Salmon Confidential: An interview with Morton

Lynsey Kitching

Salmon is one of the most delicious fish to eat and here in BC we are blessed with a natural abundance of wild salmon that make their way through the ocean and the rivers on the coast to reach their spawning grounds.

Unfortunately the numbers of wild salmon here in BC are dying in large quantities, and of the ones who are still making it, many are showing serious signs of disease.

Why is this happening?

Alexandra Morton is a biologist who has dedicated her life to the study of wild salmon and she believes she knows the cause of the wild salmon crisis.

Featured in a recent documentary film created by filmmaker Twyla Roscovich, Morton reveals some very unsettling and frustrating evidence of why the salmon farms should be removed from the migration path of the wild salmon. The film is called Salmon Confidential.

Morton came to BC in1979 to study killer whales. She remembers, “I moved to a remote part of the BC coast in 1984, to study killer whales. The salmon farms moved in, in 1988, and that’s where this began.”

“The first thing I noticed was the killer whales were displaced by the industry. The fish farms began to play loud sounds under water to scare the seals away and the whales left,” says Dr. Morton.

At the time she was running a hatchery in the area and noticed suddenly a quarter of the fish were diseased and dying. Morton says, “The fish farmers at that time lived in the community, and that’s how we found out they had the same diseases on their farms. That’s when I really began to write letters to the DFO and the province. I ended up writing over 10,000 pages of letters because I was so convinced that if I just communicated the problem clearly that they would understand that these things just can’t be on the migration routes of the wild salmon.”

Morton began writing letters to the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) in 1989.

In the film, not only is there evidence and footage showing how the wild salmon are dying in large numbers, but the film also tests salmon found in grocery stores around the province. These fish were tested and many of them tested positive for different viruses, the most important one being ISA.

Could these viruses be transmitted to people through eating the farmed salmon?

Morton says, “My primary understanding is around how it is impacting fish, but people keep asking me about whether it’s impacting people. I don’t really know. My sense of it is that it’s not wholesome,” she says honestly and continues to explain a little about the ISA virus, “The ISA virus is in the influenza family. This family is known to mutate and adapt to new hosts and new situations. The big problem with feed lots is when bacteria or virus, parasites get in, they find themselves in a different set of rules. In the wild, if you are a virus you don’t want to kill your host right off the bat you want a ride for as long as possible. You want to replicate as much as possible without killing your host.”

Morton relates the situation with the salmon to other known viruses that have been transmitted to people. She says, “That was the big scare with the avian flu and the swine flu crossing you get this farm animal situation where it can infect humans,” she continues, “I’m not saying these viruses are there yet, but I don’t want to eat pathogens that have brewed in a feed lot situation because they break all the natural laws. We end up eating things we wouldn’t normally be eating if we were eating wild fish. I would just stick with wild fish.”

Morton explains there are some farms that are on land and people can make that choice because it’s better for the wild salmon but she says, “You’re still eating a feed lot product. A lot of people think the solution is to make the farms go on land, but the problem in BC is we only have three companies that are the big operators.”

Shockingly, 98 percent of industry here in BC is Norwegian companies. The companies are Marine Harvest, Mainstream – parent company Cermaq (largely owned by the Norwegian government) and Greeg Seafoods.

All profits going overseas and the fish in their lots are native to Europe. The majority of the industry is farming Atlantic salmon.

Morton says, “They have been very clear they don’t want to go in a tank. They are the only farmers that never shovel their manure. This is a huge benefit for them. It sinks to the bottom or drifts away. This is commercial feed, entering the primary migration routes of BC’s wild salmon.”

“The trouble with feed lots is the rules change and it no longer matters if you kill your host because there will be another one. If you kill all the hosts it doesn’t matter because they are all dying soon anyways when they get harvested. None of the salmon in the pens have to go through the life cycle.”

