When we first began sailing in British Columbia in 2011, we met many people who talked about how damaging and contentious salmon farming was in the province. They talked about how dangerous salmon farms are to the wild salmon fishery—one of the mainstays of the BC economy. They told us how salmon farms concentrate and then spread sea lice and disease to the wild salmon that migrate by the open pen feedlots, and how escapes threaten the genetic health of indigenous species. We hadn’t known, for example, that salmon farms grow Atlantic salmon to great size in Pacific waters, and that when they escape the open pen nets, as they regularly do, these fish compete with the various varieties of Pacific salmon, not only for food and space, but quite literally, for the future.
One sailor who came aboard to suggest places to visit made a mark on our charts by Echo Bay in the Broughton Archipelago. “That is where Alexandra Morton lives,” he told us as if we should know who she was. We didn’t, so he explained: “She began working up here as a whale researcher, but for the last twenty years, she’s been leading the fight for wild salmon and against the multinational companies who have stocked bays up and down the coast with farmed Atlantic salmon.” He mentioned several of her books to us, and went on to explain that when Alexandra and her neighbours were asked to show the salmon farming companies where existing salmon migration routes and breeding grounds were, rather than avoiding those sites, the companies took advantage of that knowledge to put farms in those spaces, believing they must be good places for salmon.
“They believed salmon farms might be good for their communities in the beginning, but now they know better,” our friend said. “They were betrayed. We’ve all been betrayed on this issue. Now that the wild salmon populations are so obviously disappearing more people seem willing to listen to Alexandra Morton, but we’re afraid it might already be too late.” We listened to such comments with interest, concern, and, we must admit, incomprehension. And when we returned home to Nova Scotia, we continued to eat smoked farmed salmon regularly and with gusto, as if the two weren’t connected.
Then in February of 2012, our world turned upside down. A small article in the provincial newspaper announced that there would be a public hearing in nearby Sheet Harbour about an application for three 18-hectare salmon farm leases in three neighbouring bays. Snow Island Salmon, Inc., the applicant, was said to be a subsidiary of Scottish multinational company, Loch Duart. Hundreds of citizens showed up to ask questions. Many were furious to discover that this meeting would be the only moment in the licensing process where community members were welcomed. A number of people wondered why there wasn’t opportunity for more citizen input; already many people stood up to tell representatives of Snow Island, Loch Duart, and the federal and provincial government bureaucrats there that they did not trust the process; they did not like their tax dollars being used to subsidize fish farming, and they did not want this polluting industry in their coastal waters.
Following that meeting, hundreds of concerned community members got on their computers and began reading scientific papers, government studies and finding out about open pen salmon feedlots. We learned from fisher-people in other communities in the province—St. Mary’s Bay, Shelburne, Jordan Bay, Port Mouton–that no matter what we did, the licenses would be granted. Not one had ever been refused, no matter how damning the environmental studies or likely the damage to existing jobs and industries. Undeterred we formed an organization called the Association for the Preservation of the Eastern Shore (APES) and began to organization scientific and economic information sessions, letter writing and petition campaigns, film screenings, and meetings with politicians. We also began to interface with other communities across the province, the region and the nation facing similar threats. Alexandra Morton responded immediately when we wrote to her with questions. We studied and made extensive use of her blog, her scientific papers, and her connections. We remain astonished by and enormously grateful to her for her unending generosity and helpfulness as we have tried to defend our coasts from the social, cultural and environmental damage wrought by open pen feedlots.
One of our aims for the summer of 2012 was to visit the area where the mainland tilts in closely towards the northern end of Vancouver Island—the Broughton Archipelago—host to huge Norwegian fish farms for twenty or so years now. We wanted to meet with Alex Morton to discuss what was happening in BC, to learn some strategies for self-defence, and to visit alternative fish rearing projects being piloted in a couple of communities, both in-water and on-land closed containment sites. By late June, we were finally in the Broughton, and headed for Alexandra Morton’s home base, Echo Bay.
