Last Wednesday, October 24, Drs. Alexandra Morton and Rick Routledge received SFU’s Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. The Sterling award honours work that either challenges complacency and provokes controversy, or contributes to its understanding. According to SFU’s Sterling webpage, “the prize winner is selected for decidedly unconventional and distinctly untraditional work that provokes a wide audience.
“Unconventional and distinctly untraditional
” is an adequate characterization of the work of those two talented scientists. Not so much because of their scientific methods, which follow the rigorous research protocols of modern science, but because of their willingness to challenge the political and economic structure which surrounds science, and too often tampers with it. And because of their ability to use creative and bold tactics to bring on their challenge.
“This is ultimately a political process
”, Dr. Routledge commented on Wednesday night after receiving his award, when a member of the audience asked him what he expected from the soon-to-be-released Cohen Report (i.e. the findings of the Commission inquiring in the decline of the 2009 Fraser sockeye). “I suspect Cohen will write a good report
”, Alex Morton said for her part. “He took some hard lines during his inquiry
”. But she then made the disillusioned comment that Cohen’s report “is only recommendations to Harper
”, implying that there is nothing to expect from it from the practical standpoint of the Pacific wild salmon’s well-being.
“However there are a lot of us
”, Morton added, “and so it will be up to us to follow those recommendations
.” And indeed, one of the recurring questions of that evening had been: what is to be done in the face of the incompetence and collusion of government with the salmon feedlot industry? And Alex Morton’ blunt answer has been that people should take the matter of wild salmon science and preservation in their own hands.
Such a power shift towards people started in October 2011, the two Award
recipients explained. At the Cohen Inquiry, they had both heard “expert witnesses” (such as Dr. Gary Marty of the Province of British Columbia, Christine MacWilliams, DFO fish health and Clare Backman, Marine Harvest) state again and again that they had very high confidence that the ISAv virus was not present in BC, in spite of “classic lesions” of the virus found in fish samples. And so, Rick Routledge explained, he did not expect to find that virus in the wild. But, having observed a dramatic decline of sockeye at Rivers Inlet, Routledge decided to sample some of the fish for the disease anyways.
Five days later, the results came back from the reference lab who has done the testing. Alex Morton recollected that day. “Rick called me and said: Are you sitting down? We tested positive for ISAv, two smolts out of 48 have tested positive. That was quite shocking. This was October, so the opportunity to sample wild fish was rapidly running out
”, she continued. “Lots of people were seeing dead fish floating down the Harrison River. So we went straight there and started sampling. Mostly, to have something to do: it was for my mental well-being as much as for scientific research
The rest, as they say, is History. Alex and fellow salmon worker Anissa Reed started finding ISAv-positive samples in the Harrison right away. People and money started flowing to them. Sampling of wild salmon was carried out by citizens of British Columbia
on a wide scale. We were facing an epidemic. The Cohen Commission, which had closed a few weeks prior, scrambled to reopen for three days to examine the citizen-collected evidence. Meanwhile, DFO and the Province were sitting on their hands busying themselves with ridiculing the people doing the science they should have been doing
And then, at the Cohen Commission came some shocking evidence: that DFO already had positive test results for the ISAv virus, dating back to 2004. The virus had been found in THE most endangered Fraser sockeye stock - the Cultus Lake sockeye. And it had been found in 100% of all sockeye sampled in that location that year.
DFO chose to cover up that finding and never released it to the public. It was a conspiracy to hide critical evidence.
Cohen also revealed that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, instead of attempting to discover the truth about this alleged epidemic as per its mandate, used its resources to wage a PR war against the members of the public who were uncovering the truth with their sampling campaign.
The government responded to this stunningly successful sampling campaign by increasing its repressive apparatus. Morton explained: “I spent nine months reading through the half million documents of the Cohen Commission. But when the ISAv hearings started, I was no longer allowed to read those documents
.” Morton then told the audience about Bill 37, an attempt to make the reporting of disease in salmon a criminal offense in British Columbia, punishable with 2 years in prison and a $70,000 fine. “This bill is still on the roster
”, Morton warned. “If this government stays, this law could pass
The politics surrounding the salmon issue are so powerful that they actually tamper with our children’s hearts and minds, not just with good science. Someone in the audience asked: are you able to bring your message to schools? “No. it’s too political
”, Morton responded. “The feel-good of promoting salmon is appreciated, but this kind of topic that I represent is not wanted in schools, and so I have not been invited to schools to talk about those issues
A few weeks ago, Alexandra Morton made a striking comment during another public address
: “Our wild salmon are dying of politics
”, she said. The relevance of that statement was painfully evident last Wednesday night. Reflecting on the purpose of her Award, Morton said: “I don't actually feel that this salmon disease issue is a true controversy. Abortion would be a true controversy. This rather is a case where what we have found has disturbed an existing trade arrangement. The controversy here is that there is an attempt to protect an economic activity
This is the first time that the Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy has gone to two recipients.