By Alexandra Morton
On Canada Day (July 1), 30,000 Norwegian Atlantic salmon slipped out of a B.C. fish farm pen and into Pacific waters. It was a calm day and yet the enclosure failed to stop another assault on the wild salmon of B.C.
Worth about $16 each, these fish entered the ocean during one of the biggest tides of the year and were pulled by the fast moving water in directions we cannot predict.
On July 5, and 110 kilometres to the west, an eagle grabbed a salmon in Mitchell Bay on Malcolm Island and was pulled into the water. According to what a fisherman told me, the eagle, determined, resurfaced with the 10-pound fish and brought it to shore; it was an Atlantic salmon.
Two days later, another fisherman in Blackfish Sound said that he had hooked 10-pound salmon, but when it came into the boat he was disturbed: after a long day of fishing with little result, he had caught an Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean.
In 2000, I studied the fate of escaped Atlantic salmon in B.C. Over the course of six weeks, I recorded over 10,000 Atlantic salmon caught in the Johnstone Strait area and I discovered that one-quarter of the farm fish had learned to eat wild food in about three weeks. In doing so, they had easily passed their first and greatest hurdle and stood a chance of surviving into maturity.
One night in 1994, at home in Echo Bay, I overheard a VHF radio conversation between two crab fishermen. They had spent the day fishing the Wakeman River and claimed to have caught and released five Atlantic salmon. I asked if they would take me with them the next day to recover the fish, which they agreed to. Sure enough, we caught Atlantic salmon and, as always, dead fish do talk.
The farm fish were covered in teeth rake marks. Clearly, these were scrappers and had fought with other fish in the river.
In the Atlantic Ocean, there is only one species of salmon. But in B.C.’s Pacific, five species have evolved in tandem to utilize the range of river habitats. Coho shoot far up the steep rivers, chum are found in small streams, sockeye use the lakes, pinks use the small gravel, while Chinook need large stones to make their nests.
Each river has honed its fish like a cutter to a key until fish and river are a perfect fit and have reached maximum yield. While the majority of rivers do not produce their own species of fish, genetic distinctions can help tell a biologist which river a fish came from. It is a system so fecund that continues to inspire a rich culture of art, songs, and stories.
Vancouver should be called City of the Salmon.
Despite the abuses of a major city, salmon have survived. Salmon and human populations have grown and flourished together in North America since the glaciers receded some 10,000 years ago. One of the world’s biggest runs of salmon passes silently between the streets of Vancouver, up the Fraser River. If we worked with this fish we could bring the species back to historic numbers.
But every living system has a breaking point that, again and again, humans have proven determined to find. In my 20 years as a marine biologist, I have tried to bring reason to the fish-farming industry, to no avail. There are solutions such as closed-containment tanks that will not permit escapes or sea lice outbreaks, or removing fish farms form the most active wild-salmon habitats. But as things stand now, we are throwing away a legacy in order to accommodate a couple of big farmers from out of town.
At this point, I believe we do not deserve wild salmon. Invasive species are the leading cause of extinctions worldwide and yet we let this replay here in B.C. Furthermore, right now there is a sea-lice epidemic around fish farms off Campbell River which has a higher sea lice to fish ratio than any previously recorded in B.C.
Every time I find sea lice on a juvenile salmon, I know that that run will never come home. The sockeye infected with sea lice in 2005 failed to return last fall, and this should serve as a warning.
Folks, if you want wild salmon, you are going to have to do something about this. You will have to make it clear to the politicians who are allowing this to happen that this is a crisis; that you will not re-elect them if this economic, social, and biological disaster is allowed to continue.
Alexandra Morton is a member of the Raincoast Research Society and a founding member of Adopt-a-fry.org.