Morton uses the analogy of bullies at a camp to explain why the viruses mutate. “They begin to compete with each other. All doing really well, but now they’re getting squeezed out by the other guy, so now they are becoming more virulent. Suddenly the best thing a virus can do in a feed lot is make as many replicates’ of yourself in as short as time as possible. That is called virulence; it is hurting the host more.”

Since the feedlots are simply netting in the middle of the rivers, these viruses are also attacking the wild salmon.

If you have a valuable stock of wild life, you wouldn’t have a cow feed lot dropping their feces right where they feed or drink water. Morton says, “We know not to do that, but when it comes to the water, we pretend we don’t know this.”

The ISA virus was first found in fish coming from Norway and those fisheries were shut down. Morton explains, “When you deal with viruses from Europe in the pacific, there is nothing you can do. If you have these fish pooping and shedding mucus into the water column they have all evolved to spread from fish to fish. If you put 600,000 fish in one place, especially salmon who are meant to move, if you hold them in one place in a narrow channel, that means every salmon that comes in and drinks the water, everything that fish comes into contact with is entering its blood stream. There is no way to stop that if you are using a net.”

Morton has been pleading with the BC Government specifically the DFO for decades and she feels the government is purposely not fixing the problem. She says, “The secrecy seems like a government cover up to me and it’s going on to this day. I’m fighting some really intense battles right now about these kinds of things.”

So what now?

Morton says, “Now, we have a choice we can have these Norwegian feed lots, paying shareholders back in Europe or, we can invest in the wild salmon.”

This is what locals and first nation groups have begun doing. Monitoring and testing wild salmon in a grassroots battle to document everything they see.

Morton explains a new tool which allows them to do this, “We have a pretty amazing tool right now, it is called genomic profiling. What is does is it reads the immune system of a fish. You can pick up a fish anywhere in the Fraser River, read its immune system and find out if it’s struggling with chemicals, temperature, viruses, didn’t feed well you can learn all of this from reading the cells. You don’t even have to kill the fish to do it.”

For those who don’t know, why should we care about the wild salmon?

Morton says, “The relationship between people and wild salmon is really a love story. For First Nations, they have eaten salmon for so long, they actually need it, it’s part of their diet and their physiology, plus they have title and rights to them,” She continues, “There are so many people in this province, hundreds maybe thousands that will work for free every year rescuing, cleaning streams, working in hatcheries, counting fish, raising money for their stream keepers. First nations all have fishery managers and devoting funds. If we were to unite all of these efforts, we can go back to society and say we are losing 60 percent here, 10 percent there, 75 percent here. We think that if we did this we would get the fish back, I think society would say yeah, let’s figure that out. What is happening now is we are just blundering around, doing the politically easy thing, but it’s not necessarily what the fish need. Getting salmon farms off the migration routes is something they need.”

Morton explains what she thinks is going on with DFO research, “The DFO thought the fish were dying because they were running out of energy, there wasn’t enough food in the ocean. All of the indicators said virus. This was very surprising, as soon as that happened the DFO closed down the scientist, Christy Miller, when really; this woman deserves the order of Canada. She figured it out, stood strong, continues with her work and is now involved in a program with Genome BC, which is very exciting. But it’s unfortunately going to take a long time to get results.”

In a message to government Morton says, “We need to let the governments know that it is very important we pass these fish on to the next generation. It is very greedy to go for short term gain. There are very few jobs in this industry because it is very mechanized. Trying to deal with this issues and everybody runs and hides. For some reason everyone is afraid of dealing with the salmon farms, it’s frightening.”

What can the public do to help?

Morton says with a sense of desperation, “The only hope I see is if people really lean on their leaders, the NDP, the green party, the liberals, whoever you want to vote for, you gotta get rid of this dirty, nasty industry because it’s just not working for us. People forget they are powerful in that way, the power of one is all we have, but we all have it.”

Morton finishes off our interview with a memorable quote, “We have the power to change things for the better.”

The DFO’s perspective will be offered in next week’s issue.

To view the film free online visit