Into the Wild

November 2, 2008

Keeping a date with Alexandra Morton demands perseverance. A four-hour drive north from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, past creeks named after forestry-company executives, nature trails sponsored by Weyerhaueser, and miles of "tree farms"-clear-cut hillsides that have been planted with eerily regular rows of Day-Glo green Christmas trees-brings me to Port McNeill, the logging town that is the jump-off point for the mid coast. Aloft in a Beaver, flying over mountains furrowed with cutblocks, I get my first glimpse of the sparsely populated Broughton Archipelago: a jigsaw puzzle of islands flung over the surface of the sea, with snaking channels and serrated sounds separating its scattered pieces.
Today, the pilot is taking us on the milk run. At Sullivan Bay, a little community of floating houses, a sea lion spies on us as we unload building supplies. As we drop a repairman at East Seymour, where he'll spend the day fixing the roof of a logging camp trailer, a pair of bald eagles eyes us warily; the pilot tells me there were so many of the white-headed raptors last week it looked as if the treetops were covered with snow. Dipping a wing over Knight Inlet, the pilot points to the curved wake of a pod of a dozen Pacific white-sided dolphins, their heads regularly poking above the surface. The Broughton Archipelago is one of the richest pockets of biodiversity on the coast; it is home to sea otters, killer whales, great blue herons, and, until recently, some of the largest runs of pink salmon on the Pacific coast.
We touch down west of Gilford Island, where a 22-foot-long powerboat called the Blackfish Sound gingerly pulls parallel to our floats. After waving goodbye to the pilot, Alexandra Morton welcomes me into her cabin and introduces me to Ahta, who's looking a little shaky in the knees. (The husky-Lab-retriever, Morton explains, never got her sea legs.)

So this is the Erin Brockovich of the inlets, the Jane Goodall of the salmonids, the woman who has become the most persistent thorn in the side of British Columbia's $320-million-a-year salmon-farming industry. With her baby-faced smile and long grey braids emerging from a polar-fleece tuque, the 51-year-old Morton doesn't look like anybody's idea of a nemesis. It's only when she tells the story of her life, and her native energy and intelligence show through, that you realize how much courage it's taken to make her what she is: a one-woman cottage industry pumping out controversial, cutting-edge science for the world's leading peer-reviewed journals from an off-the-grid float house.
Morton's formative years were spent a continent away from the Broughton Archipelago, roaming the grounds of a big old house in western Connecticut. Her father, Earle Wade Hubbard, was a painter and reclusive futurist. "He thought humanity was at the crossroads," says Morton, "and that all the issues we're facing now-overcrowding, pollution, war-were birth pangs, and we needed to move on to the next stage, which was going into outer space." As soon as Morton could drive, she hit the road, finally stopping in Los Angeles. By the age of 18, she was working with John Lilly, the cetacean researcher famous for trying to teach dolphins to speak English. Morton was convinced killer whales were just as intelligent, and spent months taping the sounds they made and recording their behaviour. "One of the whales got pregnant and lost her calf," recalls Morton, "and she was enormously distressed. I realized the behaviour of these whales wasn't normal; studying language in them could be like studying language in people who were insane." Deciding she needed to study her subjects in the wild, she headed for a place that still had healthy year-round populations of orcas: the B.C. coast.

Shortly after coming to Vancouver Island in 1979, Morton accepted an invitation to accompany a pair of filmmakers to the rubbing rocks, the famous shallows in Johnstone Strait where killer whales gather to rid their bodies of parasites. "I was really irritated to be there—it was a calm day, and I wanted to be out studying my own whales. And this guy literally walks out of the water and strips off his dry suit. Underneath he was naked, and on his shoulder he had this tattoo of a First Nations design of a killer whale. Well, I'm just like, ‘Who is this guy?' It really was love at first sight."
Robin Morton, a celebrated filmmaker whose 16mm footage of killer whales is still used in documentaries, was equally enamoured of the young American researcher. Within a few months, they were married, living together on a boat, and expecting their first child.
Morton interrupts the telling of her life story to jump out of the boat at the dock of Echo Bay, a tiny community of float houses; Ahta, legs trembling from our choppy crossing, jumps gratefully onto the boardwalk. It's a ragtag little place, where a piece of floating bridge towed up from Washington state has been turned into a fishing lodge, and cedar-shingled houses painted with flowers crowd together in front of an ancient Native pictogram depicting a Steller's sea cow. Until last year, there was also a one-room schoolhouse; Morton is still hoping it will be reopened.
"When Robin and I first discovered this place," she recalls, "we thought we'd gone off the edge of the known world." They towed a float house into the bay and turned it into a home. (Today, thanks to the solar panels that tile her roof, she has Internet access, can run a vacuum cleaner, and spends her days listening to the calls of dolphins, which she picks up with a hydrophone submerged in the waters of the Broughton.)

