Alexandra Morton and her lawyer Greg McDade - pictured here during their landmark legal case regarding the regulation of aquaculture in 2009

Title Fight at Cohen Commission: Morton vs. Industry-Government Juggernaut


Yesterday, on the penultimate day of the Cohen Commission’s hearings on aquaculture and diseases, Alexandra Morton finally took the stand. To say the event lived up to its billing is an understatement, as the Inquiry often characterized by technocratic tedium was jolted to life in its final rounds.

At the heart of the conflict lay the pattern of breathtaking industry-government collusion and secrecy that has characterized the aquaculture issue for decades – to a degree even I didn’t fully fathom until now.

Joining Morton and Living Oceans Society’s Catherine Stewart (who acquitted herself admirably) on the stand were two industry reps: Clare Backman, Director of Sustainability for Marine Harvest (now there’s an oxymoron), and Mia Parker, formerly of Grieg Seafoods, but now of DFO.

The Commission’s lawyer introduced Ms. Parker saying, “I’m not asking you to wear your DFO hat today, as that would be confusing.”

It’s actually simpler than it sounds. It’s called a conflict of interest.

And yet, charting this pair’s career paths does require a modicum of concentration, lest one gets lost in the whirlwind of the industry-government revolving door.

You see, Backman used to work for the Province, back when it had jurisdiction over aquaculture. More specifically, he was instrumental in selecting sites for fish farms on the coast. Then, in 2002, he went to work for the industry, ending up at Marine Harvest. Parker, on the other hand, worked for the industry up until recently, whereupon she transferred to government – specifically, designing aquaculture regulations under the new management regime of DFO (Morton and her lawyer Greg McDade forced this change of jurisdiction in 2009 with a landmark legal victory at the BC Supreme Court).

The problematic nature of this arrangement – from the public’s perspective – was evident when McDade, representing Morton at the Inquiry as well, asked Backman to commit to a higher level of fish health data reporting. Backman responded, “We’ll comply with whatever the license requirements are.”

Those would be the license requirements Ms. Parker is now helping to author. Are you with me so far?

In another telling exchange, we heard about a disease referred to as marine anemia, or plasmacytoid leukemia, that was ravaging Chinook farms in the late 80s and early 90s – a pathogen that apparently can jump from farmed Chinook to wild sockeye. This disease was one of Dr. Kritsti Miller’s prime suspects for the mystery virus afflicting millions of Fraser River sockeye with pre-spawn mortality – that which she conceded may hold the answer to the whole mystery the Commission is seeking to solve.

When Morton’s lawyer Greg McDade attempted to enter a summary by his client on the subject into the record, he was met by an instant chorus of objections from counsel for the Federal Government, the Province and the aquaculture industry, respectively. I observed no less than eight objections between them within minutes.

At one point, McDade fired back, “I don’t know why counsel for the Province is trying so hard to keep this evidence from being presented.” By this point, I’d wager most members of the audience could venture a hypothesis or two on that subject.

In the end, Justice Cohen tabled the matter for a later date – indicating he wanted to read this summary document before reaching a final decision on its inclusion in the Inquiry’s public record. However, that didn’t stop McDade from going through several key pages with Morton on the record, expanding on some matters I covered in detail in last week’s column – such as the correlation between the timing of locating these farms on the Fraser sockeye migratory route, circa 1992, and the productivity of said wild fish falling of a cliff.

Of particular note were the Province’s fish health audit records, recently made public for the first time through the Commission (this after counsel for the Campbell/Clark Government initially argued against disclosing them, before finally backing down early last week). McDade zeroed in on one specific data set, which showed that on a particular Chinook farm located in the pathway of migrating juvenile Fraser sockeye in the Discovery Islands area near Campbell River, 23 out of 24 fish sampled bore symptoms of marine anemia.

And yet, somehow no disease outbreak, or “fish health incident”, as it is referred to, was publicly reported or investigated further.

And why not? Because the decision of whether to report it rests in the hands of the fish farm company’s own veterinarians – as this exchange demonstrated:

McDade: So if your farm vets don’t make a diagnosis, it doesn’t get reported.

