Well‑known biologist and environmental activist Alexandra Morton brought her salmon‑farming presentation to Grand Manan on October 17, when she spoke to a small audience of about 20 at the Grand Manan Museum. Morton hails from Echo Bay, B.C., a tiny "floating community" on Gilford Island near the north end of Vancouver Island. She was touring Nova Scotia and New Brunswick prior to a speaking engagement at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Morton moved to Echo Bay in 1984 to study killer whales and became well-known for her work there. In 1989 salmon farming became established in the region, and she found the course of her life changing because of community opposition to the large Norwegian enterprises moving in. She had not planned to become involved in the debate, but Echo Bay has no electricity, no phones and "I was the only person in town with a word processor," so she became the person who wrote letters to governments and regulatory agencies. She feels that large salmon farms had a lot to do with the decline of her community. "There were 200 people in Echo Bay. Big salmon moved in, they didn't hire local. ... Now there are eight people who've stayed."
In the 1990s wild sockeye salmon began dying before spawning. Although they were all in the same area, they appeared to be dying of different causes. "It was like a murder mystery," Morton says. In 2001, 90% of the fish were missing, and the salmon fishery was estimated to have suffered a $72 million loss. The decline coincided with the installation of salmon farms on migration routes, and it was found that the dying fish had plasmacytoid leukemia, a retroviral infection that causes cancer in salmon and which had been found in British Columbia farms. Then followed a long debate as to whether infectious salmon anemia (ISA) was also present in the fish. Salmon farms barred access to testing on their sites; Morton resorted to buying fish in grocery stores and testing that. She found ISA and another virus that causes heart failure. With the decline in wild salmon, most of the killer whales also left.
Over the years since, Morton has embarked on various campaigns to draw attention to the problem. She walked 500 kilometres down Vancouver Island, beginning with a handful of colleagues and ending up with 5,000-7,000 supporters. She turned her home into a research station for graduate students and others wishing to study the issue. She trains commercial fishermen, First Nations and environmentalists to do their own testing. She has won awards for her books and her conservation work. She has also run afoul of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the government; a press conference she held with other researchers to report their ISA findings generated a backlash from the minister of fisheries. She's been accused of trying to destroy British Columbia's salmon farming industry.
Morton counters that DFO and the government have hidden positive disease test results and put profit and trade agreements before environmental concerns. "Salmon feedlots break natural laws," she says. "Wild fish are controlled by predators who take out the sick ones, so the population doesn't build up a pathogen load. Politically, B.C. is ISA‑free, but the science says something quite different. There is a complete state of denial that fish farms had anything to do with it.
"Wild salmon are dying of politics. The economic value to communities of wild fish is so huge, nothing can replace them. If we want our wild salmon it's up to us."
A discussion period followed her presentation, and several audience members weighed in. The consensus among those who spoke appeared to be that the water depth around Grand Manan would not be sufficient for the kind of million‑fish farms Morton sees in British Columbia.
It was acknowledged that the industry brings much‑needed jobs to the island. "If we didn't have the aquaculture industry on Grand Manan, most of our kids would be gone [away]," said Bradley Small. The jobs are important, "but it's got to be done right." He suggested farms should be allowed to have a bigger footprint in order to spread the fish out more.
Joey Green spoke in favor of land‑based aquaculture. In the past he and two partners considered an onshore flatfish operation, and his research led him to believe it could be feasible, although a shift in that direction for Grand Manan would likely involve clearing a lot of land. While it would be expensive to set up, he argued that owners would gain by not having to deal with the weather or pay crew for idle time spent steaming to and from sea pens; and water could be filtered and recycled.
Morton Benson believes the industry has improved. He identified himself as the smallest salmon farmer in the Maritimes. "The way we grow fish today is superior" to what it was 20 years ago. There are many more regulations today, but he feels these are pushing small traditional‑fishery processors out of business. There are currently three registered fish processing plants on Grand Manan.
"The amount of knowledge among the people on the ground is impressive," says Alexandra Morton. "But there's something very wrong in Ottawa." She feels that it's up to small communities like Grand Manan to work together to plan a sustainable and environmentally responsible future for the industry. "The government has walked away from us on this."
She notes that there is less of a threat in New Brunswick from very large foreign‑owned farms, compared to British Columbia where "all the small operators are gone." During her tour she also has learned that salmon farming's impact on lobster is more of a concern than its effect on wild salmon. However, she notes that, in all the stories she has heard, "the similarities are greater than the differences" between the two coasts. "The stories I've heard on this coast mirror what we've heard in B.C., about the loss of fisheries," she says. "It was sad to hear about the declines in herring and scallops."
According to Karen Coombs of the Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries, Grand Manan's first salmon site was approved in 1980 at Dark Harbour; the second was in Seal Cove in 1990. There are currently 22 leased sites around the island.