the Decline of Fraser River Pacific Salmon


An Interview with Dr. Alexandra Morton

On the Collapse of the Pacific Coast’s Fraser River Salmon


Interviewed by Sheila Harrington


Sheila: What key moment inspired you to study whales?


Alex: The decision to work with whales started when I was a child. I wanted to study communication in non-humans.  Humans are ripe for misunderstanding.  At 18 I began to study them as a volunteer in Los Angeles.  I loved their sounds. I watched them for hundreds of hours. 

I went into this as a scientist. They were my subject. When the two whales I was studying lost a baby in captivity, I spent three days and nights watching them. It was so tragic. The female was crying this one sound over and over again. She wouldn’t eat, or look at anyone. Her mate was calling her, and deep in the night, she answered his call.  They began swimming around together calling this one sound back and forth.  Later this became a pivotal sound for my study. That morning, I went down to the tank.   The male whale came along side and raised his pectoral fin next to me, and I held it.  It’s 9 “ thick. It’s his hand basically.  I never touched him before or since. Then out in the wild with their family I had a number of experiences. My greatest attraction was the bonds between them-the incredible sense of family that is so strong.

Sheila: What moved you away from studying whales to studying fish and salmon in particular?


Alex: I found this beautiful place to live here in the Broughton Archipelago on the west coast of BC. It had lots of fish, and lots of whales, and I had a child. When the salmon farms moved in initially I felt quite supportive, because I thought they would help our community. But one day they began to broadcast loud sounds underwater to repel the seals who were eating their fish. And then all the whales I was working with left. Now the fish-eating whales I was studying don’t use those waters anymore.

It was a gradual process of realization-in response to my neighbours’ distress at first. Then the waters turned orange and red with two types of algae blooms, one that was toxic. There was Atlantic salmon in the rivers with sores on them. Then the sea lice occurred. There were big escapes, and so gradually the concern became mine, so I started writing letters. I was waiting for government to write back and say, “okay we see the problem, and here’s what we are going to do about.” But they kept saying, “Dear Ms. Morton there is no evidence.”  Yet, as a biologist I saw there was evidence.  I thought, okay, I’m a scientist. I’ll collect the evidence. I’ll put it in the best journals possible, and that’s how we are going to fix this. For 10 years, scientists stepped up to help in a wonderful way, because they too thought science could resolve this. So many came, my home turned into a research station. Lots of papers got produced about the impacts of salmon farms. But that didn’t work either. That’s when I moved onto activism.

Sheila: What can you tell me about the recent additional hearings that were added at the end of the Cohen Commission to review the ISA virus? 

Alex: The fact the Cohen Inquiry was re-opened to investigate this virus tells you this is a very significant finding. They recalled all the lawyers and the judge and the scientists who actually did the tests, and the group of people who were controlling the information. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is unable to protect wild salmon because of world trade pressures. That’s how we got all these Atlantic salmon eggs. In the hearings, there were emails presented saying that if Canada rejected Atlantic eggs, there would be trade sanctions – threats against some portion of our market.  The interesting thing about the Cohen Inquiry is it released half a million documents to participants. For nine months I read them all.  I couldn’t find any evidence that Fisheries & Oceans Canada was even interested in wild salmon health. But there were people in the dept. who were trying to figure out why wild Fraser sockeye were dying just before spawning since the mid 90’s and struggling with the department.  When one of them discovered evidence that this might be coming from salmon farms, that was the end of it. They couldn’t even get money for couriers to move samples to their labs. Their funding was withdrawn, their labs threatened, and no one was able to go forward. Because farmed salmon are a commodity, (92% Norwegian owned in BC) international trade rulings protect them. 

After the positive tests (for the ASIV virus) became public, The Minister of Fisheries ordered a letter to be sent to US Senators saying these samples were re-tested and that they were negative. But the government lab said we can’t confirm anything about these samples, as their condition wasn’t good enough, and furthermore one was a weak positive. The Minister sent out press releases with the BC Ministry of Agriculture, and together said those of us doing the original sampling were reckless and that we had hurt Canada’s international reputation. Really? We went out and took the best samples we could from wild salmon and sent them to Canadian and internationally recognized labs, and this is reckless? Then we found out that Fisheries & Oceans had gotten the same results in 2004, but they never revealed this to the Commission nor to the Stó:lō Nation, who eat the infected fish from Cultus Lake, or to the Canadian public. So that by definition is a cover up. And then as the dialogue went on, we realized there was nothing they could do about this, because in 2010 ISA virus became a reportable disease. There was even an email from CFIA saying that DFO is not in charge of this. CFIA tried to prohibit all the labs in Canada from testing for this virus, and confiscated samples from the independent labs.

