Wild salmon crusader visits the Shuswap

Wild salmon are clearly the Shuswap’s most iconic species, as not only did these fish help sustain the Secwepemc peoples for countless generations but also salmon connect our region to the coast as well as to a sizeable portion of the rest of the province. Although habitat destruction has contributed to significant declines in some of parts of our watershed, both the Adams and Shuswap Rivers along with other streams continue to often have bountiful returns of both sockeye and Coho salmon.

But even these runs are not consistently healthy, as many issues plague the salmon from overfishing to climate change. Since the 1980s concerns have been growing over impacts of the ever-expanding fish farm industry. Shuswap’s wild salmon along with salmon that spawn in many other Fraser River tributaries must travel by these fish farms on their way north to Alaska and elsewhere and when they return to spawn.

Problems are rampant in fish farms, as these fish are raised in large numbers in a small space, which creates conditions that foster disease outbreaks. As with other farm animals that are raised in cramped spaces, it is necessary to use antibiotics just to keep the fish alive. Many of the companies that operate B.C. fish feedlots are from Norway, where most of the wild salmon were killed off years ago due to the spread of disease from farmed stocks. Thus, it is no wonder that fish farming is not allowed in adjacent jurisdictions, including Alaska, where salmon stocks are very healthy and continue to consistently flourish.

Despite persistent government and industry claims that open net salmon farms pose no threats to wild salmon, opposition to these unhealthy fish feedlots has been growing, just as concerns have been increasing over the health of wild salmon due to recent significant declines in the Fraser stocks. One of the most outspoken and knowledgeable leaders in the campaign to oppose the salmon farms is Dr. Alexandra Morton, who is often considered a true Canadian hero.

She began her research in B.C. studying killer whales, but in the late 1980s her focus switched to the impact of fish farms on wild salmon and soon her papers, published in leading journals such as Science, were warning how sea lice were spreading from the farmed Atlantic salmon to wild pink salmon. In 2001, she predicted the stock collapse that occurred the following year.  After she went to the B.C. Supreme Court in 2009, the decision required the federal government to uphold their constitutional obligation for regulating the ocean fishery, which forced them to take over management of the fish farm industry from the province.

Last year Morton provided key testimony to the Cohen Commission, the federal inquiry into the decline of the Fraser River sockeye, and her efforts resulted in the province releasing detailed fish farm disease records. Her research has found that salmon anemia, a disease associated with farmed salmon, is present on the West Coast, despite denials by the government. Most recently, Morton has had tests done on farmed salmon purchased at lower mainland supermarkets that show evidence of a virus associated with heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, another disease that afflicts fish farms in Norway. This disease could be partly responsible for the die-off that often occurs in the Fraser River or in the Shuswap before the salmon have a chance to spawn.

During the second week of May, Shuswap residents will have the opportunity to hear Dr. Morton speak about the impacts that the fish feedlot industry is having on the wild salmon. Throughout this tour, there will also be a focus on local issues that are impacting the health of salmon. On May 9th in Lumby, the local issue is the need for a fish ladder at the Wilsey Dam, so salmon could spawn farther up the Shuswap River.

In Salmon Arm on May 10th, one of the local issues is the effort underway for many years to restore the streambanks of the Salmon River where habitat destruction has had a devastating impact of the health of this run. Streambank erosion due to speedboats on the Shuswap River between Mara Lake and Kingfisher is one of the key concerns in Enderby where Morton speaks on May 11th. And on May 12th, during the hike through Roderick Haig-Brown Park, one hot topic will be the effort soon to be underway to purchase the Cottonwood Campground that is adjacent to the Adams River freshwater estuary, which is home to sockeye fry after they emerge from the river gravel in the spring.

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Treasures come in assorted shapes and sizes. They might be a grandmother’s beaded purse, or an old apple basket like one resting atop my bookshelf that transports me to the family farm, with voices shouting from treetops as we pluck Macs and Golden Delicious. A personal scrapbook can also be an unexpected treasure, and The Shuswap Country by Erskine Burnett is just that.

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