One afternoon in 1986, Morton accompanied her husband on a shoot. He was experimenting with a rebreather—a diving rig that doesn't emit bubbles—which he hoped would help him to get closer to the orcas. The rebreather malfunctioned, and as carbon dioxide levels in his blood spiked, the filmmaker passed out underwater. By the time Morton, who was with her four-year-old son, Jarret, in a Zodiac on the surface, realized something was wrong, Robin had drowned. At the age of 29, Alexandra Morton found herself alone with a young boy in the wilderness. The only thing that got her through, she says, was "the love of life, curiosity, science, and mothering." At least, she realized, her original raison d'être hadn't disappeared: she could still study the families of orcas that lived in the Broughton.
"When they first towed the salmon farms into the Broughton in 1987, I thought they were a great idea," she recalls. "I offered myself up as a welcome wagon. I let the industry know if there were any women who wanted to know about school and shopping, I'd be glad to help." But she had second thoughts when the salmon farmers began to use acoustic harassment devices to drive away harbour seals, major predators for salmon. But the sounds also drove away the whales that had been feeding in the archipelago for millennia.
"The first time I heard them, I had my headset on, with the hydrophone in the water. I turned on the tape machine, and I was like: ‘Waaaah!' I had to tear off the headphones; it was that loud." The underwater devices emit a sustained roar of 198 decibels, equivalent to the sound of a jet taking off, easily enough to deafen a killer whale. Though the devices have since been banned, they permanently scared away the resident pods of orcas. "For a human, it would be like walking into a room full of knives coming straight at our eyes. There's no way a killer whale is going to risk its hearing. One after another, the families experienced the noise and never came back." Morton was left wondering how she could be a whale researcher without any whales to study.
Casting off from the little community of floathouses, we cross open water in the Blackfish Sound until we hit Sir Edmond Bay on Gilford Island. Ringed by evergreens, the inlet would be idyllic if not for the presence of a farm owned by Mainstream, a Norwegian-government-controlled salmon-farming company. A platform is anchored a couple of hundred metres from the shore: surrounded by a metal catwalk buoyed by plastic floats, it's the size of 16 tennis courts. Crows and seagulls perch on the railings, and yellow "No Docking" signs warn trespassers away.
Alongside the catwalk, the crew's quarters bristle with dishes for pulling in satellite TV signals. The metallic blare of announcements from a loudspeaker echoes around the inlet, and a constant stream of brown feed pellets sprays from rotating nozzles, provoking the occasional flash of silver at the water's surface. Hidden from view, a dozen net cages in two rows of six droop 30 metres below the surface; they are filled with hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon, so densely packed that each of these nomadic predators has less than a bathtubful of water to itself. Here, in the supposedly unspoiled waters of the Broughton-at least a day's kayaking from the nearest town-is a 21st-century outpost of industrial aquaculture: an oceanic feedlot for farmed salmon.
Sir Edmond Bay, Morton explains, was once a prime spot for local prawn fishermen. After the farm arrived, the traps began to come up covered with a yellow sludge of rotting feed and feces. There are close to a million full-grown Atlantic salmon in Sir Edmond Bay, nearly ready for processing. And this is just one of many farms. Even though the Broughton Archipelago is a provincial park, there are 26 other sites like this one scattered among its bays and channels.

