Alexandra and the Golden Straitjacket: A quest to save B.C.'s wild salmon

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Salmon at murtle lake in the B.C. interior. Photo: Turbona/Flickr

Alexandra Morton spoke recently in Roberts Creek on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast as part of her Salmon are Sacred tour to build a citizens movement to help save wild salmon from pathogens from salmon farms. Morton is by now a seasoned campaigner and entranced a full hall, structuring her talk around the history of her attempts to get governments to do their duty and protect wild salmon.

A decade ago as a whale researcher, she and her small Broughton Archipelago community initially welcomed the salmon farmers, but as a trained biologist she soon recognized the harmful effects on wild salmon and other wildlife. She wrote letters to ministries and ministers to no effect. She then marshalled the available science and the history of the negative effects of the salmon farming industry in Norway and other jurisdictions but again to no effect -- the salmon farms continued to proliferate. She then organized and participated in doing the science and publishing papers documenting the effects of increased sea lice from salmon farming on migrating salmon -- and, again, no regulatory action was taken by government on the still-expanding salmon farming industry.

Morton and her fellow scientists have built a strong case that pathogens from salmon farming are threatening wild salmon but the B.C. and Canadian governments have refused to acknowledge the danger and the need to take action.

She then turned to activism, trying to tell the public about the serious threat of salmon farming on the very future of wild salmon an B.C.'s coast. She organized impressive educational and activist recruitment campaigns. She organized B.C.'s biggest environmental rally ever on the steps of the legislature in Victoria. She won a major victory in BC Supreme Court getting regulatory jurisdiction for salmon farms transferred from B.C. to Ottawa.

But, as Morton challenged the Roberts Creek audience, she is still trying to build a bigger movement of citizens concerned with the future of salmon because her efforts so far have done very little to ameliorate the deadly effect of continuing salmon farming on wild salmon. The pens are still in the water and the industry continues to proliferate to ever wider areas of our coast.

Finally, she spoke about her hopes from the ongoing Cohen Commission into Fraser River salmon, which moves on Monday, Aug. 22, to cover aquaculture. There is a smoking gun -- a salmon endangering virus spread by sea lice associated with salmon farming pens -- but it is still going to be a difficult battle to get the Harper government to mandate the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to switch from being a salmon production ministry, now focused upon supporting the salmon farming industry, to being the protecting regulator needed to save wild salmon. She speaks at the commission during the week in Aug. 29.

Canadians when polled strongly support the protection of wild salmon, but fisheries policy and regulation isn't a level playing field where what the majority of citizens desire is possible. An entrenched industry with decades of sunk costs, investors and employees is a protected species in our present governance and almost impervious to enforced systemic change such as getting the pens out of the water or constrained to areas where they would not effect wild salmon.

Think of our present highly established socio-economy as a highly diverse and complex ecosystem supporting a myriad of niche businesses. Stability is of the utmost importance and over time government's primary purpose has become protecting and nurturing this economy. This includes protecting investors, employees, suppliers, etc., of the existing salmon farming industry.

Over the past century, well-meaning (and not so well meaning), influential businessmen, seeking to stabilize and protect the rich and diverse evolving economy which has given us this wonderful world to which we are all very fortuitously adapted, have increasingly controlled and indeed captured government, not only in B.C. and Canada but globally, so that businesses of all description can "thrive" for our immediate benefit. The electorate voted in neo-liberal governments because the continuing stability and expansion of our economies is so crucial to our well being. (So goes the conventional status quo wisdom of conservatives, but this neo-lib myopic focus on short-term economic success may -- like fire suppression in timber management -- be setting the stage for conflagration.)

Globalization of the economy requires even more of a commitment to stability and, in Thomas Friedman's neoliberal descriptor, governments everywhere have put on a "golden straitjacket," severely limiting their regulatory powers. Systemic change enforced by governments of even the most potentially damaging industries -- think tar sands -- is no longer possible as conditions currently stand. By any government. No matter what the consequences for future generations.

Alexandra Morton is determined, informed, resourceful, innovative activism personified: a green Mother Courage of our time, but as it stands she has not and probably will not be able to move the salmon farming industry out of the path of migrating salmon and unthinkable disaster and unfathomable loss.

But now the future of wild salmon and with climate change the very future of humanity and most of the species with which we now share the world is at stake. We must understand the science, the political science, the suite of insidious dangers we face in order to take action against them.

The first step that we must take is to recognize how our hands are tied. We need to free government and escape the Golden Straitjacket in order to take needed action. We need governments to have the power to effectively regulate to protect our future even if it means forcing existing business to clean up their act or close. Before it is too late for salmon and us.

This doesn't mean the end of business or the end of our present economy or a new stone age. It doesn't even mean the end of salmon farming necessarily. In fact, effectively governing ourselves is now of prime importance in continuing business and the long-term survival of every industry and the economy.

Alexandra Morton has built the case against salmon farming and the crucial need for action right now to save wild salmon. This should be the test case where we all get together so that systemic change becomes not only possible but the priority so that we can have a future.

Bill Henderson is an activist who lives in Gibsons, B.C. He can be reached by email.

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