Throughout all of this, I realized wild salmon are a power cord. They gather the energy of the sun hitting the open ocean, creating plankton blooms, which are eaten by other fish. They then defy gravity and go up the rivers to the mountains. They bring the sun’s energy with them up the valleys and throughout the coastline; they benefit over 100 different species, including people. 

Salmon farming doesn’t benefit our communities. When I arrived in Echo Bay there were 150 people.  Then we got 27 salmon feedlots, and there were nine people left. The school closed. Those farmed fish are a commodity and the price is dependent on keeping manufacturing costs down. So salaries are low, farms are highly mechanized, and profits go overseas.  Basically they are a dumpsite, the fish farmers don’t pick up their chemical laden manure. I don’t know when the government lost control of the farms. They act like they have control, but the Inquiry taught me they don’t

Sheila: Do you see something transformative happening because of the current situation.

Alex: Yes –  if we want wild salmon we have to do it ourselves, through our own testing along their migration routes. It will allow us to see where it’s coming from. Then society gets to make informed decisions. The foreign scientists say 80 – 90% of Atlantic salmon have the disease. 30 billion Atlantic salmon eggs have come into BC.  When the ISA salmon virus went to Chili, they figured it came from a particular hatchery in the central coast of Norway. We will be able to trace it back to its origins too.  And then there will be lawsuits.  The Fraser First Nations lawyers were furious because they weren’t told 100% of their fish tested positive. They weren’t told that they were eating this.

What I realize as I’ve traveled all over BC to where people are working with wild salmon is that there are thousands of us.  We’re bigger than any agency.  If we want wild salmon – we have to get smart, use everything we know – work with these fish, work with DFO to get permits, keep them in the loop. DFO is not allowed to test and if the CFIA finds it, we’ll never know about it. We need to do it ourselves.

Sheila: Is there anything people who live away from the BC coast can do to help?

Alex: Yes, the problems we’re facing are due to the size of corporations and the way things are structured. We need to become more localized and use local products as much as possible. In terms of wild salmon – don’t eat farmed fish until it’s raised in a different way.  We need to be very careful where we put our dollars because that’s what is going to grow. If people are in the US, pressure senators to test for ISA virus. If in Canada, find the most local people you know working for wild salmon and support them.

Sheila: Can you tell us about the First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago’s dependence on wild salmon?

Alex: The First Nation whose territory I live in are going toe to toe with these salmon feedlot corporations, and not even blinking. They are incredibly brave. 

It’s an amazing thing that salmon and First Nations came to BC 10,000 years ago as the glaciers receded, when it was just rocks and water.  The glaciers scraped things clean.  Those salmon were not very strong. They formed legends and rituals around conservation of the fish, because they needed them. They both thrived together. The Broughton had 10,000 people living in it.  I’m not saying First Nations are perfect, but they did achieve that balance, and we can do it too.   We’re not going to leave.  We can lift up our feet to let the salmon flow as much as possible. That’s First Nation knowledge - how to keep energy flowing around you so that you can survive and thrive as you go about being a human.

Sheila: Thanks very much Alexandra – you’re an inspiration!


In 1984, Alexandra Morton moved to a remote area of the BC coast to study whales.  She has taken the salmon feedlot industry to BC Supreme Court, attended their AGMs in Norway, testified at the Cohen Commission, co-authored over 20 scientific papers, led a demonstration of 5000 people to the BC Parliament to tell government to remove salmon feedlots from the ocean. Morton received an honorary Doctorate of Science from Simon Fraser University and was adopted by one of the Broughton archipelago’s First Nations.  Her home is now the Salmon Coast Field Station. She has written several books and won numerous awards for her efforts to protect BC wild salmon. For further information go to:


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