Alexandra Morton’s Furunculosis Fable

Alexandra Morton is a great storyteller.

Whenever she tells her stories about salmon farming, she likes to use examples from her experience as semi-factual parables to illustrate her latest anti-aquaculture sermon.

One of her favourites is the Story of Scott Cove Hatchery.

Scott_Cove_Gilford_Island_small
The community of Scott Cove, on Gilford Island. The nearest salmon farm is 4.5 km away “as the fish swims.”

The earliest telling of this tale we could find comes from a 1996 edition of the “Earth Island Journal” which was published in an old listserv.

In the Broughton Archipelago, one salmon farm company introduced smolts infected with a strain of furunculosis that proved resistant to all British Columbia-approved antibiotics. Wild Chinook salmon passed the fish farms at the time of the epidemic, and the next year, Chinook stocks collapsed in the adjacent Kingcome Inlet.

She retold this story in the Winter 1998 edition of the “Synthesis/Regeneration” report her Raincoast Research outfit used to publish.

The coho hatchery in the archipelago where I live was disease-free 10 years before fish farms, but now suffers loss of precious broodstock.

When the IBEC corporation put diseased Atlantic salmon in their Broughton pens, the coho returned dying of the same disease. Furunculosis occurs naturally in BC, but the coho of the Broughton were evidently unfamiliar with the strain carried by the Atlantic salmon. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) deemed the farm and hatchery epidemics coincidental, but the farmers steadfastly refuse to reveal what strain infected their fish, so there can be no definitive answer.

Two years later, in 1993, the diseased Atlantics Scanmar put in the Broughton were resistant to all antibiotics used in BC salmon farms. DFO approved a new antibiotic, erythromycin, previously banned in fish destined for market. Again, wild coho died, chinook stocks collapsed and DFO reported another coincidence, even though that was the first year antibiotic resistance appeared in the wild fish.

That same winter, she told this story again in a column published in the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper.

During the past 15 years, a local community-run coho hatchery project rejuvenated 17 creeks. The hatchery was disease-free until, in 1991, it became a sickening barometer of fish farm impact. Just as foreign bodies in our bloodstream threaten us, foreign fish threaten the lifeblood of our coast, our wild salmon.

When the American chicken farm corporation IBEC opened up salmon farming operations here, they mistakenly brought in diseased Scottish salmon in 1991. The disease devastated their own farms and the same bacteria appeared in the returning coho, killing 28 per cent of the hatchery broodstock.

When the Norwegian fish farm corporation Scanmar farmed Atlantic salmon here, a drug-resistant pathogen spread 19 kilometres through primary chinook salmon nursery grounds and infected other B.C. Packers fish farms. The chinook population collapsed instantly and drug resistance made an appearance in the hatchery.

Surprisingly, the agency which has a statuatory obligation to protect marine life, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, refused to identify or track these strains of bacteria from the fish farms. With no supporting evidence, they claimed the hatchery and farm salmon epidemics were unrelated.

This exact same column was published in the Jan. 1999 Bulletin on APEC Marine Conservation.

Dr. Don Noakes, then director of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, submitted a rebuttal.

The first reported disease outbreak at the community-operated hatchery mentioned by Ms. Morton occurred in 1990, 1 year before the industry experienced any problems and 3 years before a drug resistance bacteria problem surfaced in the industry.

The community hatchery began having a problem with drug resistance following the use of oxytetracycline to treat the hatchery fish.

The drug resistance at the hatchery differed significantly from that found in the furunculosis outbreaks in industry, by being resistant only to the one drug used, while bacteria resistant to several drugs were found on the farms.

The disease outbreaks at the community hatchery and the fish farm were therefore disinfected eggs from hatcheries passing strict health checks into approved quarantine facilities. The risk of importing furunculosis or other disease agents under our restrictive import requirements is very low.

Recently, we found some information from the original investigation of the furunculosis outbreak. This information was sent to her by DFO’s director-general for the Pacific region on Dec. 9, 1993. It sheds an interesting light on her furunculosis story, and her claims that drug-resistant strains of were somehow more harmful to wild fish.

We are not aware of any scientific literature indicating that enhanced resistance to antibiotics is correlated with enhanced virulence in bacteria, and on a genetic basis, we would not expect that there would be as the two traits are almost certainly controlled by different genes. Although we have no specific information on the virulence of multiple resistant As (aeromonas salmonicida) we would expect the disease risk to passing wild fish would be similar to that posed by As strains that are not drug resistant.

To address the contention that cross-infection between wild and farmed fish occurs, tests were carried out this spawning season to determine whether the drug-resistant variety of As isolated at the salmon farms was picked up by Kakweikan River pink salmon. The results of that testing proved negative, but did confirm the presence of a non-drug resistant strain of As in a few of the sampled fish.

The letter goes on to describe how drug-resistant strains of bacteria in a population of fish that are not treated would be at a disadvantage, and that DFO salmon enhancement hatcheries have occasionally isolated drug-resistant strains of bacteria. However, the drug-resistant strains did not persist.

Given that furunculosis is enzootic in B.C., that it is usually controllable by antibiotics, and that cross-infection between wild and farmed fish is unlikely, we did not believe there was sufficient reason to close the affected farms.

