Off the coast of BC, wild salmon started dying by the millions.
Chris Bennett runs Blackfish Lodge 300 kilometers north of Vancouver. He was leading a group of tourists on a boat tour when he looked into the water and noticed young salmon – called smolt – acting strangely.
He’d found a clue.
He took it to an unlikely detective - a whale biologist - Alexandra Morton - who’d be pulled into a battle against government, industry and multinational corporations.
A story like this one should have been a hero’s tale. An Erin Brockovich moment. But it didn’t quite play out that easily.
This is the fascinating story of a 20-year battle to save Canada’s wild salmon.
The Salmon People podcast is a co-production between journalist Sandra Bartlett and Canada's National Observer.
Sandra Bartlett is an award winning reporter and producer based in Toronto. She worked on the ICIJ project Secrecy for Sale and Skin and Bone. Bartlett worked as a producer and reporter in NPR's Investigative Unit based in Washington where she collaborated on projects with PBS Frontline, ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, as well as individual journalists in Canada and Europe.
In 20 plus years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as an editor, a reporter and producer, Bartlett covered daily news, foreign assignments and special programming. She worked in London, Europe, Israel, Cuba and Pakistan.
We are crowdfunding to cover the cost of this podcast. If you'd like to contribute, as little as five dollars per month can help support this work: https://www.nationalobserver.com/donate/podcasts.
The Unlikely Detective
Chris Bennett runs Blackfish Lodge, 300 kilometres north of Vancouver where Canada’s West Coast crumbles into the Pacific Ocean. His guests are from all over the world. They come to see B.C.’s wildlife, but especially the salmon. Chris was out with a group of tourists when he looked into the water alongside his boat and noticed young salmon — called smolts — acting strangely. He drove down the coast with a few smolts in a bucket to show to Alexandra Morton, a neighbour who studied orcas. It was the first clue in a mystery of disappearing salmon, and Alex, an unlikely detective, stepped up.
The Gold Rush
If you take a boat along the coast of northern British Columbia, you’ll see towering deciduous trees and snow-capped peaks, small islands, big islands and scattered throughout it all … fish farms. Dozens of them. Alexandra Morton remembers their arrival — remembers the Gold Rush when anyone who wanted a fish farm license got one. And she remembers how the government tricked coastal people into pointing out the best wild salmon habitat.
Camp Sea Lice
When Alex left the orcas behind to study sea lice, she knew she couldn’t be everywhere, so she started to gather an army of sea lice helpers — citizen scientists from all over northern Vancouver Island willing to collect smolts and count sea lice for her research. Jody Erickson and Farlyn Campbell started as teenagers and were devastated to see baby fish with dozens of sea lice eating through their bodies.
The salmon had been returning to the Fraser River for hundreds of years. In 2009, they didn’t. Or barely did. Nine million sockeye salmon were missing. Stephen Harper, prime minister at the time, was not a man known for promoting science, but the catastrophic loss forced him to call an inquiry. For the first time, there would be money, time and people testifying under oath about events leading to the disappearance of the wild salmon.
Hiding the Scientist
As her day to testify at the Cohen Commission arrived, Alex Morton was full of adrenaline. She could tell people what she had been seeing with the salmon for the past two decades. And she would reveal what she had found in the 500,000 pages of government documents submitted to the inquiry. Documents that had only been released to inquiry witnesses, and would go back under lock and key the moment the inquiry was over. It should have been a perfect Hollywood moment — like key scenes from Erin Brockovich, Dark Waters or even The Verdict. And when Alex made key documents public, they revealed how the health of wild salmon had been ignored by Fisheries and Oceans for decades.
Skull and Crossbones
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society offers to send a research ship to B.C. to help Alex Morton with her studies. At first, she rejects the offer as too provocative. Sea Shepherd is a contentious environmental organization. But Alex needs to get close to the salmon farms, so she changes her mind. Alex planned to visit all the fish farms off the east coast of Vancouver Island and collect water samples to test for diseases coming out of the farms. And then she got the idea to ask some First Nations people to join her. That was a game-changer.
Overall I enjoyed it!
Very well laid out and delivered. Good audio effects too. It did get a little draggy and repetitive. I still would recommend it. It tells a lot of different stories and really good!
A well told, real-life story with so much to offer on so many levels! Interesting, heart-wrenching, stomach-churning, historical, global, ecological, scientific, cultural, honest and inspirational. Thanks for sharing this story - it touches on many key elements of Alexandra Morton’s book “Not on My Watch” (also an excellent listen!).
Eyeopening, inspiring, and horrifying at once
Thank you for educating on the impacts of salmon fish farms in BC. I was horrified of the practices and complete disregard for the environment of big business, but also incredibly inspired by the relentless effort of Alex and the First Nations. This story really shows how people really can make change!