The Wild Salmon Lady

Story by Mark Hume

Alexandra Morton, the wild salmon lady of the West Coast, lives in a small cottage in the village of Sointula, just a short ferry ride off the northeast shoulder of Vancouver Island.

Working at her kitchen table, where she puts in huge hours on a laptop, she connects with anti-fish farm activists, scientists, journalists and politicians from around the world.

Alexandra Morton on the waters of the Broughton Archepelago

Outside a narrow piece of grass, contentedly mowed by a horse, separates her from the vivid blue waters of Rough Bay, which is tranquil this morning, reflecting the snow capped mountains that run along Vancouver Island’s backbone. Out behind the cottage she looks across the water at the rugged Coast Range, which tumbles north towards the Great Bear Rainforest, and beyond that, Alaska.

“That’s where I want to be,” she says wistfully, as if the sea, which washes ashore not 30 feet from her back door,  is somehow distant and unreachable.

Her idea of a perfect day is to rise at dawn and head out in her boat, wandering until she finds a tide line, where a rich seam in the ocean currents is marked by a ribbon of flotsam.  Then she turns off the engine and drifts with a hydrophone hung over the side.

“You can hear herring [which swim past in large schools]. They sound like lemons being squished. You can hear the whisk, whisk, whisk of otter feet. You can hear whales. . .and you can even hear the rocks rolling on the pebble beaches,” she says.

But the days when she can escape to that idyllic world are few, says Ms. Morton, who is tied to her computer, fearing that if she rests she may fail at her self-appointed task of trying to drive fish farms from the coastal waters of British Columbia.

She has not always been opposed to fish farms. At first she thought they were a good thing. She imagined small farms, run by locals, growing healthy salmon. Free range chickens were good, why not free range fish?

But then she saw industrial size of the farms. And she saw farms locating in prime bays where local fishermen had been going for generations to catch cod and salmon.

The big farms moved in, took over – and then she started to fear that disease, and lice epidemics would spread from the densely-packed net pens to passing wild fish. She began to sample pink salmon fry in the spring, and found signs of massive lice epidemics.

Soon her fight against fish farms had begun to consume all her energy.

“The fish farm thing just crept up into my life . . .now I call it a battle,” she says.

Alexandra Morton shows off a Pink Salmon Smolt covered with Sea Lice. Photo by Nick Didlick

Long before she became a pivotal, and polarizing figure in British Columbia, Ms. Morton, 55, was a young American University graduate from Washington, D.C., who was intent on studying killer whales. She had been observing two captive whales at the San Diego aquarium but began to suspect the whales had “gone mad” living in tanks.

Influenced by work she’d done with the late Dr. John C. Lilly (who researched inter-species communication, experimented with LSD, knew Timothy Leary and believed in the super intelligence of dolphins) Ms. Morton became convinced Orcas have a complex and highly developed language. But she felt she had to study whales in their natural habitat if she was ever going to understand what they were saying.

In B.C. she found not only the home pods of the two captive Orcas she’d got to know in captivity, but also a wild place she was instantly and overwhelmingly drawn to.

“I loved everything about it, the cold, the wet. . . I just felt – this this is my habitat,” she said.

She also fell in love with Robin Morton, a young film maker who was then part of an itinerant group of researchers following killer whales through the narrow inlets along Vancouver Island’s northeast coast.

“People were camped on beaches all over the strait, just following whales  . . . It was fun,” says Ms. Morton who was recording whale calls and trying to decipher the language of the deep.

“One day Robin came out of the water and stripped naked . . he had this [killer whale] tatoo on his shoulder . . .I was married, pregnant and living on a boat with him within a year,” she says of how bewilderingly fast her life changed.

Ms. Morton, who can talk non-stop for an hour about her research, pauses in her conversation and looks out at the sea before going on to describe the death that shattered her life.

“Robin was exploring the underwater world of the Orca,” she said. “He was always pushing for better shots . . .and he thought it would be better not to make bubbles. It’s a threat gesture [from one whale to another] and it’s noisy. So he got this re-breather. . .and it malfunctioned under water. He fainted.”

She stops talking again. Her cup of tea grows cold on the table. Clouds rearrange the light falling on the sea outside the tiny, 640 square foot ocean-front cabin she lives in.

“He had drilled into me: ‘Do not wreck the shot,’ “ says Ms. Morton to explain why, even after the killer whale her husband had been diving with surfaced and left the bay, she kept waiting for him to come up.

The minutes dragged by.

“ I was there with our little boy [in the boat]’” she said. “For the longest time I just agonized about what to do. So, I went in, and saw him lying on the bottom.”

She tied a rope to herself, left her toddler alone in the small inflatable, and dove down. It was too late. Robin had drowned. She watched his camera roll down the shelf, into deeper water.

“I was 28,” she says of that September day in 1986.

Ms. Morton still can’t understand why the killer whale didn’t somehow signal to her that her husband was in trouble.

