by Craig Weatherby
If revenge is sweet, then marine researcher Alexandra Morton’s blood sugar levels should be stratospheric.
In 2001, Ms. Morton’s research blamed farms in British Columbia’s Broughton archipelago area for an epidemic of sea-lice infestations, and predicted a collapse of pink salmon stocks.
Sure enough, the 2002 pink salmon run, which numbered 3.6 million fish in 2000, returned fewer than 100,000 spawning salmon. This calamitous, 97 percent drop in the numbers of spawning fish was the biggest collapse of salmon stocks ever recorded in the area.
Then, in 2004 and 2005, Ms. Morton (pictured at left, above) and her co-authors published research that documented the spread of life-threatening sea lice from British Columbia’s many salmon farms to wild salmon in the area.
This excerpt from last year’s story in "Vital Choices" summarizes their findings:
“The researchers trapped about 5,500 pink and chum salmon swimming in a fjord in British Columbia containing two salmon farms. It was clear that the fish were free of parasites until they neared the farms, but that by the time they passed them and headed out to sea they were so infested they ended up spreading the parasitic lice as they went. The parasites bite the fish, creating open wounds and killing many of the juvenile fish ” (See “Farmed Salmon Seen Spreading Sea Lice”).
Personal attacks mask absence of facts in critics’ case
Rather than address her research methods, scientists associated with the salmon farming industry focused on Ms. Morton’s alleged lack of a science degree, and dismissed her work by asserting that she was an incompetent amateur with an agenda. In fact, Alexandra Morton graduated Magna cum Laude from the American University in Washington D.C. with Bachelor of Science degree, and her resume reveals a long history of involvement in serious environmental science.
Their ire must have increased when the ABC-TV show “Boston Legal” used the sea-lice infestation problem as a storyline in October of 2005 (see “Hit TV Show Takes Salmon Farms to Task”).
As reporter/columnist Mark Hume of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper wrote, “She has been given the finger, subjected to mooning and sworn at by fish-farm advocates… Patrick Moore, the former Greenpeace founder who now consults the fish-farming industry, wrote to say: ‘Alex Morton is not a scientist, she has a BA. She has never demonstrated that she has a science education... I think you are a scoundrel with an agenda, and no respect for real science.’
Hume also quoted from a typical critic’s letter, sent by a man who introduced himself as a marine biologist and proceeded to dismiss Ms. Morton as ‘a joke’ who’d managed to ‘hoodwink a willing layman press.’”
But Ms. Morton’s findings came as no surprise to those in the know. In fact, they served only to confirm and expand on the work of more senior researchers, conducted over the past 20 years. In addition, she her colleagues enjoyed the expert help and supervision of senior scientists at the University of Alberta, the University of Victoria, and Simon Fraser University.
The personal nature of the attacks elicited by her research raised a red flag that served to highlight the lack of substance underlying her critics’ vituperative calumnies. Now, they may wish they'd not raised that flag so high, nor so aggressively.
Canadian court calls sea lice claims credible
Thanks to a conscientious Canadian prosecutor, the shoe is now on the other foot, with Ms. Morton’s farm-friendly critics on the defensive.
Morton was so dismayed by the authorities’ failure to act on her team’s findings that she initiated a private prosecution (i.e., a civil case) against three defendants: the provincial government, the federal government, and the company from whose salmon farms the sea lice appeared to flow. The suit was brought under Canada’s Fisheries Act, and charged the parties with releasing sea lice into the environment unlawfully.
Before it went to trial, Ms. Morton’s case was taken over by the Crown (i.e., the Canadian federal government) which appointed special prosecutor Bill Smart.
Mr. Smart needed an unbiased expert review of the science, so he brought in Frederick Whoriskey, PhD.: a widely cited researcher whose work includes publications from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Canada’s National Research Council.
In the end, the Crown prosecutor decided to drop the case, but only because of difficulties with the legal meaning of “release” in the context of sea lice coming from salmon farms (Since the farms hadn’t possessed the lice in a legal sense, they couldn’t be held to have released them).
