry dismissed every study that showed a connection between the fish farms and the juvenile salmon swimming by. That is publicly. But in fact, bureaucrats had been anticipating problems like sea lice for a decade.

In 1990, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans manager warned in an internal memo that fish farms would eventually introduce exotic diseases that could damage the wild salmon and devastate the economy that relied on the wild fish. That economy was commercial fishing, fishing lodges, whale tours.

A year later, a DFO veterinarian wrote a memo confirming there was a big risk to wild

salmon from the importation of Atlantic salmon eggs for the fish farms. The eggs

might be diseased and pass it on to the wild salmon. These memos were kept quiet

until they were released under a Freedom of Information request. In public, DFO

scientists like Dick Beamish continued to insist that fish farms were not a threat to

wild salmon.

Sandra: Alex and Brian Riddell wanted to repeat the experiment. Keep the farms empty and see what happened the next year. Maybe the first year was a fluke. But industry was against it, the B.C. government wasn’t interested. And even as an insider, Brian couldn’t get DFO to support a repeat.

Brian: But I mean, it was such a graphic example of what the cause was, and what you had to do to remove the impact, that the industry would certainly push back harder a second time in the sense that they were clearly the guilty party.

Sandra: There was a small win out of the experiment — the B.C. government ordered the fish farms to monitor and report sea lice numbers. And it set a limit of three sea lice on a farmed fish. Any more and the fish farms have to treat the fish to get rid of the sea lice. But that wasn’t much comfort for Alex since it takes one louse to kill a smolt. She knew the salmon her precious whales relied on were going down and no one was moving to stop it. What began as a favour to her neighbours — to investigate the problem — now took up every waking moment. And there wasn’t much room left for her husband, Eric.

Alexandra: I just poured myself into that research. And I think that for Eric was just too

much. You know,I was angry all the time. I was upset at what was going on, I was upset that the salmon were being killed off and I just wasn't a great partner anymore. And so we

decided to split.

Sandra: Alex decided if she was going to save the salmon with facts, then she was going to need an army of researchers. And that’s exactly what she set out to create. She called it Camp Sea Lice, with Echo Bay as her base. That’s next time on The Salmon People.


The Salmon People podcast is researched, written and produced by 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 Bernie McNamee for being the voice of The Fishermen newspaper. 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.

If you take a boat along the coast of northern British Columbia, you’ll see towering deciduous trees and snow-capped peaks, small islands, big islands and scattered throughout it all … fish farms. Dozens of them. Alexandra Morton remembers their arrival — remembers the Gold Rush when anyone who wanted a fish farm license got one. And she remembers how the government tricked coastal people into pointing out the best wild salmon habitat.