Research Expedition Underway to Examine Impact of Farmed Salmon Industry

Martin Sheen and David Suzuki were in attendance to see off Operation Virus Hunter II
Joseph Keller, Staff Writer

Actor and Sea Shepard Conservation Society supporter Martin Sheen gives a speech to media aboard the SV Martin Sheen. Sheen provided the vessel to the society. (Joseph Keller)

Members of environmental activist research group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, led by Canadian biologist Alexandra Morton, have embarked on an expedition to investigate the impact of British Columbia’s farmed salmon industry on its native salmon population.

The team began the expedition with a press conference aboard the RV Martin Sheen. In attendance was the ship’s namesake, movie star Martin Sheen, and Canadian celebrity researcher David Suzuki.

The expedition, dubbed Operation Virus Hunter II, is a continuation of similar research done last year. Morton says that last year’s expedition resulted in findings that conflicted with the claims of the farmed fish industry about its impact on wild salmon.

“The industry maintains that the fish are healthy but last year what we found was massive numbers of them are thinning on the surface,” says Morton. “Their heads were stuck in the air bubbles trying to breathe. These are all signs of disease. There will be papers published from this, but also we’re very aware that the public needs to be brought along on this trip too.”

The crew of the RV Martin Sheen will sail the B.C. coast following the migration route of the Fraser Sockeye. Along the way they will investigate fish at each B.C. fish farm to evaluate the farms’ adherence to environmental practices and their impact on local ecosystems. They will take sediment samples and photos of the fish to examine their health.

David Suzuki gave a speech at the pre-departure press event on board the research vessel. Suzuki used the opportunity to discuss the effects of climate change on our oceans, the ongoing use of unsustainable fishing methods such as bottom dragging nets, which Suzuki describes as “the dumbest way to get our food,” and the irresponsibility of the current practices of the farmed fish industry. In particular, Suzuki pointed out the effects of introducing Atlantic salmon to Pacific waters. Atlantic salmon, as Suzuki points out, are very different in lifespan and feeding habit to their Pacific counterparts,

“We’ve got nothing against agriculture, but we’re saying if you’re going to do it do it the right way and don’t do it at the cost of the oceans themselves,” Suzuki said during his speech.

Martin Sheen, star of such films as The Departed and Apocalypse Now, is a long time supporter of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Sheen provided Sea Shepherd with the 24 meter sailboat that now bears his name and operates as the research vessel for this expedition. Sheen attended the media event and gave a speech to attending press in which he directly addressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard.

“Our message today is to those two gentlemen in particular. Please, do what you were elected to do and what you are capable of doing and save your own environment here in British Columbia,” Sheen told the press.

Also in attendance at the press event were members of the B.C. First Nations communities, who support Sea Shepherd’s goals and welcome them onto their territory. Skwah First Nation Elder Eddie Gardner and Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Leader Willie Moon spoke at the event. Gardner spoke about reports of prespawn deaths in the salmon population by Indigenous fishermen, as well as reports of non-native farmed salmon caught in their nets and overall poor health of native salmon.

Members of B.C. First Nations perform in front of the docked SV Martin Sheen in protest of B.C. Salmon farms and in support of Sea Shepard Conservation Society. (Joseph Keller)

“It will be a sad day indeed if those fish farms are the cause of the last salmon that runs up the river,” says Gardner. “We have our first salmon ceremonies every year. We don’t want to have a last salmon ceremony.”

In 2012, the Cohen Commission, a massive Canadian government funded study of the effects of farmed salmon, recommended 17 changes of practice to the farmed salmon industry. According to Suzuki, none of these items have been implemented. Similar research, such as the findings of last year’s Operation Virus Hunter have, also fallen on deaf ears according to researchers and activists.

“The federal government has said over and over again that they want to make decisions based on science.” says Gardner. “Last year, there was scientific evidence, hard scientific evidence that shows the harm that those fish farms are doing not only to wild salmon but also the herring.”

Morton says that, throughout her career as an environmental researcher, the government’s decision has constantly been to ignore her work. She blames the influence of industry lobbyists for a pattern of politicians backing off of environmental commitments after taking office. Still, Morton says that she’s cautiously optimistic about John Horgan’s incoming B.C. NDP/Green government.

“As for the new provincial government, it’s the fact that they have a green rudder on them that gives me so much hope, because Andrew Weaver is a climate scientist,” says Morton. “He understands that we are standing on a dying planet and the dress rehearsal is over and it’s time to really make some change.”


UPDATE: Ian Roberts, a representative of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, reached out to The Runner to provide the following comment.

“We are disappointed that this latest American funded and organized activist campaign is attempting to paint a misleading picture of an industry that provides a healthy, sustainable product that feeds millions of people. This is a distraction from the important research underway to better understand the real issues affecting wild salmon. Farmers ask that activists remain a respectful distance from their farms and obtain all necessary permits, and permissions, before carrying out their work,” Roberts writes.


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