Eco-Activism 101: Not on My Watch

Not on My Watch: How a Renegade Whale Biologist Took on Governments and Industry to Save Wild Salmon by Alexandra Morton

Guest book review by Gene Helfman.

A colleague of mine, a federal agency biologist, finishes his emails with, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Alexandra Morton has been outraged for decades. Not only has she paid attention, she’s done something about it.

Morton is first and foremost a meticulous researcher, an unsurpassed observer of the natural world with an analytic mind and unquenchable thirst to understand how things work.  In Not on My Watch, shechronicles her three-decade-long battle against the salmon farming industry in British Columbia. As in earlier books, she explains in clear, concise, often evocative prose how the scientific method, activism, and alliance with Indigenous groups can achieve positive change.

Early on, Morton faced a dilemma, a choice between contributing to knowledge about the natural world “versus” doing something about humanity’s unsustainable domination of marine ecosystems. The latter required activism in a profession where activists were and still often remain suspect. But Morton’s outrage overcame her career ambitions and she applied the zeal with which she pursued knowledge to her desire to make things right. 

Not on My Watch begins with an accounting of Morton’s tenure as a killer whale biologist, covering ground detailed in Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us while finishing that story. Her study animals, the Northern Resident killer whales, abandoned her home waters in British Columbia when newly placed salmon farms begin to employ Acoustic Harassment Devices — 198 decibel ear-splitting sound blasters — to chase away marauding seals. The seals “appeared willing to accept hearing damage in exchange for easy access to . . . fish.” The whales, with their finely attuned acoustic communication and hunting methods, decided it wasn’t worth it.

Problems brought by the salmon farms only began with the Harassment Devices. The salmon farming industry in British Columbia is a massive commercial enterprise, valued at $500 million annually. It is largely Norwegian-owned. Salmon farms, what Morton refers to as marine feed lots, keep hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon in net pens anchored in bays and other protected areas. Salmon eggs are imported from northern European waters and hatched, the young then transferred into the net pens and fed until they reach a marketable size of ten pounds. The fish are then suctioned out of the pens and taken to processing facilities where they are killed, cleaned, gutted, and filleted. It all sounds innocent enough.

The problem is that the fish are kept in phenomenally high densities made-to-order for disease transmission. The condition of the fish in the pens is appalling. In nature, diseased, injured, or otherwise disabled fish would be picked off by predators: seals, sea lions, orcas, eagles. But the mesh of the nets keeps the aquatic predators out and netting over the top keeps out avian predators. Crowding leads to competition and fighting and injury, injured fish often incapacitated by open sores that become infected. Underwater videos taken by Morton’s colleagues showed a high percentage of fish covered in external parasites and with open and festering wounds, with internal musculature exposed, broken jaws, missing tails, malformed bodies, cloudy or missing eyes, exposed brains (and swollen spleens, shrunken livers, jaundiced skin and hearts). Of course, the consumer never knows about this because “Farm-Fresh Atlantic salmon” are only sold as fillets. 

Thus began an ongoing battle against the fish farms because of Morton’s concern that the farms would impact the already-diminished wild salmon on which orcas, bears, eagles, commercial fishers, tour operators, and Indigenous nations depended. The presence of the salmon farms posed a threat to wild fish because the farms were placed along the migration routes wild fish used as they went out to sea as juveniles and returned to their birthplace rivers to spawn. In both directions, wild fish were exposed to the parasites, bacterial pathogens, viruses, and pollution emanating from the pens from infected fish, as well as from the dumping of dead fish (“morts”), and also discharged into the ocean as blood and body fluid effluent from the processing plants. 

Morton first became alarmed at the high incidence of external parasites called fish lice on the farm salmon and the likelihood that migrating wild salmon would pick up the parasites. One or two sea lice on a young fish were lethal because the lice burrowed into the flesh and eyeballs of the migrating fish. Wild fish that migrated away from salmon farms were rarely infected. Morton found infestation rates on young salmon that passed the pens five times higher than the lethal number. These were the swimming dead. The farm industry continually denied there was a problem. Many DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) biologists tried to convince senior management to tighten conditions for approving farm licenses because of the sea lice problem. “Senior DFO staff [ignored] their efforts to strengthen regulations to protect wild salmon.” Or tried to silence them.