“He died right next to one. And she didn’t tell me. I know that’s totally irrational,” she says, struggling to maintain her composure. “But that’s how I feel.”

Her eyes flick to the computer screen and the stack of unread messages brings her back to the moment.

“I get up at 5:30 in the morning and work until midnight. But I am never done. Never,” says Ms. Morton, who put aside her killer whale research shortly after her husband’s death, and began to work full time fighting fish farms.

She wants open net salmon pens removed from the B.C. coast, because of the threat they pose to wild stocks.

Critics dismiss her views as extreme and challenge her scientific research as biased. But no matter what you think of her, there can be no doubt that in waging her fierce campaign against both a powerful industry and its allies in government, Ms. Morton has emerged as one of the world’s leading champions in the anti-fish farm movement.

She is sustained by donations that come through the mail, or by cash that is pressed into her hands by strangers at the many public events she attends.

She is almost always broke and with a teenaged daughter, Clio, (from a second, but now ended relationship) who is soon to graduate from high school, admits to frequent bouts of financial despair.

“I don’t know how I will ever afford to send her to college,” says Ms. Morton. “I often don’t know how I’ll pay next month’s rent. The public is keeping me alive. They are paying my bills, buying my groceries.”

Her activism and research have made her the go-to source for information on salmon farming’s negative impacts.

She gets e-mails from activists, concerned citizens, researchers and the media from all over the world.

“I get so many questions . . . People want to know what the latest research is . . .they want to know how to stop fish farms in their communities . . . I don’t want to be anybody’s leader,” she says. “But there has to be some kind of a leader and I have so much [information] in my head.”

Ms. Morton’s campaign began about two decades ago, when salmon farms, which initially on B.C. were small, family-run operations clustered along the Sunshine Coast, near Vancouver, began to expand in size and move north into pristine waters.

When the farms first showed up in the Broughton Archepelago, where a recently widowed Ms. Morton was living in a float house at Echo Bay with her young son, Jarret (who would later grow up to become a rocket scientist and work for NASA) she said the small community turned to her for help.

“I was the only one with a word processor in Echo Bay,” she said, of the community where about 100 fishermen and their families lived. “So of course people thought I should do liason with government.”

She said the initial concern was that fish farms were being located on prime cod and salmon fishing locations.

“We all went over to a community meeting (with government officials) in Alert Bay,” said Ms. Morton. “I remember that day because a storm was blowing. But we came across and we sat around a table and put red zones on a map where it just wouldn’t be acceptable to have farms. We thought that was it.”

Alexandra Morton Photo by Nick Didlick

But when the government’s siting plans came out, fish farms had been approved in every red zone.  The public’s concerns had been ignored. That is when she began the battle that has confounded and frustrated the fish farming industry, and has shaken the government. She went to the Supreme Court of B.C. and proved that the province had acted illegally in assuming regulation of fish farming, which forced the federal government to take over management of the industry from the province. At the Cohen Commission, a $26-million federal inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye, she made the province release detailed disease records on fish farms.

She has collected wild salmon and had them tested for a variety of diseases, finding proof of ISA or infectious salmon anemia, embarrassing the Canadian government, which should have done the testing itself.

The government in the summer of 20102 launched a sampling program – but by the time  it did, Ms. Morton had moved on, and had tested samples taken from farmed fish being sold in Vancouver supermarkets. Again she got positive results, this time for a heart disease which she thinks could be linked to a chronic in-river mortality problem that some years sees more than 80 per cent of wild salmon drop dead before spawning. A short time after that revelation, two fish farms issued statements saying they were culling hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon, because of different disease problems. If nothing else, the public admissions of disease outbreaks were a sign that Ms. Morton had rattled the industry – they know if they don’t release bad news, she will.

Her research papers, which have been published in leading journals, including Science, have challenged the orthodoxy of fisheries research, and have caused the fish farm industry to work harder to control sea lice.

Her advocacy has fueled public pressure to have salmon farms moved out of the open ocean, and placed in closed containment, on land. And her constant vigilance has pushed the industry to work hard at improving its practices.

In 2011 she walked the length of Vancouver Island, prompting a series of public rallies that peaked with a huge public gathering of several thousand people on  legislature lawns on Earth Day.

But despite all that Ms. Morton feels she is not winning the battle against fish farms, which continue to operate in bays all along the south coast of B.C, along the migration routes of salmon headed for the Fraser River and other major watersheds.

“ I haven’t shut down one fish farm,” she says dejectedly. “I have to admit – I might fail at this.”

So why does she keep fighting?

She looks longingly out the window, thinking of the inlets and channels she knows so well, thinking of the whale songs that she hears echoing across the depths and of the  tiny, sparkling  salmon that she lifts in dip nets each spring from the shallows, to examine for sea lice.

“I’m defending my home,” she says.

Sea Lice on a salmon smolt Photo by Nick Didlick