But the evidence led special prosecutor Smart to a clear conclusion: “…it appears to us that there is validity to Ms. Morton's assertions that sea lice from fish farms are having a deleterious effect on the pink salmon population in the Broughton Archipelago.”
And after the Crown decided not to prosecute, it released Dr. Whoriskey's report, which affirmed the validity of Alexandra Morton's research methods and the importance of her team’s findings. While he acknowledged “technical problems or uncertainties”, he praised their scientific method:
“Ms. Morton and her colleagues have carefully and diligently executed their scientific work. They have used credible experimental and data analysis methods, regularly subjected their results to peer review, and have presented their results for scientific scrutiny through publication in established scientific periodicals. This is the globally accepted procedure for the conduct of good science…”
Dr. Whoriskey noted that other research supports her team's findings that the farms at Burdwood had produced millions of sea lice a month, that those lice were being allowed to “flow freely from the fish farms into open waters,” and that wild salmon were being infected by them.
In the end, the independent expert’s conclusion was clear, and in favor of Ms. Morton’s team: “Having reviewed the evidence specific to the Broughton Archipelago, additional studies available in the scientific literature on the impacts of sea lice upon salmonids [salmon species] worldwide, having visited the Broughton Archipelago, and based on my past work experience, I am of the opinion that the evidence shows that sea lice in the Broughton Archipelago are infecting and killing pink salmon.”
Dr. Whoriskey estimated that a salmon farm like the one at Burdwood, BC studied by Ms. Morton and her colleagues would produce about 57 million lice a year. And if you multiply that number times 27 (the number of farm sites in the Broughton Archipelago), it appears that salmon farms in this region of British Columbia generate some 1.54 billion sea lice every year.
As reporter Mark Hume said, “Ultimately, what is important about this case is not the Crown's decision to stay charges, but the vindication it gives to Ms. Morton, whose important work has been dismissed for too long by too many.”
We applaud Ms. Morton's courageous fight to hold British Columbia's corporate salmon farms accountable, and hope it will inspire people to demand a solution... such as fully enclosed pens... to the impending, sea-lice-driven disaster that threatens wild salmon.
To learn more, visit Raincoast Resarch Society (the non-profit where Ms. Morton is based) and the sea lice project page at Simon FraserUniversity Marine Centre.
- Hume M. Charges dropped against fish farm in sea-lice case. The Globe and Mail. Thursday, August 10, 2006, Page S2.
- Hume M. Sea-lice researcher vindicated at last.The Globe and Mail. Monday, August 14, 2006, Page A7. Accessed online August 20, 2006 at http://view.nowpublic.com/?src=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theglobeandmail.com%2Fservlet%2Fstory%2FLAC.20060814.BCHUME14%2FTPStory%2F
- Morton A, Routledge R, Peet C, Ladwig A. Sea Lice (Lepeophtheirus salmonis) infection rates on juvenile pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) and chum (Oncorhynchus keta) salmon in the nearshore marine environment of British Columbia, Canada. 2004. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 61: 147-157. Accessed online August 30, 2006 at http://www.sfu.ca/coastalstudies/pdf/cjfasmortonetal.pdf
- Morton A, Routledge R, Williams R. Temporal patterns of sea louse infestation on wild Pacific salmon in relation to the fallowing of Atlantic salmon farms. 2005. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 25:811-821. Accessed online August 30, 2006 at http://www.sfu.ca/cstudies/science/sealice/Mortonetal_2005.pdf
- Krkosek M, Lewis MA, Volpe JP. Transmission dynamics of parasitic sea lice from farm to wild salmon. 2005. Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B 272: 689-696. Accessed online August 30, 2006 at http://www.math.ualberta.ca/%7Emlewis/publications/SeaLicePub.htm
- Gallaugher P, Penikett J, Wood L. Scientists’ Roundtable on Sea Lice and Salmon in the Broughton Archipelago Area of British Columbia. Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC. November 18, 2004. Accessed online August 30, 2006 at http://www.sfu.ca/cstudies/science/salmon/Conveners_Report.pdf