On July 1st, Canada Day, we set out from Goat Island for Echo Bay with our regalia flying from the rigging and a large wind-ripped Canadian flag on which we had written “take back our country” hung at eye level on a shroud. We followed the instructions for making our way there carefully: head through Spring Passage, up Retreat Passage–beware of Brown Rock, head close to the point and turn, staying close to Isle Point before entering Cramer Passage– to Echo Bay. Many motor yachts passed us, heading to Echo Bay for the Canada Day BBQ at Pierre’s Marina and Lodge, famous for its pig and prime rib roasts. We were glad to see so much activity for a local business, but decided to head towards Shoal Bay and look up Alexandra Morton at her research station there.
Where to anchor? We circled around and around trying to raise Alex without success. Nor did Billy Proctor, her friend, a nearby fisherman and woodsman, reply to our radio calls. Finally we were hailed by an entity called the Salmon Coast Field Station. “Alex doesn’t live here any longer,” the voice said. She is in Sointula.” We introduced ourselves on the VHF: “We are from Nova Scotia, and engaged in the struggle against open pen salmon feedlots on that coast. We’ve had enormous help via the internet from Alex, and were hoping to meet her and see her work at the station.” We were invited to tie up at the dock and come to see the Salmon Coast Field Station.
We tied up at a very substantial dock with a boat house that contains a wet lab; this, we learned, was the starting point for many salmon research trips. Zephyr Polk, a station coordinator, came down to greet us. She lives at the station with a handful of researchers, Coady Webb, co-station co-ordinator, and their daughter, Salix. Coady and Salix were away when we arrived, on vacation on Read Island, Zephyr’s home port.
Within ten minutes of landing, we learned that there was a Maritime connection to this field station in Simoon Sound. Zephyr and Coady had met at St. Francis Xavier University. Coady hailed from Nova Scotia—indeed, he was named after Father Moses Coady, educator and founder of the co-operative movement in Antigonish, Nova Scotia in the 1920s and ‘30s. We had even met Coady’s father, Tom Webb, a professor who taught about cooperative movements at the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. Zephyr, Salix and Coady had joined Alex in May of 2010 on Alex’s Get Out Migration, a 500 kilometre walk down the length of Vancouver Island to the legislature in Victoria. The walk was joined by thousands in protest against the damage fish farms do to wild salmon, the environment and human culture; walkers came from many walks of life and included First Nations and settler communities that have relied for years on wild salmon as nourishment, inspiration and livelihood. After the march, Zephyr, Salix and Coady visited the Salmon Coast Field Station and applied to serve as the coordinators of the enterprise. They had everything necessary to do well–experience living on an island, nearby family, commitment to wild salmon, a degree in biology and aquatic resources, and great enthusiasm – that combination of qualifications doesn’t show up every day.
Zephyr invited us to climb the steps up to the main building of the field station. There we saw the dry lab, and met two more young scientists working on projects. Along one wall, Lauren, a self-described lab rat, was counting sea lice on wild salmon smolts, part of a collaborative project called the Broughton Archipelago Monitoring Plan and designed to bring together industry professionals, independent scientists and government officials. M.J., a Quebecoise transplant, was hunched over another microscope, quantifying phytoplankton density in water samples, in an effort to understand the nutritional carrying capacity of various salmon habitats and migration routes. Then Scott, a former coordinator of the Station, whizzed in on a speed boat with a load of salmon carcasses from a nearby fishing and hunting lodge. She got to work taking samples from the gills, brain, liver, and other organs and cooling them in vials for later testing for a variety of salmon viruses. It was Sunday, Canada Day, and these young women were still hard at work.
It is very isolated in Echo Bay. Whatever residents cannot make, grow, catch or hunt they must somehow acquire—usually by traveling some hours by small launch across Blackfish Sound to Port McNeil for provisions and supplies. We decided that since we would soon head to Port McNeil ourselves in our larger boat, we had more resources to share than the Salmon Field Station probably did. We volunteered to make them dinner, but agreed to carry it up the steps to eat at the larger table on land in their digs. A rapid camaraderie develops when two groups of people from opposite sides of the continent meet to try to stop a destructive action by government and big business; together we dreamed of a national anti open pen aquaculture movement, and brainstormed about how to build it.
