It was a bit of a media circus Monday in Vancouver.
Scientists, First Nations and celebrities like Pamela Anderson and David Suzuki, were together for the launch of the new Sea Shepherd Conservation Society campaign, Operation Virus Hunter, led by biologist Alexandra Morton.
But it was more than just a glorified photo-op on a boat.
There was also solid support from local First Nations leaders from Chilliwack and other communities, said Eddie Gardner, elder of Skwah First Nation and president of the Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to protect wild salmon,” said Gardner.
He holds the view that open-net fish farms need to be removed from the ocean to protect wild salmon, and strongly supports the work of Alexandra Morton.
When Morton first heard Paul Watson was putting the vessel, the Martin Sheen, into her service, she reported being “stunned,” but grateful.
“I am stepping aboard the Sea Shepherd research vessel Martin Sheen, because as a scientist I have to do what I can to speak up when I see one of Earth’s essential living systems being dismantled,” said Morton about the launch. “In my view of over 20 years of research, salmon farms are destroying the coast of British Columbia with their careless and dangerous release of disease into B.C. waters.”
The voyage will be peaceful, she underlined, despite suggestions to the contrary.
Gardner attended the launch along with local leadership like Cheam Chief Ernie Crey, Matsqui Chief Alice Mackay and Shxwhá:y Village Chief Robert Gladstone, as well as other salmon defenders from Chilliwack.
“I was there because I will never stop raising public awareness about this subject,” said Gardner, referring to the wild salmon rallies in front of grocery stores and big box stores that he holds monthly across the province.
What did he think about TV star and Sea Shepherd director Pamela Anderson lending her name to the cause?
“I think she is a valuable contributor to this effort because she has a deep concern for wildlife and biodiversity,” said Gardner.
What she had to say showed him that Anderson “is very well read” on the issue and very concerned for the coastal salmon and can bring attention to the issue.
“She speaks clearly and from the heart, and has done her own research on the impacts of fish farms, as well as the health concern of consuming farmed salmon,” he said.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association spokesperson Jeremy Dunn responded to Operation Virus Hunter with a release saying they were concerned with the activists’ aims for the voyage and the campaign.
“We’re disappointed that this latest publicity stunt is attempting to paint a misleading picture of an industry that provides a healthy, sustainable product that feeds millions of people,” said Dunn.
But Morton is concerned about piscine reovirus (PRV), which she said has been found around open-net pens, and that’s the focus of the work they’ll be doing.
Dunn said it’s important to distinguish “research from advocacy.”
“Both are legitimate but they are different,” he said. “The research question that is the focus of this voyage seems to be the presence of the virus PRV. The answer is already out there: PRV is common on this coast and has been since the late 1980s. Like people, all animals have thousands of viruses.
“What we worry about is do they cause disease. This is the more interesting question. The answer for salmon and PRV after years of study is no.”
Not only that, but the BCSFA is “obsessed” with the health of salmon, Dunn said, with “world-leading practices” and all farms certified by third-party environmental sustainability and food safety standards.
Despite the industry reassurance, many are still very concerned about the health of the ocean are worried in particular about the expansion of the ocean-based aquaculture industry, said Gardner.
“It poses a danger. I don’t want to see our wild salmon disappear. Once that happens it could trigger a whole series of impacts. It’s very much in the best interest of all Canadians, and everyone to protect our wild salmon.”