BC lags behind Washington in battle to save southern orca pod

Guest Column

As the young whale lagged behind her family, panic gripped her exhausted body. She was tortured by a new sensation, being cold, as her insulating layer of fat was gone.

An orca can never build a nest, crawl into a cave or curl up to stay warm and rest. They must rise to the surface for every breath.

Millions of people watched as three-year-old Scarlett, J50, of the southern resident orca pod starved to death. This tragedy came just weeks after the 17-day grief tour by the young mother Tahlquah, J35, who carried her dead newborn calf for 1,000 miles.

Today, a young male, Scooter, K25, is the latest orca on death-watch, drone footage revealing the onset of the weight loss that left Scarlet in a near skeletal state.

A sign of our times perhaps, we are on a first name basis with a group of animals as we bear witness to their extinction. Listed as endangered in 2005, the last member was born in November 2015 and ten have died since then. There are only 74 southern resident orca left, three appear pregnant, but the odds are against a successful birth.

When researchers trained dogs to sniff out whale feces, we got our first solid clue. Analyzing the samples for pregnancy hormones revealed that 69% of pregnancies in the southern resident orca pod failed, because they were starving for a lack of Fraser and Columbia River Chinook salmon. Almost half of these deaths occurred just before or after birth, like Tahlquah’s female calf that survived for only 30 minutes.

So much human emotion has been stirred in support of these whales that the US and Canadian governments know they must be seen doing something and this is where you can have a hand in the fate of these whales. The science makes a clear case the whales need more Chinook salmon and this is where a controversial virus from Norway comes into play.

Piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV, infects the red blood cells of salmon. While it causes inflammation in Atlantic salmon, it appears to be more dangerous to Chinook salmon causing their blood cells to burst causing organ failure. The problem for the orca is that 80% of BC farm salmon are infected with PRV, which the industry admits, and most of the 120 BC salmon farms are located on the Fraser River migration route and wild salmon that are exposed to the farms are becoming infected.

Washington State passed legislation to phase out Atlantic salmon net pen farming within four years. They prohibited the transfer of 800,000 PRV-infected young Atlantic salmon from a land-based hatchery into a marine farm in Puget Sound because the risk to wild salmon was too great.

However, Canada is moving in the opposite direction. The Minister of Fisheries refuses to screen farm salmon for PRV prior to issuing the permit required to transfer them into sea pens. It is against the law to put fish carrying a disease agent into Canadian waters (Section 56, Fishery General Regs), but the Minister of Fisheries is issuing permits blindly without knowing whether the fish are infected or not.

First Nations chief versus salmon farmer: Dzawada’enuxw (Kingcome) chief Willie Moon serves Cermaq employee an eviction notice
Photo: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

With the help of Ecojustice, an environmental law group, I took the Minister of Fisheries and Marine Harvest to court and we won in 2015.  However, the succession of ministers since then simply refused to acknowledge this decision and so millions of infected Atlantic salmon are entering BC farms. I know because I am testing them.

So I sued him again, and more importantly the ‘Namgis of Alert Bay sued him as well.  In early September, lawyers for our new Minister of Fisheries, Jonathan Wilkinson, MP for North Vancouver, who just inherited this mess, argued alongside the lawyers for Norwegian-run Marine Harvest and Cermaq, another salmon farmer, that there is no need to screen for PRV.

Two countries, one virus, opposite policies and the fate of an entire population of whales is caught in the middle.

To restore Chinook salmon, stop fishing for them, remove the dams in the lower Snake River in Washington to repopulate productive spawning grounds, safeguard their rearing habitat and stop exposing them to a virus that causes their cells to explode.

Deformed, emaciated and sea louse infected Atlantic salmon in Marine Harvest salmon farm in the Broughton Archipelago. Photo: Alexandra Morton

First Nations 300 km to the north of the Salish Sea, in the Broughton Archipelago, staged a 280-day occupation of the salmon farms in their territory and filed lawsuits against the Minister of Fisheries and the companies. In response, the Province of BC entered historic government-to-government talks with these nations to decide whether to renew one fifth of the salmon farm tenures in BC, which expired last year and continue on a temporary basis. The nations did this because the wild salmon around the farms are in collapse and the loss of salmon is a threat to their health.

To his credit, Premier Horgan has not yet decided whether to renew the salmon farm tenures that expired in June. At stake is the first real step in the reconciliation process, investment in closed containment fish farming, the lives of the whales we profess to love and BC’s sovereign right to carry out its duty for the benefit of the public in the face of pressure from foreign companies. This is a big deal. Maybe let him know we have his back on this one.

Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist who began studying orca in a remote archipelago of the BC coast in 1979.  When salmon farms moved into the region, and the impact became apparent, Morton began a 30-plus year odyssey publishing science and eventually engaging in activism to protect wild salmon by moving salmon farming out of the ocean. Morton has been featured on 60 Minutes, adopted by First Nations, published five book, and built a research station. You can follow her work via her Facebook page.