Alexandra Morton and the Battle Over Salmon

Photo Courtesy of Sea Shepherd Society

Photo Courtesy of Sea Shepherd Society

Biologist Alexandra Morton began researching the orca whales off the coast of British Columbia 30 years ago. Around that time, the local salmon farming industry grew, and acoustic seal repellant systems were scaring away the whales as well. When whales abandoned the archipelago, she ultimately shifted her research focus to the negative impacts of salmon farms on wild salmon.

Today, the 2010 Women of Discovery Sea Award recipient is embroiled in an ongoing battle, involving direct action with indigenous communities, high-stakes litigation and a research on viruses in farm salmon for sale in markets. Alex spoke to us about her research and her efforts to protect wild salmon in Canada.

WINGS WORLDQUEST: Your work revolves around salmon and fish farms. Can you tell us more about what you’re doing?

ALEXANDRA MORTON: My work has increasingly focused on trying to protect the wild salmon of British Columbia from the impact of salmon farms. Salmon farms amplify pathogens, which flow freely out of the pens into the ocean. Wild salmon migrating past the farms become overwhelmed by the unnaturally heavy exposure to viruses, bacteria and parasites and they suffer losses.

WWQ: You won the WINGS WorldQuest Sea Award in 2010. Can tell us about some of the highlights of your life and career that have happened since that time?

AM: Since becoming a WINGS Fellow I have published five scientific papers, four of them on a salmon blood virus called piscine orthoreovirus, PRV, that infects a large percentage of farm salmon in BC. I have taken the salmon farming companies and the Minister of Fisheries to court twice and won both cases to require PRV screening for farm salmon prior to transfer into marine farms, which to date the Minister refuses to do. I joined the indigenous people of the area where I do my research in occupying two salmon farms for 280 days. This brought the provincial government to them, and after 18 months of talks it was agreed that the 17 salmon farms in their territory would be removed over a four year period. I am currently finishing a book on all of these events, and continuing my research into the impact and spread of PRV.

WWQ: How do you think the landscape for women working in the sciences has changed since you first became a Fellow? Do you feel women are still encountering the same obstacles they were at that time?

AM: I work independently, and so I don’t face the challenges of being a woman working in a hierarchy of scientists. My findings are uncomfortable to an industry and to government, and so I am not sure if the struggle I face has to do with the findings themselves, or that I am a woman, or perhaps because I work independently. I think most biologists who conduct fieldwork over a long period of time – and thus are a witness to the changes – are in my position. We are trying to alleviate the pressures that are causing natural systems to falter. However, biologists may be among the least-suited to deal with situations like this. We chose to spend our lives focused on animal life, not people. We are fingertips of society, trying to send messages back to the collective brain warning that we must loosen our crushing grip on the natural flow of energy that supports life on earth. For us the damage is real. We understand the consequences. We are driven to do everything we can to protect life and it never feels like we have done enough.

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