The Salmon Are Going Down

Up on the Broughton Archipelago, off northern Vancouver Island, the whale researcher Alexandra Morton is measuring an extinction.

She has lived there for many years, and knows the waters intimately. She knows that something very terrible is happening, before her eyes.

The juvenile wild salmon that are descending the fresh-water rivers on their way to the sea are being attacked by sea-lice as they pass the fish farms. In some areas up to 96% of the smolts are being killed.

Once they get the lice, they are full of holes, with open sores and bleeding; then they die. "It’s pretty serious – we don’t have a lot of time left to figure this one out.”

Sea lice are natural to these waters, but they don’t have an impact on adult salmon thanks to their scaly armor. It’s the juveniles, less than an inch long with soft skin lacking scales, which are being killed. Without the juveniles, there will soon be no adults.

Normally, adult salmon live far out to sea and never mix with juveniles, so young smolts are never exposed to their sea-lice. Thus it has been for ten million years. But the fish farms, only here since the mid 1980s, are being located on the very channels and inlets where the juvenile salmon must pass.

One wonders if it is deliberate.

The immediate salmon runs at risk are the pink and chum. New data to be published in April by the North American Journal of Fisheries Management shows that infestations have spread to larval herring in the Discovery Islands, to juvenile sockeyes, and to the waters off Campbell River.

Is it happening elsewhere? Nobody is monitoring the situation.

The collapse of juvenile pinks was first reported in 2002. A 2007 study in the journal Science predicted that if the infestations were not curbed, the runs would be extinct within four years.

In May 2007, the BC Special Legislative Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture recommended moving the fish farming industry into closed containment systems within 5 years, to protect the wild salmon. Yet Pat Bell, BC Minister of Agriculture in charge of fish farm siting, has been silent on the report – and has since approved four more open net pen sites.

We are watching a disaster happen right before our eyes. We will see the complete crash of our wild ocean fish populations within 40 years if nothing is done.

In Iceland, open net fish farms have been outlawed on 90% of the coastline. In Norway, where the biggest fish farm corporations are based, 51 fjords are being cleared of salmon farms close to river mouths, and there is a total ban on two fjords.

Norwegian corporations own 90% of the fish farms in BC. In 1991, when a Norwegian Parliamentary Committee visited Ottawa, the MP Jon Lilletun warned us: "We are very strict about the quality and the environment questions. Therefore, some of the fish farmers went to Canada. They said we want bigger fish farms – we can do as we like.”

"Our future generations are going to be so furious with us: they’re not going to believe we squandered something as valuable as the wild salmon.”

– Alexandra Morton

Alexandra Morton writes:

"So here we stand at the edge of extinction. Whether we go over the edge is up to us. Salmon eggs are about to hatch in the Broughton rivers offering life to all around them. Marine Harvest and Mainstream have made their intentions clear: they have restocked their farms in the path of these fish. And their gamble is paying off. Without wild salmon, the corporate fish farmers will own the salmon market .”

"What can be done? Please tell me. I cannot bear to watch the last of these wild salmon destroyed by sea lice through sheer corporate arrogance. Wild salmon are a gift to the entire world. They are the wellspring of our economy and spirit. Our children will curse the names of those who let this happen. And for what … for nothing. What should I do?”

What can we do?

It is our Premier, Gordon Campbell who must be alerted, and awakened to the danger. Is this the legacy he wants to leave, that BC’s salmon and herring fishery was killed off, on his watch?  So first, please write to him:

Rt Hon Premier Campbell, PO Box 9041, Stn Prov Gov, Victoria, BC V8W 9E1. 250-387-1715

Second, please write to your MLA. You can find their contact details here:

But we must go beyond this. Please forward this story to everyone you know. Please pick up the phone and call your MLA. Please ask any organization or business you are part of to write: this concerns every one of us.

Is this the legacy we want to leave, on our watch?

For more information, see: