Alexandra Morton is a great storyteller.
Whenever she tells her stories about salmon farming, she likes to use examples from her experience as semi-factual parables to illustrate her latest anti-aquaculture sermon.
One of her favourites is the Story of Scott Cove Hatchery.
In the Broughton Archipelago, one salmon farm company introduced smolts infected with a strain of furunculosis that proved resistant to all British Columbia-approved antibiotics. Wild Chinook salmon passed the fish farms at the time of the epidemic, and the next year, Chinook stocks collapsed in the adjacent Kingcome Inlet.
She retold this story in the Winter 1998 edition of the “Synthesis/Regeneration” report her Raincoast Research outfit used to publish.
The coho hatchery in the archipelago where I live was disease-free 10 years before fish farms, but now suffers loss of precious broodstock.
When the IBEC corporation put diseased Atlantic salmon in their Broughton pens, the coho returned dying of the same disease. Furunculosis occurs naturally in BC, but the coho of the Broughton were evidently unfamiliar with the strain carried by the Atlantic salmon. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) deemed the farm and hatchery epidemics coincidental, but the farmers steadfastly refuse to reveal what strain infected their fish, so there can be no definitive answer.
Two years later, in 1993, the diseased Atlantics Scanmar put in the Broughton were resistant to all antibiotics used in BC salmon farms. DFO approved a new antibiotic, erythromycin, previously banned in fish destined for market. Again, wild coho died, chinook stocks collapsed and DFO reported another coincidence, even though that was the first year antibiotic resistance appeared in the wild fish.
That same winter, she told this story again in a column published in the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper.
During the past 15 years, a local community-run coho hatchery project rejuvenated 17 creeks. The hatchery was disease-free until, in 1991, it became a sickening barometer of fish farm impact. Just as foreign bodies in our bloodstream threaten us, foreign fish threaten the lifeblood of our coast, our wild salmon.
When the American chicken farm corporation IBEC opened up salmon farming operations here, they mistakenly brought in diseased Scottish salmon in 1991. The disease devastated their own farms and the same bacteria appeared in the returning coho, killing 28 per cent of the hatchery broodstock.
When the Norwegian fish farm corporation Scanmar farmed Atlantic salmon here, a drug-resistant pathogen spread 19 kilometres through primary chinook salmon nursery grounds and infected other B.C. Packers fish farms. The chinook population collapsed instantly and drug resistance made an appearance in the hatchery.
Surprisingly, the agency which has a statuatory obligation to protect marine life, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, refused to identify or track these strains of bacteria from the fish farms. With no supporting evidence, they claimed the hatchery and farm salmon epidemics were unrelated.
This exact same column was published in the Jan. 1999 Bulletin on APEC Marine Conservation.
Dr. Don Noakes, then director of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, submitted a rebuttal.
The first reported disease outbreak at the community-operated hatchery mentioned by Ms. Morton occurred in 1990, 1 year before the industry experienced any problems and 3 years before a drug resistance bacteria problem surfaced in the industry.
The community hatchery began having a problem with drug resistance following the use of oxytetracycline to treat the hatchery fish.
The drug resistance at the hatchery differed significantly from that found in the furunculosis outbreaks in industry, by being resistant only to the one drug used, while bacteria resistant to several drugs were found on the farms.
The disease outbreaks at the community hatchery and the fish farm were therefore disinfected eggs from hatcheries passing strict health checks into approved quarantine facilities. The risk of importing furunculosis or other disease agents under our restrictive import requirements is very low.
Recently, we found some information from the original investigation of the furunculosis outbreak. This information was sent to her by DFO’s director-general for the Pacific region on Dec. 9, 1993. It sheds an interesting light on her furunculosis story, and her claims that drug-resistant strains of were somehow more harmful to wild fish.
We are not aware of any scientific literature indicating that enhanced resistance to antibiotics is correlated with enhanced virulence in bacteria, and on a genetic basis, we would not expect that there would be as the two traits are almost certainly controlled by different genes. Although we have no specific information on the virulence of multiple resistant As (aeromonas salmonicida) we would expect the disease risk to passing wild fish would be similar to that posed by As strains that are not drug resistant.
To address the contention that cross-infection between wild and farmed fish occurs, tests were carried out this spawning season to determine whether the drug-resistant variety of As isolated at the salmon farms was picked up by Kakweikan River pink salmon. The results of that testing proved negative, but did confirm the presence of a non-drug resistant strain of As in a few of the sampled fish.
The letter goes on to describe how drug-resistant strains of bacteria in a population of fish that are not treated would be at a disadvantage, and that DFO salmon enhancement hatcheries have occasionally isolated drug-resistant strains of bacteria. However, the drug-resistant strains did not persist.
Given that furunculosis is enzootic in B.C., that it is usually controllable by antibiotics, and that cross-infection between wild and farmed fish is unlikely, we did not believe there was sufficient reason to close the affected farms.
We also found minutes from a joint meeting between DFO, the provincial environment ministry, and the provincial ministry responsible for agriculture at the time. There is an unfortunate typo in the last paragraph (a “not” is in the last sentence when in context with the rest of the document it clearly does not belong there) but the rest of the minutes show there was no connection between the Scott Cove furunculosis and nearby salmon farm furunculosis outbreaks.
After lengthy discussion, it was generally agreed that the differing antibiotic sensitivity profiles indicated that there was no relationship between the two isolates and hence no relationship between the PIP epizootic [at Scott Cove] and past epizootics in commercial facilities.
Site Erythomycin Romet Tribrissen Scott Cove resistant sensitive sensitive Local Commercial Operations sensitive resistant resistant
This information was made available to Morton way back in 1993, who has clearly continued to ignore it for the past 20 years in favour of storytelling:
She is wrong. Furunculosis from salmon farms did not infect the Scott Cove community hatchery, and the facts prove this. She has just chosen to ignore these facts for the past 20 years.
More fact-checking: Chinook collapse
Morton has made many other claims related to the Story of Scott Cove Hatchery that are wrong and misleading.
Wild Chinook salmon passed the fish farms at the time of the epidemic, and the next year, Chinook stocks collapsed in the adjacent Kingcome Inlet. (Alexandra Morton in the Earth Island Journal, 1996)
No. They did not.
Chinook stocks in the Broughton region have been on a steady downward trend since the mid-1950s. In a 1987 survey of all Chinook and coho stocks from Alaska to California done by NOAA, there were only 6,180 natural (i.e. not from salmon enhancement projects) Chinook spawners identified for the entire Broughton region.
There were only 870 natural spawners identified for Kingcome Inlet in the 1987 survey, done before salmon farming expanded in the region.
Morton knows there was nothing unusual about the Chinook runs in the Broughton during this time period, because she researched it for one of her earliest published and peer-reviewed science papers. In fact, as salmon farm production grew in the Broughton Archipelago to its current levels by 2000, Chinook escapements dramatically increased to levels not even seen before salmon farms showed up.
Morton knows this, it was in her own research paper! Yet in her Facebook post this week, she still claims that “we lost the wild Chinook!” Talk about a selective memory.
More fact-checking: Eggs from Scotland
When the American chicken farm corporation IBEC opened up salmon farming operations here, they mistakenly brought in diseased Scottish salmon in 1991. (Alexandra Morton, Jan. 1999 Bulletin on APEC Marine Conservation)
Rumours held that these Atlantic salmon had come from the Landcatch Hatchery in Scotland, which had also sold fish to Norway sparking a furunculosis epidemic that infected dozens of wild rivers. (Alexandra Morton, Facebook post, Jan. 17, 2013)
The last time BC salmon farmers imported any eggs from Scotland was in 1988. The only eggs imported from outside North America in 1991 came from Ireland.
More fact-checking: Scott Cove Hatchery
It is interesting to note that in the 1987 survey of all Chinook and coho stocks from Alaska to California done by NOAA, Gilford Island (home of the Scott Cove hatchery), is devoid of any natural spawning populations of Chinook, and only 580 naturally spawning coho. The survey also notes there are 0 hatchery facilities on the island for either species. Yet, Morton claimed:
During the past 15 years, a local community-run coho hatchery project rejuvenated 17 creeks. The hatchery was disease-free until, in 1991, it became a sickening barometer of fish farm impact. (Alexandra Morton, Jan. 1999 Bulletin on APEC Marine Conservation)
That’s very interesting, because if she meant that the Scott Cove Hatchery had been in operation for 15 years when she wrote this in 1998, the hatchery would have started in 1983. The NOAA survey in 1987 shows no such hatchery facilities in operation on Gilford Island in 1987.
