Alexandra Morton’s Salmon Fight

Alexandra Morton’s Salmon Fight

In northern British Columbia, a self-trained biologist is battling fish farms in hopes of saving the orca whale population.

Alexandra Morton moved to northern British Columbia 25 years ago to study orca whales. A self-trained biologist, Morton and her filmmaker husband studied the killer whales’ movements, patterns and vocalizations. At the time, the orca population was abundant. Now it has all but vanished. Morton’s current research focuses on salmon farms, which she believes caused the orcas’ departure from the area. The culprits, she says, are small parasites called sea lice which infect the young salmon. In the wild, these parasites are common but they die off during the winter. In the fish farms the lice don’t die off and younger fish are more likely to perish from them.

Early on Morton was dismissed as an amateur, but years of research has earned her the support and respect of fishery experts and other scientists. In 2007 she helped write an article in the scientific journal Science reporting that sea lice are killing enough juvenile pink salmon to ensure local extinction within ten years. Morton calls salmon the “keystone” species in the area because orcas, bears and eagles rely upon salmon in their diets to survive. Salmon farming is a $450 million industry in British Columbia, so it is no surprise that Morton’s research is met with resistance. But Morton says “the ecosystem is crumbling under the weight of the (farming) industry.” Her advice to consumers: stop buying farmed fish.

This New York Times video includes footage of the pristine British Columbia wilderness and interviews with Morton, other scientists and a local fish farmer.

Length: 7:26

Video: Cornelia Dean and Patrick Farrell