In 2009, the Fraser River sockeye salmon run collapsed. Only about 1.7 million fish made their way up river – about 10 million less than expected.
The following year, the run was the biggest in nearly 100 years when about 34 million fish swam up the river to their spawning grounds. Still, the 2009 results followed a long trend of declining sockeye returns and they spawned a federal commission into what was happening.
Alexandra Morton, a biologist, is one person who has the answer, and her solution – controlling fish farms – is the subject of the documentary Salmon Confidential that was shown in Revelstoke on June 12.
The screening was hosted by Giles Shearing, a local biologist who was supposed to help Morton with her research by collecting salmon samples from the Shuswap River last summer. “We didn’t do it, because there were no salmon,” Shearing said.
He provided an introduction on what salmon are and what sorts of pressure they face, from climate change to predation to forestry to bad breeding grounds. “It’s easy to vilify, but I think it’s better to look at the complexity of the issue,” he said.
In Salmon Confidential, which was directed by Twyla Roscovich, Morton takes on the salmon farming industry. In the film, she claims that fish from salmon farms along the B.C. coast are spreading disease to wild salmon.
“This is the problem,” she says early on in the film. “This farm is pouring out diseases and pathogens that infect the fish as they swim by.”
Morton looks at the spread of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus, which wiped out salmon farms in Chile. It shows Morton going around examining dozens of dead fish, showing varying states of disease. We see fish that died before spawning, their bellies filled with eggs.
She goes around to supermarkets buying farmed salmon, and she collects samples at sushi restaurants.
She sends test samples off to several labs, which return positive results for finding the ISA virus. She also shows fish she says are infected by piscine reovirus, which can lead to weak hearts that prevent the salmon from reaching their spawning grounds.
The film looks at the muzzling of Canadian government scientists who were researching the decline of salmon stocks. It accuses the Canadian Food Inspection Agency of not reporting findings of ISA in order to protect the salmon farming industry. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is also accused of protecting the industry at the expense of wild salmon. It is mandated both to protect wild salmon and to promote the fish farm industry, Morton notes.
She ends the film by calling for the creation of the “Department of Wild Salmon,” an alliance of groups connected to the wild salmon industry.
The film has been criticized for selectively editing people’s interviews and misrepresenting scientific information. Gary Marty, the fish pathologist for the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, has been highly critical of the film, including his own portrayal. An anonymous blog, using the domain salmonconfidential.com, was set up to counter the documentary. Morton, for her part, has responded to her critics on her own website, alexandramorton.typepad.com.
The Cohen Commission that looked into the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River salmon run, concluded that there were numerous factors at stake, including contaminants in the Fraser River, development along water shores, and climate change. Justice Bruce Cohen, who led the commission, wrote that salmon farms were not having a significant negative impact on Fraser River sockeye numbers. The report made 75 recommendations, which have yet to be adopted.
After the screening, Morton joined us over Skype for a Q&A. She encouraged those in attendance to write to the government to express their concern. She provided an update on her battle against the salmon farming industry, saying she had filed a lawsuit against Marine Harvest and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for allowing the introduction of piscine reovirus into wild salmon.
“If the people of B.C. really want wild salmon, they’re going to have to speak up,” she said, adding that management of the fish farm industry is a federal matter, though the B.C. government has a role by issuing water licenses to the farms.
Mostly, Morton seemed bewildered at the lack of government action on the issue, and exhausted from her fight.
“I have completely given up on DFO,” she said. “If we wait for them to respond, we won’t have any wild fish left.”
You can watch Salmon Confidential online at salmonconfidential.ca.