The arrival in July of the Sea Shepherd’s RV Martin Sheen on its “Operation Virus Hunter” expedition to examine salmon farms along the east coast of Vancouver Island had an unexpected effect.
The ship’s mere presence created a physical and symbolic place for First Nations to express their seething resentment about an industry that many of them have been opposing for nearly 30 years.
As the ship visited fish farms, it became a catalyst for action by the many chiefs and elders invited aboard.
Their growing uneasiness inspired them to respond to the diminishing runs of salmon, herring and oolichans that represent their traditional way of life.
These species constitute their life-blood.
And they blame salmon farms for spreading the diseases, parasites and pollution that threaten their identity by contaminating their sacred waters.
The threat, they contend, constitutes cultural genocide, for they are literally “salmon people”, intimately bound for millennia to the natural cycles of the wild salmon’s generosity.
Since the arrival of salmon farms — without consultation in their “un-ceded waters and territories,” as hereditary chief George Quocksister Jr. explains — their anxiety has been growing.
Visits to the actual salmon farms confirmed their worst fears.
The fetid carcasses of rotting dead salmon in the putrid “mort totes” represent the hidden reality of these sites.
Schools of herring were feeding on fragments of food pellets laced with antibiotics and colourants.
Just a few minutes of underwater videos revealed farmed Atlantics feeding on unidentified small wild fish — perhaps oolichans, a once plentiful fish now on the verge of extinction.
Symptoms of viral diseases were immediately evident.
Dozens of farmed fish were lined up facing the nets, swimming lethargically and demonstrating the typical symptoms of heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI), the physical manifestation of the highly infectious piscine reovirus now known to be epidemic in salmon farms.
Other Atlantics were covered in boils, an indication of the highly contagious furunculosis, a disease that has been linked to the decimation of stream runs of coho and chinook.
One farmed fish was bulging with a large tumour.
Another, so emaciated that it resembled a large-headed eel, swam slowly and aimlessly toward an immanent death.
Unseen but imagined were the viruses and parasites, spreading by the billions from such prisons of disease, sickness and suffering.
Some First Nations witnesses indicated their revulsion caused them to feel physically upset.
Indeed, these people believe the persistence of salmon farming in its present form is a dire threat to the beloved wild salmon that are the foundation of their culture.
So, increasing numbers of them are taking the initiative to give eviction notices to the salmon farming corporations.
In an August 29th ceremony, a procession of chiefs and elders in full regalia drummed a route along Campbell River’s streets to their Big House.
There, in the solemn presence of an open fire and their totem poles, they made speeches and pledges to rid their territories of ocean net-pen salmon farms.
Then they drummed to the office of Marine Harvest, the largest of the salmon farming corporations.
A locked door and security guard prevented them from delivering their eviction notice.
But, like the persistent power of water, they will find a way.