As It Happens

How this killer whale researcher ended up in a decades-long struggle to save wild salmon

Alexandra Morton had planned to devote her life to studying orcas, but when fish farms moved into her remote B.C. community, she couldn’t ignore their impact on wild salmon. Her new book, Not on My Watch, chronicles her fight against open-net aquaculture on the West Coast.

Alexandra Morton's book, Not on My Watch, chronicles her fight against open-net aquaculture on the West Coast

Alexandra Morton collects scale samples from young Atlantic salmon as the fish are pumped into a pen at Swanson Island, B.C. (Austin Ferguson)

This story was published April 5, 2021.

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Alexandra Morton never planned to study salmon. She says she was drawn to the water by whales and her desire to "figure out what another large-brained animal was thinking." 

As a graduate student, she ensconced herself at a California Marineland, where she made acoustic recordings of a pair of orcas known as Corky and Orky.

"In the process … the whales gave birth, which was a remarkable thing to witness," Morton, a researcher for B.C.'s Coast Field Station, told As It Happens host, Carol Off. "But the baby died because the mother didn't know how to nurse it. And after this happened a couple of times, I realized that I really couldn't study whales in captivity. Things weren't right." 

Her ensuing search for the whales' families of origin led her to British Columbia, and right into the middle of a contentious fight over salmon farming on Canada's West Coast. 

Now, 37 years after washing up in Echo Bay, B.C., Morton has chronicled her decades-long crusade against open-net aquaculture in her new book, Not on My Watch

Troubled waters 

Despite her reputation for uncompromising resistance to B.C.'s salmon farms, Morton says she initially welcomed their arrival in a small community that sometimes struggled to stay afloat. 

"My first thought was that they were a good idea and that they would keep our school open," she said. "That they would be good for our tiny little local economy." 

Morton got her start as a biologist working with a pair of orcas named Corky and Orky at a California Marineland. (Robin Morton)

Morton says she first wrote to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to express concerns about the fish farms because local fishermen warned her they were being placed on top of prime habitat for prawns, rock cod, and her beloved orcas' main food source: wild salmon. 

The response she received was a sign of things to come, she said. 

"The answer came back, 'Dear Ms. Morton, There is no evidence.'"

    It was a pattern Morton says she endured for years. Then came the sea lice outbreaks. Morton says that while sea lice are a natural parasite for wild salmon, they breed more rapidly in fish farms. They don't usually harm adult fish, but when the parasites attach to the skin of young fish, they can weaken and kill them.

    "Finally, when the sea lice outbreak happened and there were dying young salmon everywhere, I said, 'OK ... I need to start researching this, stop writing letters, and produce the data.'" 

    Swimming against the current

    Producing the data was one thing. Effecting change would prove to be quite another. Try as she might, industry and government seemed impervious to her claims that fish farms were infecting adjacent wild salmon populations with sea lice and other pathogens. 

    "I spoke at the [annual general meetings] of these companies. I entered into all kinds of government processes. I took the industry to court. I wrote scientific papers. I turned my home into a research station and fed and housed young scientists who were also studying sea lice," she said. 

    "Nothing I did worked."

    Morton says that while sea lice are a natural parasite for wild salmon, they breed rapidly in fish farms, resulting in the kind of infection pictured here. (Tavish Campbell)

    With 10 years of research under her belt, Morton says she finally began thinking of herself not just as a biologist, but as an activist. 

    "I began to host these small dinner parties and invited the most creative thinkers that I knew. And as the wine flowed, I asked questions like, 'What do we do next?' And I harvested the ideas." 

    One of those ideas came from two of Morton's friends, Scottish salmon campaigner Don Stanford and Vancouver Island artist Anissa Reed. 

    "I forget which one of us said it, but we [decided] we should just walk down Vancouver Island and invite everybody who is against these farms to walk with us," Morton said. 

    "By the end of the walk, there [were] 5,000 to 7,000 of us. We took over the entire highway coming in from Sydney. People brought their horses and wagons and trumpets and canoes." 

    In 2010, Morton and other activists concerned about the impact of salmon farming embarked on the Get Out Migration walk across Vancouver Island. Here, Morton receives a blessing from elders in the village of Gwayasdums in the Broughton Archipelago. (Yvonne Maximchuk)

    But even with hundreds of supporters at her back, Morton says she felt powerless to stop the salmon farming. 

    "It did nothing." 

    Turning the tide

    Then, in 2017, a school teacher and hereditary leader named Ernest Alfred of the Namgis, Tlowit'sis and Mamalilikala Nation decided to occupy the Swanson Island Fish Farm. 

    "Everybody realized, 'OK, we're stepping over the line here.'" Morton said. "And so I jumped up and I joined him and became part of that occupation for 280 days, which was … gruelling. I mean, people were losing their relationships, their jobs. Arguments flared up. People were cold and tired and scared. But it worked." 

    Putting your body in the way of what is damaging life on Earth is a very, very powerful thing.- Alexandra Morton

    In December 2020, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan announced 19 salmon farms in the Discovery Islands near Campbell River, B.C., would be phased out over the next 18 months.

    "We heard overwhelmingly from First Nations in the area that they do not want these fish farms there," Jordan said at the time. "They feel that they should have a say in their territorial waters, and I absolutely agree with them."

      This announcement — and the Indigenous-led occupation that preceded it — were a major turning point for Morton. 

      "What has been so remarkable is the allies that have built around this, in particular the First Nations governments," she said. "I realized that if you can be peaceful and honourable about it, just physically putting your body in the way of what is damaging life on Earth is a very, very powerful thing." 

      Today, Morton says she's already seeing the impact of reduced salmon farming in the Broughton Archipelago. 

      "Last spring, I had the extraordinary experience of looking at the juvenile fish … and these little pink and chum salmon were so beautiful. They were sparkling silver and blue, and their eyes were just so black. You felt like you were looking into another world when you looked in their eyes and they were fat and sassy." 

      The science of activism

      The jury is still out on the degree to which fish farms are responsible for the decline of wild salmon populations.

      Morton says she knows her overt stance on the issue has contributed to the perception that her research is biased, but insists she's always been open to other explanations for wild salmon deaths. 

      "Climate change is huge," she said. "Deforestation. Urbanization. All of these things have an impact." 

      But Morton says none of those other factors offer enough of an explanation for the damage she attributes to fish farming. 

      Morton says her commitment to B.C.'s coastal communities stems from her experience of raising her children in the remote village of Echo Beach, where her children attended a one-room school house and lived in the float home pictured here. (Alexandra Morton)

      Morton says she's willing to concede that land-based aquaculture may be a necessary tool in keeping humans fed, but insists "there's no gain in having your aquaculture in the ocean, which is killing off the wild fish around you." 

      In the meantime, the Not On My Watch author says the pushback she has faced in response to her opposition to open-net fish farming has been "devastating." 

       "I didn't plan to be doing any of this," she said. "I planned a really quiet life learning about what whales are thinking and what they're saying. And I lost that." 

      But even now that she's a grandmother, Morton says retreat isn't an option. 

      "The more I know … the less I can step away from this battle," she said. "I just have to see it through." 

      Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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