On July 16, Alexandra Morton gave a speech at the Vancouver Yacht Club in front of 200 guests, as part of a fundraising event for her fish sampling campaign. This was not your usual salmon-hugging activist crowd. Rather, they were of the West Point Grey and University Endownment Lands type – the kind that actually gets to vote in Christy Clark’s riding.
I believe that right now, our wild salmon are dying of politics, Morton said at the onset of her presentation. Then she laid out some of the facts that had allowed her to reach such a striking conclusion.
When salmon feedlots first came to my community of Echo Bay I welcomed them, she said. Then we quickly realized that our salmon were disappearing. I was the only person with a word processor in my community, so I wrote letters to DFO, 10,000 pages in total. I kept the post office open in Echo Bay, she joked.
Morton provided her evidence of the link between fish farms and the collapse of wild salmon methodically, as one would do when presenting the results of a police investigation. She gave the facts, the specific locations, the actors involved, the timing of each event using charts of sockeye decline, maps showing specific runs affected, peer-reviewed studies, official correspondence and emails.
She did not hesitate to get into technical details, explaining concepts such as pre-spawn mortality and genomic signature and calling each disease by its proper scientific name, but also knowing when to bring in a lively chart or striking anecdote, so as not to lose her crowd.
In the first years, she explained, scientists could not figure out what was going on with our wild salmon stocks: nothing would fit. DFO did not help them in their work. They were noticing gills in a condition that they had never seen before. Then DFO, which needed to predict future stocks to set up the fishing quotas, asked a research station in Nanaimo, led by Dr. Kristi Miller, to look into the issue. Miller deserves the Order of Canada, Morton commented, because she and her team figured it out by reading the fish’s genomic switches as they were being turned on and off by the disease.
People in attendance at the Yacht Club were attentive, silent, focused. They were listening. Morton knew her audience well. She was giving them facts, only facts, each supported by verifiable and sourced evidence. She kept her feelings and personal comments largely out of her presentation.
Through her genomic sequencing, Morton explained, Dr. Kristi Miller found an epidemic of cancerous disease called plasmacytoid leukemia. DFO knew about that disease early on actually, and even gave it its name. Fish were dying of an immune system deficiency, that's why it was so hard to figure it out.
The location of each wild salmon run provided critical evidence as well. Morton showed a chart and a map of the Georgia Strait, which together showed that the stocks running through the farm-infested Discovery Islands off Campbell River collapsed, while the Harrison run which did not follow that route, thrived.
What did DFO and politicians do with this mounting body of evidence? They buried it. At the Cohen Commission, disturbing indications of a cover-up were revealed. It was shown that in April 2010, Dr. Miller asked her hierarchy at DFO to test fish farms for the genomic signature that she had uncovered. But she was denied, and she was disallowed from that point on to talk to the media, an order which came straight from the Prime Minister’s office in Ottawa. It was also revealed at the Commission that DFO had covered up a finding of ISA positives in sampled sockeye at Cultus Lake, BC – a staggering finding, since 100% of the fish sampled tested positive for the virus.
I thought that tracking a virus was too sophisticated, too complicated, Morton said. But I suggested to Dr. Rick Routledge from SFU that we should try. And then, he found the European strain of the ISA virus at Rivers Inlet, which is like finding it in the middle of nowhere, which meant that potentially it was everywhere.
Here, Morton paused and allowed for a rare personal comment. When Dr. Routledge presented me with the results, she said, it was like talking about the death of a relative.
The Cohen Commission reopened because of those findings, which shows their significance, Morton continued. Internationally renowned scientists, Drs. Nylund, Kibenge, Miller took turns at the Commission to testify that they had found ISA in samples from British Columbia.
Using emails from ministers and DFO officials, Morton showed evidence that DFO’s motivation was trade, not protecting the salmon.
She explained how the industry denied the Provincial government of British Columbia to conduct tests in their farms, but at the same time signed a Memorandum of Understanding among themselves which required that they share disease information… among themselves. And then, suddenly, Morton commented, the industry decided to stop importing salmon eggs into BC altogether…
Morton showed on screen an email from Joseph Beres, an official from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, congratulating colleagues that "we are turning the PR tide to our favour" and that “now we have to nail the surveillance piece, and we will win the war also.”
She told her audience how she went shopping for farmed salmon at supermarkets around the Lower Mainland, and how she immediately found the ISA virus there.
How she tested farmed steelhead from the feedlot in Lois lake on the Sunshine Coast (the so-called “sustainable, family-owned” farm that supermarkets and chain restaurants brag about all around Vancouver). And how those tested positive for Salmon Alphavirus, which causes pancreatic disease.
Morton also told the audience about the latest, hot of-the-press firestorm in the salmon dossier: that farmed salmon had been successfully sequenced for the ISA disease. And sequencing, which is very hard to achieve, is very close to being certain, she explained. After this latest discovery, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said they had not followed up on this finding… even though they knew about those particular tests, since ISA is a reportable disease and the lab was thus required to notify the CFIA. It should have triggered a response, Morton commented soberly, but it did not.
Gregory McDade, Morton’s lawyer and a current board member at Vancity, was a little more blunt than that: he told Morton that this was a cover-up.
Morton also explained how DFO had devised plans to cull infected… wild salmon populations, so as to prevent the diseases from coming back to the farms. That particular revelation produced gasps and laughters of outraged disbelief in the audience.
All they have left to stop me, Morton concluded, is to come up with shocking legislation such as Bill 37, which threatens people with thousands of dollars in fines and two years in jail… for speaking about the disease.
Morton’s conclusion after this staggering presentation of the evidence and its multiple cover-ups: because DFO has to look after trade more than the well-being of wild salmon stocks, it has become irrelevant.
So what do we do about it? she asked the silent audience. And Morton gave us her vision:
In the course of our sampling campaign, she said, we are training all sorts of people to test the salmon. Troller fishermen, activists, local residents, First Nations, etc. I realized, travelling through salmon land, that there is a wealth of knowledge there. And we want to bring those people together.
And so, we have created the Department of Wild Salmon
The purpose of this initiative is to link up all these people, many of whom are working for free because they love the salmon. If we succeed, we will have a workforce far in excess than any government could afford.
And, Morton added, we need to free Miller! We need to free Kristi Miller’s lab, a facility that can test 200 salmon a day for all those viruses. This would allow us to go with a fine tooth comb to find out specifically where wild salmon are being harmed and take this information back to society, so that we could manage ourselves and move out of the salmon's way exactly where it is needed.
We want to build an organization that is viable. We will create a website, give a page on that site to local groups involved in wild salmon sampling. When a funder comes along, we will put them in touch with the groups closest to them and tell them: why don’t you fund those groups near you. First Nations don't trust DFO and want to sample the fish themselves, and so we are telling them what we know about how to do this, we are working together.
Where are the other big NGO players, the big environmental groups? Morton asked. Well, it's too political. I decided to give up a salary years ago, and so I live off handouts. And this is why for me, tonight is so significant. Because you are a significant community to the politicians, you are the business community.
After a thunderous stand-up ovation, the audience present at the Yacht Club responded to Alexandra Morton’s call. They patiently waited in line with their credit cards in hand to make donations, while the volunteers did their best to keep up with the flow, frantically working the iPhone-turned-swipe-machine. We gathered donations in the tens of thousands of dollars that night.