We also learned something about the history of the Salmon Coast Field Station. Decades ago, Alexandra Morton had traveled to Echo Bay to research whale language. While there, she met a filmmaker, fell in love, got married and had a child. Then tragedy struck – while she hovered above in a launch with her son, her husband filmed orcas below the water—and then failed to return to the surface. A re-breather had malfunctioned. Alex dove down to find him unresponsive.
She could not, in her grief, bring herself to leave the Broughton Archipelago, which had become her home. She remained on, working as crew for fisherman Billy Proctor, building a house, and continuing whale research until the Norwegians set up salmon farms in her archipelago. At first she thought it might be a good thing for the community economically. Soon everyone realized that this was not the case. The noise and lights used to drive predators away also drove the whales Alex was studying away. The detritus from the pens washed up on every shore. The company hired workers from away who lodged on the farms and not in town. The wild salmon ceased to return to the streams and rivers where they had always spawned. Whale-watching tourism and sports fishing dwindled. Echo Bay, a float-home town of a hundred with a school diminished to eight residents, and the school is now closed.
Alex has devoted the past two decades to scientific research demonstrating the links between the depletion of the wild salmon returns and the 22 open net salmon farms in the Broughton, which are positioned along the migration routes of the wild salmon. She has, in effect, been forced to become a political activist since neither government nor industry will listen to citizens’ observations and experiences or to independent scientific research. Her home became a casual research lab; it was later refurbished and upgraded into the Salmon Coast Field Station with the generous help of benefactor and environmental activist, Sarah Haney.
Now the Salmon Coast Field Station hosts a number of researchers who come to study various aspects of wild salmon health and population dynamics in the Broughton Archipelago. Propose a project with funding and the station will house and feed you. Right now, the station is hosting 10 ongoing studies, from assessments of salmon health to marine mammal studies, investigations of wild and farmed salmon interactions, salmon counts, sea lice studies, and zooplankton dynamics.
The morning after our dinner, M.J. volunteered to guide us over the hill and through the woods to Billy Proctor’s establishment. It was pouring rain; every surface was cedar coloured, damp and slippery. Huge curtains of moss were beaded with water; rain dripped on our heads and down our necks. M.J. carried a bear-banger because the woods were rife with bear and cougar. As we walked, she told us about an evening run on a nearby logging road when she’d been stalked by a cougar. Very terrifying.
We climbed up a steep path over large roots, around enormous red trunks, over rocks and fallen trees; we balanced across a log over a deep hole, jumped from tree trunk to tree trunk; we slipped, slid, slouched through mud, hung onto trees, shook off the water, studied bear and cougar scat, examined long strips where bears had torn bark from the trees in search of insects and sap; then slid greasy red step by muddy step, down into the little cove of Echo Bay, rain streaming from our coats and hoods, water pooling in our boots, Elisabeth gamely keeping pace with us.
We crossed a bridge and walked through an overgrown field where the school and playground lie sorrowfully empty. An abandoned playground and the dozen parked bikes with no more children to ride them have to be among the saddest examples of rural depopulation that we have ever witnessed.
Is this the fault of fish farms, or of the ever greater urbanization of our age?
We are used to that rather silly childhood question, that trick of perspective that asks, if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it does it still make a sound? (Yes, of course it does; sound does not depend on our ears to rumble through the air-waves!) But what of the problem of the disappearance of those natural supports to rural communities, the commons of air and water and trees and fish and game? When witnesses to the ways that these resources are privatized and sold off to multinational corporations to pillage and profiteer disappear, will anyone remember or care or even protest that other ways are possible, imaginable, feasible? Will anyone remember where these places are, or were, and the liveliness they once contained? How will you teach your children and grandchildren to fish or show them the wonder of a breathing, sounding, singing whale if these things aren’t there anymore to be seen or experienced? If species crash all around us and no one notices, the world is indeed a lesser place, and we, we will have lost our grounds for hope, for invention and reinvention, for life.
Karin and Marike