Renegade Biologist Alexandra Morton Is Fighting for the Future of Wild Salmon | Civil Eats

Renegade Biologist Alexandra Morton Is Fighting for the Future of Wild Salmon

Alexandra Morton bringing in nets in the the Broughton Archipelago, in British Columbia. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Morton, Salmon Coast Field Station)

In the early 1980s, marine biologist Alexandra Morton followed the orcas she was studying to British Columbia’s remote Echo Bay. She fell in love with the community where she raised her two children—until salmon farms moved into the region in 1989. The change took a toll on the local ecosystem: Wild salmon started dying off—from sea lice, she would later learn—and the orcas left.

What comes next is a tale of chasing viruses and documenting destruction that only a scientist could tell. Morton’s book, Not On My Watch: How a Renegade Biologist Took on Governments and Industry to Save Wild Salmon, is already a national bestseller in Canada. It chronicles how Morton founded the Salmon Coast Field Station in 2006 and published dozens of research papers on wild salmon and sea lice, only to find that they didn’t move the dial with the Canadian Government or the Norwegian fish farming industry.

This is the story of how she instead chose to work with Indigenous governments, which hold treaty rights and maintain reverence for the natural world. Ultimately, it is an account of how Morton transitioned from research to activism, occupied Swanson Island fish farm alongside Indigenous women in 2017, and sued the government four times (including a current lawsuit).

As Morton describes them, sea lice are a naturally occurring parasite that adult salmon can weather, but young fish cannot. The lice breed rapidly on crowded fish farms, and have become resistant to the delousing drugs traditionally deployed to control them. When they slip into the surrounding waters they attach to young fish, weakening them and ultimately killing them.

The impacts can be staggering, says Morton. She writes that she has heard her Indigenous partners repeatedly say: “They killed us and now they are killing our food like they did to the people of the plains when they killed the buffalo.”

Civil Eats spoke with Morton by phone from her home in Alert Bay, British Columbia.

You’ve spent decades working to restore wild salmon. Why is this cause important enough to be your life’s work?

Wild salmon are so important. They’re like a power cord; they collect the energy of the sun hitting the open Pacific Ocean by eating the little fish and the plankton. Then they carry it up the hillsides as they migrate and, when they die, those nutrients are poured down over the mountains. When you remove a power supply like that from an ecosystem like this, you kill it. In the face of climate change and destruction of biodiversity and habitat, this was my fight. It was my responsibility because I was the biologist on the scene in British Columbia. I had the capacity to [record] the data that would show the impacts of salmon farming. The industry said it would be good for us, it would benefit the community, that they’d be sustainable, and they hurt us. The whales I was studying left. The salmon were clearly in shock.

In the book you describe how your naivete fell away as you interacted with non-Indigenous governments. Can you talk about that?

It was a huge shock for me. I totally trusted government. When I first began to run into problems, I thought they just didn’t know, but I was met with such obfuscation. Eventually, I realized they were facilitating the salmon farming industry at all costs, and they didn’t actually want to know what the problem was.

For the first 10 years, I thought the solution was writing letters. Fisheries and Oceans Canada kept saying there was no evidence of what I was saying. So, okay, I did the science. I poured myself into 10 really intensive years of sea lice research. I measured every variable and sometimes published several papers a year.

When that didn’t work, I switched to protests. But they don’t work either because it’s like rain on a rock. Now I realize that simply putting your body physically in the way while behaving in a highly honorable manner—like we did during the fish farm occupation—is one of the most powerful things any individual can do. It was the only thing that has worked. It’s not a great measure of our democracy when occupying a fish farm is what you need to do to make change.

One of the things that has leapt out at me is that non-Indigenous governments actually have no mechanism in place to protect the living world, particularly anything that we don’t pay for. But the Indigenous governments grew up depending on these systems, so they have mechanisms to protect them. Of course, these governments have been profoundly damaged, but there’s enough left and they’re reconstituting. It really is the only hope.

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Truth is a recurring theme within the book. What role does truth play in all of this?

What I mean by the truth is the reality of what is happening to these [wild] fish. [We have documented their demise but the farmed salmon industry claims that the wild salmon aren’t dying.] And you can’t say that both sides are right because that’s actually not true. The natural world is based on truth. If you are going to try to restore the natural world, every move you make has to be based in truth. On the other hand, politicians have to get reelected. They’ve always got their finger to the breeze and want to know who believes something more. I don’t think the politicians are necessarily looking for the truth. They’re looking for . . . what’s popular? What will get them reelected? The truth is not a factor.

You came from the field of science, which is often at odds with activism. You grappled with that and eventually went with activism. How have you walked that line?

If my government [made decisions] based on science then research is all I would have to do, and that would be a much more comfortable existence for me. But our government is not based on science. If you know that an ecosystem is being destroyed, you have to do everything you can to make sure people know. When a bunch of us stand on a farm or 5,000 of us end up at the Parliament buildings or a hundred of us paddle down a river, then we’re on the cover of newspapers and we can deliver some piece of the real information. That’s why I do activism—to make sure there’s a platform to get the message out.

Today, there’s this young cadre of scientists who grew up knowing that what their government was saying was not true. And yet, they’re tenured professors. They have prestigious chairs awarded to them. They would work for some of the biggest wild fish organizations in Canada. They’ve moved into positions of authority with a sense of what’s right and wrong. So, the whole activist-scientist [divide] has [disappeared].

Where are we at with wild salmon now?

It’s a really delicate moment, and First Nations are bearing the brunt of it. The industry is pushing back hard and aggressively, accusing them of killing jobs. The wild salmon [populations] are so low right now. The Fraser River sockeye salmon run (the annual event when the salmon return to the river where they were born) just had two consecutive years that are by far the lowest in the history of this fish. Instead of 10 million fish, there were only 200,000 fish.

But there’s this very powerful science that is in the process of being developed that reads the immune system of fish. You can tell if the fish is suffering from low oxygen or high temperature or a bacteria or virus. If you were to test the fish as they’re migrating, you would see at what point their immune systems start fighting something. Because that gives you a location, you can go into that area and ponder what caused that and then try to fix it. Then the next year you can read the immune systems of the fish again and know whether you made it better or not.

What are the implications to human food systems?

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Wild salmon are part of food security. Salmon also are part of fighting climate change. Trees are very effective at drawing down carbon and releasing oxygen, and research shows that the more salmon that come back to a river, the bigger the growth ring on a tree. Salmon not only feed people, but they feed a whole economy here because, love it or hate it, wilderness tourism is huge, and that involves whales and bears and eagles—all of which need salmon. By restoring salmon, you get food security, and you’re fighting climate change. It’s a true act of reconciliation.

What can consumers do? What do you want readers to take away from this book?

When you’ve got your hand hovering over which salmon package you’re going to buy, you are making a life-and-death decision for this coast. Don’t pick that farmed salmon. First, I don’t believe it’s good for you. Next, when you do buy farmed salmon, you’re killing orcas, you’re killing wild salmon, and you’re destroying First Nation cultures. People think that buying farmed salmon protects wild salmon, and that’s wrong. When you buy wild salmon, you are actually funding an economy that demands it. It’s absolutely critical. Stop buying farmed salmon and tell the store and the sushi restaurant why.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist with a focus on lesser-told stories on a mission to change how the world sees the Midwest. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, National Geographic, New York magazine, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report,, Fast Company, Eater Twin Cities, USA Today's Go Escape magazine, and more. Read more >

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