The deadliest threat lies beneath the ocean’s surface.

In sheltered bays up and down British Columbia’s coast, open-pen fish farms have quietly filled the waters with parasites, disease and dead zones. In fall 2016, as a videographer, I was privileged to sail aboard the Martin Sheen RV, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s 80-foot sailing/research vessel, on a month and a half bid to bring global attention to the issue. Independent biologist Dr. Alexandra Morton—the “Jane Goodall of wild salmon”—guided the voyage. Though the expedition began with the goal of scientific sampling for viruses on fish farms, we soon found ourselves amidst a coastal uprising.

 

Morton examines samples collected to scan for piscine reo-virus in wild fish exposed to fish farms. Opening image: Dzawada’enuxw drummer Ernest Alfred on the prow of the Martin Sheen RV en route to Comox on the B.C. Coast.

 

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In the waters of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation, a nexus of science, direct action and indigenous sovereignty found traction as the band occupied farms and served them with eviction notices. The voyage was a reminder that we cannot wait for an environmental epidemic to shake us into action. To lose wild salmon is to lose the heart, lifeblood and backbone of this coast. While science and public opinion are slowly catching up to 30-year old warnings from indigenous nations, it is the responsibility of all of us who live here to make a stand, to cleanse these waters together, a mission whose importance cannot be understated. As Dzawada’enuxw elder Melissa Willie noted upon boarding one farm, “Are we prepared to die for this? The answer is yes.”

 

Owned by Marine Harvest, this salmon farm at Sargeaunt Pass is passed by wild Chinook salmon swimming up Knight’s Inlet to spawn. Resting and feeding here they are exposed to disease and parasites.

Some 130 open-pen salmon farms dot the B.C. coast. Though long-banned in Alaska as a threat to the state’s wild salmon populations, in Canada, governments use taxpayers’ dollars to promote and subsidize Norwegian-owned fish farms which are contributing—along with overfishing—to a gradual dying-out of these iconic fishes. Farms are located within the narrow oceanic pathways used by juvenile Pacific salmon to migrate to open ocean, and by adults returning to their birth rivers to spawn, exposing them to exotic, unfamiliar diseases carried by farmed Atlantic salmon, as well as blood-sucking sea lice.

Farms are located within the narrow oceanic pathways used by juvenile Pacific salmon to migrate to open ocean, and by adults returning to their birth rivers to spawn, exposing them to exotic, unfamiliar diseases carried by farmed Atlantic salmon, as well as blood-sucking sea lice.

As few as 15 per cent of the predicted number of salmon returned to spawning grounds in 2009, and alarmingly low numbers in 2015 led to a salmon-fishing ban on the Fraser River. Biologist Alexandra Morton has been studying the effect of fish farms on wild salmon populations for 28 years, raising the alarm first on sea lice, then on pathogens like piscine reo-virus. In 2016, Sea Sheppard Conservation Society loaned Morton the Martin Sheen RV to assist in her research examining salmon farms for viruses.

 

A juvenile pink salmon from near a salmon farm off Campbell River with a large, gravid female sea louse attached.
Fish predators including seals, sea lions, humpback whales and small sharks are trapped and die in fish farm nets.

In overcrowded “feedlot” pens, lethargic fish school just below a surface where hundreds more lie fins up—sure signs of illness. A diseased salmon farm of a million fish can shed up to 650 billion viral particles per hour. The salmon are machine-fed with antibiotic-laden pellets that also pose a Pavlovian attraction to smaller wild fish like herring, many of which are consumed as they pass into pens to feed on pellet particles. The crew filmed wild herring trapped in pens being eaten by farmed fish—a de facto illegal bycatch. Those that survive may be no better off— eating an unnatural diet, acting abnormally, not migrating. Farms are rumoured to stop the feeding machines to save money when their salmon are feeding on wild fish. In addition, waste from all accumulates on the seafloor beneath pens, creating oxygen-poor, drug-laced dead zones.

 

LEFT: Sponge coral reefs are rare and vital fish habitat protected in B.C. The Martin Sheen crew dove on a previously unknown reef being smothered by a rain of waste released from fish farms. RIGHT: At Cypress Bay fish farm, the crew gets a look inside a “mort tote,” where fish that die on the farms are stored until disposal.

A diseased salmon farm of a million fish can shed up to 650 billion viral particles per hour. The salmon are machine-fed with antibiotic-laden pellets that also pose a Pavlovian attraction to smaller wild fish like herring, many of which are consumed as they pass into pens to feed on pellet particles.

 

With up to 1.5 million fish per farm, farmed Atlantic salmon cluster at the surface of a pen, a behaviour suggesting poor health.

Where other First Nations sign contracts with aquaculture multinationals, the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw have fought back on their traditional territory in the Broughton Archipelago—where one-third of B.C.’s fish farms live—for over 30 years. They’re rightly concerned: in 2015 alone, 39 per cent of juvenile salmon leaving their territory were lost to fish-farm vectored lice. Watching the essence of their lives and ties to the land drain away, they show great leadership in resisting, happily working alongside a Sea Shepherd crew volunteering to help save something of both local and global significance—one of the greatest animal migrations on the planet. “We’re not exceptional, people are fighting everywhere,” notes Morton. “But we’re not fighting for ‘the environment’ anymore—that’s outdated. We’re fighting for our lives.”

 

LEFT: The conflict over farmed salmon on wild salmon divides families. After handing her nephew an eviction notice for a farm on which he works (owned by Mitsubishi) Dzawada’enuxw Fisheries Manager, Melissa Willie, reaches across the divide to give him a hug. RIGHT: A Dzawada’enuxw woman clasps hands with Morton—adopted and named Gwayum’dzi—in a gesture of hope that wild salmon can be saved from extinction.

“We’re not exceptional, people are fighting everywhere,” notes Morton. “But we’re not fighting for ‘the environment’ anymore—that’s outdated. We’re fighting for our lives.”

 

In a display of respect and welcome, the Martin Sheen receives a First Nations escort into Namgis territory, a nation very concerned about the impact of farmed salmon on wild salmon.

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