In the late 1990s, a Scottish tourist at Morton's neighbour's fishing lodge asked, "Do you have the scourge of the sea lice yet?" The visitor explained that after the salmon-farming industry came to Scotland, they started seeing a parasite called the "sea louse" on wild fish; he'd seen the same parasites on the salmon he'd just caught in the Broughton. Alarmed, Morton took out a dip net and pulled up dozens of juvenile wild pink salmon. They were bleeding from the eyeballs and the base of the fins. Most were covered with brown flecks—juvenile sea lice. As they grow, changing their body shape every few days, these parasitic copepods strip mucus, scales, and skin from the growing fish. While a full-grown salmon has an armour coating of scales and can survive an infestation, the parasites exhaust the young fish and quickly kill them off.
Using hand seine nets to sample local waters, Morton established that the salmon farmers were stocking millions of adult farmed Atlantic salmon along the migration routes of wild Pacific salmon-in exactly those inlets and estuaries where juvenile wild Pacific fattened up before going to sea. Suddenly, the decline of wild salmon populations didn't seem like such a mystery: the 27 salmon farms in the Broughton had, by crowding normally nomadic fish into tightly packed nets, become ranches for sea lice, fatally passing on parasites to wild salmon at their most vulnerable. In 2002, government scientists predicted 3.6 million pink salmon would return to the Broughton. Fewer than 150,000 did—a 97 percent population crash.
"What people don't realize is that the pinks are actually food not only for bears and eagles, but for all the other salmon," says Morton. "They come out in March and they're just these brave little tadpoles that blacken entire rivers. They're like wildebeest or herring—species that are put on the planet to feed the masses. They're the bloodstream of the coast, and if we allow the sea lice to kill them off, the entire ecosystem could collapse."
Though the salmon-farming industry has done its best to muddy the waters, Morton has some of the world's leading fisheries scientists on her side. Analyzing data from Ireland, Scotland, and Atlantic Canada, the late Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University showed that disease and parasites spread by farmed salmon reduced survival of local populations of wild salmon and sea trout by more than 50 percent per generation. In December 2007, Morton and colleagues from Dalhousie and the University of Alberta published a paper in Science, one of the world's most prestigious peer-reviewed journals, projecting the complete collapse of pink salmon in the Broughton by 2011 if the sea lice continue to infest fish.
Morton's detractors have tried to discredit both her and her research. They hint that her mother is a bigwig in the Alaskan salmon fishery. (Barbara Marx Hubbard, a writer and futurist, lives in California and rarely speaks to her daughter.) They point out, correctly, that she doesn't have a PhD. (An independent scientist with a bachelor of science, Morton has published more papers in scholarly journals than many tenured professors.) They claim she's funded by a cabal of American interests trying to undermine the Canadian salmon-farming industry. (Her biggest donor is the Canadian Sablefish Association, and the rest of her income comes in dribs and drabs from commercial and sport fishermen, and individuals who support her cause.) Now that her son has left home—in spite of his remote upbringing, Jarret became a rocket scientist—Morton spends her time on the water, researching the impact of the sewage these fish farms produce, and setting up a station where international researchers are housed, at cost, to conduct studies on the ecology of the Broughton. Some of her income comes from her career as an author: besides Listening to Whales, she's written children's books about orcas and collaborated on Heart of the Raincoast, a book about her neighbour Billy Proctor, a salmon fisherman who hired Morton as a deckhand on his troller after she lost her husband.

Appropriately, our last stop on our tour of the Broughton is Proctor's place. Fishermen like him have provided Morton with their unstinting support in her campaign against the salmon farms; they regularly leave Atlantic salmon that have escaped from the farms and ended up in their nets for her to dissect and catalogue. After getting a tour of Proctor's beautiful salmon troller, the Ocean Dawn, we are invited into his cosy tin-roofed home, where we are enclosed by heavy beams and hand-hewn boards made of alder, fir, yew, and red and yellow cedar. Now in his 70s, Proctor is a fisherman with a conservationist's ethos, and an opinionated, and widely respected, defender of the raincoast.
"We've got about 17 sites with up to a million Atlantic salmon each in the Broughton breeding lice all winter," he points out. "You don't have to be a genius to see there's a problem. There's no doubt in my mind we have to have fish farms to feed the world's population. But I'd like to see them set up on land, in concrete closed-containment tanks. They'd be a hell of a lot cheaper to operate in the long run."
Morton nods. She has long maintained that aquaculture is a vital industry—albeit one that could just as easily be carried out on land. All that's lacking is the political and corporate will. Already, a farmer named Bruce Swift is raising pan-sized coho, using only well water, in Agassiz, 100 kilometres from the Pacific coast; he uses the waste from the salmon tanks to fertilize his wasabi and watercress, which he then sells to restaurants in Vancouver.

In B.C., publicity around salmon farms has been so relentlessly negative that it's actually difficult to find farmed salmon in a decent seafood restaurant; seafood cookery stars like Frank Pabst of Vancouver's Blue Water Café refuse to serve it. (The one exception is Robert Clark, who made waves this spring when he announced he would be using Swift's sustainably farmed coho at Raincity Grill.) Unfortunately, there's evidence that, in supermarkets and chain restaurants, we're not always getting what we pay for; using DNA tests, Consumer Reports found that 56 percent of salmon fillets sold in the United States labelled as wild-caught were in fact farmed. There's no reason to assume Vancouver's markets are any different.
Out on Billy Proctor's dock, we watch a bald eagle winging low over the water, probably heading out to investigate a ball of herring. On an afternoon like this one, it's not hard to see what drew Alexandra Morton to the Broughton Archipelago in the first place. The scene would be a perfect West Coast panorama, were it not for the salmon farm tucked behind a point of land.
It's also easy to understand her opposition to the industry. Taking in the scene, she says, ruefully, "Salmon farmers are the only farmers who don't have to shovel their own manure. And we're letting them use our coastline as a toilet."

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