First fish lice, then viruses, a pathogen with which we are all now painfully familiar. Morton sampled outbound and inbound wild fish that passed the farms, as well as fillets sold in markets. With help from expert virologists working in certified labs, she found variously PRV (piscine orthoreovirus) that caused HSMI (heart and skeletal muscle inflammation), ISAV (infectious salmon anemia virus), and IHN (infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus), all deadly. These viruses were introduced via eggs brought from foreign hatcheries, despite the fact that the presence of a virus is supposed to trigger importation bans. Industry maintained that the viruses didn’t exist.

Morton found herself in a constant battle with a salmon farming industry that was allied with resource agency bureaucrats, especially the DFO. Her opponents relied on biostitute laboratory scientists “willing to produce the science to shore up industry-enticing  policies,” results the bureaucrats maintained was “the only science to be believed.” Regardless, Morton won case after case by taking the Canadian and provincial governments to court to enforce existing regulations that protect natural resources. Unfortunately, these legal victories didn’t stop the continued restocking of the net pens with fish known to be infected with viruses, despite national and international laws against such practices. The industry just ignored the court decisions. 

Where salmon farms existed, salmon runs declined, infected fish dying before completing their spawning runs. Dying and dead fish bore clear symptoms of viral infections. Government biologists denied the obvious, assuring the public, “that the wild salmon returns in British Columbia were fine.” As early as 2007, Morton published a study that predicted the collapse of pink salmon runs in her home waters of the Broughton Archipelago due to sea lice from the salmon pens. In 2019, her predictions were proven correct as the salmon runs fell 99.9 percent, and local grizzly bears that depended on the runs had clearly visible ribs, “their stomachs were drawn up against their spines.” That winter, the bears were too hungry to hibernate and tried to enter houses. Government conservation officers shot them.

Most of the book is a chronicle of Morton’s fight to have the lice and viruses recognized as the existential threat that they clearly were, and the efforts of industry and government forces to discredit her science. She enlisted powerful allies, especially numerous regional Indigenous nations whose treaty rights were violated by the placement of the fish farms in their territorial waters (but complicated by the actions of some tribal members who made deals with the fish farms). Independent and agency biologists provided support and co-authored peer-reviewed studies, many at considerable professional risk. Ordinary citizens, recreational and commercial fishers, activist conservation organizations such as Sea Shepherd, and tribal members including hereditary chiefs helped stage demonstrations and protests, social media posts, videos, occupied fish farms (even in winter), petitioned politicians and bureaucrats, and bankrolled multiple legal efforts that took the industry and the government to court. All of this was an effort to stop the restocking of salmon farms with new (probably infected) fish, and to halt the renewing of salmon farm tenures. 

The industry and government fought at every turn. Accused of profiting from her activities, although basically bankrupt most of her adult life, Morton found her bank account and emails mysteriously hacked. She was physically threatened by hostile speedboats. The salmon farming industry in league with a “. . . government [that] danced to the industry’s tune” threatened Morton with jail sentences for collecting evidence, suppressed publication of her findings, denied that her results were accurate (without providing evidence otherwise), and accused her of deliberately contaminating her samples with virus. The Salmon Farmer’s Association concurrently launched a media campaign to improve their image, hiring a public relations firm whose previous clients had included the tobacco industry, Exxon after the Exxon Valdez tanker catastrophe, the nuclear power industry after the Three Mile Island disaster, and the Chinese government after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The intimidation did not work, but it did take a toll.

Comparisons? Morton has often been likened to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. The comparisons are apt, except Goodall and Fossey worked where formal protection was largely lacking. Morton in contrast struggled where environmental laws existed but were not enforced. I would add comparisons with Rachel Carson, who also fought powerful economic interests that actively discredited and belittled her efforts. That all four are female is not meant to separate activists on the basis of gender. It’s more likely that when it comes to effective activism, women often rise to the top.

Morton tries hard to end on a positive note, as much to reassure us as to motivate herself to keep fighting. But she remains confident or at least hopeful that a step-by-step path to recovering wild salmon and the ecosystem they anchor was possible. Today, Morton continues the campaign to save wild salmon (and orcas) that she started three decades ago. The good news is that her efforts are bearing more fruit than is evident at the close of her fascinating book. In her Twitter account (@alex4salmon), Morton has recently reported that several salmon farms have been removed from BC waters as a direct result of her collective efforts. Outrage works.  

Gene Helfman, PhD, is an animal behaviorist turned conservation biologist. He has authored four books on fish and marine conservation and an animal story for adults, Beyond the Human Realm, a novel about love, loss, and redemption . . . among killer whales.
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