We also found minutes from a joint meeting between DFO, the provincial environment ministry, and the provincial ministry responsible for agriculture at the time. There is an unfortunate typo in the last paragraph (a “not” is in the last sentence when in context with the rest of the document it clearly does not belong there) but the rest of the minutes show there was no connection between the Scott Cove furunculosis and nearby salmon farm furunculosis outbreaks.

After lengthy discussion, it was generally agreed that the differing antibiotic sensitivity profiles indicated that there was no relationship between the two isolates and hence no relationship between the PIP epizootic [at Scott Cove] and past epizootics in commercial facilities.

Site Erythomycin Romet Tribrissen
Scott Cove resistant sensitive sensitive
Local Commercial Operations sensitive resistant resistant

This information was made available to Morton way back in 1993, who has clearly continued to ignore it for the past 20 years in favour of storytelling:

2013-01-17_Morton_furunculosis

She is wrong. Furunculosis from salmon farms did not infect the Scott Cove community hatchery, and the facts prove this. She has just chosen to ignore these facts for the past 20 years.

More fact-checking: Chinook collapse

Morton has made many other claims related to the Story of Scott Cove Hatchery that are wrong and misleading.

Wild Chinook salmon passed the fish farms at the time of the epidemic, and the next year, Chinook stocks collapsed in the adjacent Kingcome Inlet. (Alexandra Morton in the Earth Island Journal, 1996)

No. They did not.

Chinook in the Broughton region had been on a downward trend for a half-century when this was charted in 1996.
Chinook in the Broughton region had been on a downward trend for a half-century when this was charted in 1996.

Chinook stocks in the Broughton region have been on a steady downward trend since the mid-1950s. In a 1987 survey of all Chinook and coho stocks from Alaska to California done by NOAA, there were only 6,180 natural (i.e. not from salmon enhancement projects) Chinook spawners identified for the entire Broughton region.

There were only 870 natural spawners identified for Kingcome Inlet in the 1987 survey, done before salmon farming expanded in the region.

Morton knows there was nothing unusual about the Chinook runs in the Broughton during this time period, because she researched it for one of her earliest published and peer-reviewed science papers. In fact, as salmon farm production grew in the Broughton Archipelago to its current levels by 2000, Chinook escapements dramatically increased to levels not even seen before salmon farms showed up.

Broughton Chinook Escapement

Morton knows this, it was in her own research paper! Yet in her Facebook post this week, she still claims that “we lost the wild Chinook!” Talk about a selective memory.

More fact-checking: Eggs from Scotland

When the American chicken farm corporation IBEC opened up salmon farming operations here, they mistakenly brought in diseased Scottish salmon in 1991. (Alexandra Morton, Jan. 1999 Bulletin on APEC Marine Conservation)

Rumours held that these Atlantic salmon had come from the Landcatch Hatchery in Scotland, which had also sold fish to Norway sparking a furunculosis epidemic that infected dozens of wild rivers. (Alexandra Morton, Facebook post, Jan. 17, 2013)

The last time BC salmon farmers imported any eggs from Scotland was in 1988. The only eggs imported from outside North America in 1991 came from Ireland.

More fact-checking: Scott Cove Hatchery

It is interesting to note that in the 1987 survey of all Chinook and coho stocks from Alaska to California done by NOAA, Gilford Island (home of the Scott Cove hatchery), is devoid of any natural spawning populations of Chinook, and only 580 naturally spawning coho. The survey also notes there are 0 hatchery facilities on the island for either species. Yet, Morton claimed:

During the past 15 years, a local community-run coho hatchery project rejuvenated 17 creeks. The hatchery was disease-free until, in 1991, it became a sickening barometer of fish farm impact. (Alexandra Morton, Jan. 1999 Bulletin on APEC Marine Conservation)

That’s very interesting, because if she meant that the Scott Cove Hatchery had been in operation for 15 years when she wrote this in 1998, the hatchery would have started in 1983. The NOAA survey in 1987 shows no such hatchery facilities in operation on Gilford Island in 1987.

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6 thoughts on “Alexandra Morton’s Furunculosis Fable”

  1. It seems that the salmon farming dindustry is running scared after viewing Salmon Confidential and rading the test results of Dr Morty’s finding about piscene reovirus. The writing is on the wall but the fish farm industry hasn’t learned to read yet.

    1. Do you have any response to this post about furunculosis? It’s quite revealing how Alexandra Morton clearly manufactured a story about furunculosis, despite being confronted with mountains of evidence to the contrary. She make up this scary story, why would you believe the other ones she tells?

  2. You guys are spending a ridiculous amount of money following Alex, you must be scared! If you had nothing to hide and you were not to blame then there would be no issue.. Funny it’s not going away and it won’t any time soon.Keep wasting your money though stalking her life, this blog is not scientific nor is it factual.

  3. I could list about 20…no make that 40 other BS stories she has peddled over the years. Not one has yet to be true. She’s a real shining endorsement of what Simon Fraser University can produce – oh wait, she didn’t actually attend that University either.

    What a goof.

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