We found a great column in a box of old files and articles we would like to share here. The column was published in the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper on March 5, 2003, and was written by Michael Moore. Its points still hold true today.
Like all Victorians, I have watched the debate on salmon farms heat up. Unlike most Victorians, I spent five years in the mid-1980s building a family-run salmon farm, and seven years directing a non-profit society focused on sustainable development in marine resource management in the mid-coast.
Our board of directors represented the public, private, academic and native communities. This experience has often led me into debates with strong opposing views, to say the least. I always focus on the underlying premises that salmon farm opponents use to support their positions, and after 20 years, have remained unconvinced that there is a significant danger to the overall coastal ecosystem or society.
If salmon farming is so benign, why is there such broad opposition to it?
There have been four main social groups actively opposing salmon aquaculture:
– The native community, with pending claims on all land and sea around their territory, are logically opposed to any leasing or tenure granted to third parties before their claims are settled. The exception to this is the Klemtu community, which has actively farmed salmon for over a decade. Their recent letter of support in this newspaper was enlightening.
– Fishermen, who see a strong economic competitor to their livelihood in farm-raised fish, have lobbied against it. As hunters, fishermen are not pre-disposed to work with salmon in the setting of cultivation, with its timetables and 24-hour commitments, so there has been very little transference of labour between these groups, and much antagonism. The Broughton area is the heart of the coast’s surviving fishing community, and this is reflected in the current situation.
– Upland owners, who may have enjoyed a small piece of paradise on their property overlooking the sea, find it highly offensive that some business thinks it can fire up an industrial operation in their view shed. This group was active in the initial development period of aquaculture, but mostly solved their problem when farms moved out of the populated Sunshine Coast due to plankton blooms.
– Environmentalists, who lead the charge today. The structure of their opposition greatly parallels the campaign against forestry, a mixture of wildlife protection, anti-corporatism, social justice and political ideology all in opposition to salmon farms. Sports fishermen generally fall into this group as well. Many in this group are high-profile and politically sophisticated.
Even if each of these groups has its own specific reasons for opposition, they create a broad force, and explain why the debate continues.
But consider the following:
Whenever environmentalists tell me they are deeply concerned about the sea lice issue, and that salmon farming should stop because of it, I ask them if the root of their concern is that the sea farms (via the sea lice) are going to kill some wild salmon. Of course it is.
When I ask how many years they have campaigned against the commercial salmon fishery, which intentionally kills millions of salmon every year, I usually get a sudden blank look. Further investigation often reveals that the multi-national corporations that own salmon farms are the real targets, and the mom-and-pop salmon fishery is not seen as a danger to salmon.
Or take the “foreign exotic” issue – the introduction of Atlantic salmon being a threat to the ecosystem, since some will inevitably escapt into the sea, and introduction of unregulated foreign species is inherently high-risk. I always ask if they are equally worried about the 3,000 unregulated species of exotic plants we all have growing in our backyards. These are not making headlines for threatening the collapse of our forests.
I am not saying all fears are unfounded, or that all opposition to salmon aquaculture is hypocritical. I do believe that the charges are greatly amplified by the fear of losing something personally precious — be it a fishing livelihood, tenure over territory, a recreational hobby or freedom from “corporate dominance.”
To the point, the most instructive story I have found is in the history of other industries arriving to the Pacific Northwest. It goes like this:
When the first loggers arrived here, the existing inhabitants — natives and pioneers — just had to put up with it. But when the first cattle farmers arrived, the logging sector lobbied hard to keep them out, as the cattle would “erode the forest watersheds and spread diseases.”
Eventually the cattle industry was established. But 50 years later, when the sheep farmers began to arrive, the forest and cattle sectors lobbied hard to keep them out, as the sheep would “erode the watersheds, and their hoof and mouth disease and barbed wire fences would kill all the wildlife.” Eventually the sheep farming industry was established.
So I tend to see aquaculture as the next group elbowing its seat at the table, and in another 10 or 15 years or so the slamon farming families will be seen as part of the coastal community.
I tent to believe the basic story will always remain the same, however, and some other unfortunate activity will find itself the focus of dark accusations of foul play, and imminent disaster for all who tolerate it. Any volunteers for the black hat?