Long pause

Backman: That’s correct – because in their opinion it doesn’t exist.

McDade: So if 23 out of 24 of these fish die of those symptoms, it doesn’t exist.

You got that right. The disease doesn’t exist unless the industry says it does!

Backman’s rationale, amid courtroom gasps: “Yes, it’s important it gets into the public domain, but it’s also important it doesn’t get taken out of context.” In other words, best err to the side of secrecy and the industry’s interests.

If you’re concerned by what you’re now reading, consider what the Commission heard about the PhD thesis of a recent expert on the stand at the Commission, Dr. Craig Stephen, of the University of Calgary (a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan at the time of the paper). In 1995, Stephen wrote: “Evidence supporting the hypothesis that marine anemia is a spreading, infectious neoplastic disease could have profound regulatory effects on the salmon farming industry.”

On the stand at the Commission years later (two weeks ago), Dr. Stephen would second-guess his own conclusions. And he’s not alone.

Another expert scientist, Dr. Michael Kent, before the Commissioner’s very eyes, backtracked on no less than 10 papers he’d published on marine anemia in journals over a decade.

Is it possible these scientists would rather disavow years of their own research than concede this disease in farmed fish could be related to the mystery virus Dr. Miller is pursuing? A virus which may in turn be “the smoking gun” for collapsing Fraser sockeye runs, as Miller recently told the Commission? If so, talk about taking one for the team!

Morton suggested that in light of Dr. Kent’s astonishing reversal on his own oft-published research, he should be going back to all those publications and retracting said articles – a reasonable request, given Dr. Kent’s own testimony on the stand (testimony which included him suggesting at one point that ocular tumours sent to the Smithsonian cancer registry may have been nothing more than some misdiagnosed inflammation that he really didn’t examine all that closely at the time).

And yet, it was somehow Ms. Morton’s credibility that was on trial on this day – as Canada’s counsel suggested her summary of this disease story was “full of hearsay and speculation”, while the industry’s lawyer impugned her professional conduct, going as far as to accuse her of breaching her code of ethics as a Registered Professional Biologist. Through it all, Morton bravely, calmly stood her ground.

Under the hail of objections as Greg McDade attempted to get Morton’s summary document on the record, his client boiled it all down to one salient point for the Commissioner: “The only thing I want you to take from this is that Dr. Miller needs to be able to do her work – someone who is an expert in disease needs to be free to look at this.” (The Commission also heard of the enormous obstacles Miller’s research is facing at its most critical juncture, including having her funding pulled – through political interference by the Harper Government).

The fact is, throughout the aquaculture and disease hearings of the past several weeks, most of the Commission’s scientific experts either work for or have worked for the industry or government – a point Morton made clear in the final, heated exchange of the day.

The lawyer for the Aboriginal Aquaculture Coalition (i.e., representing First Nations with a working partnership with the industry) asked Ms. Morton why her perspective differs so greatly from the phalanx of industry and government scientists who have one by one maintained salmon farms have nothing to do with the plight of Fraser sockeye. Morton remained cool under fire, replying that unlike all of them, “I don’t work for a university, the government, the industry, or a First Nation – I’m completely independent.”

The lawyer, Stephen Kelliher, shot back, with a heavy dose of sarcasm: “So you’re pure, then. You’re the only one who isn’t corrupted?” Morton simply smiled and replied, “Perhaps,” as the increasingly raucous gallery erupted in cheers.

And that was the kind of day it was at the Cohen Commission. A fitting emotional climax to what was easily the most exciting and revealing – while also frustrating and appalling – day of the Inquiry. The same panel, including Morton, returns to the stand today for the Commission’s final public session before closing arguments in November.

One day left and it feels like we’re only just now really getting somewhere.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

33 thoughts on “Title Fight at Cohen Commission: Morton vs. Industry-Government Juggernaut

  1. I have read every word that has been posted by Aleandra Morton. Any person, after reading the goings on at the Cohen Inquiry, that can still support the fish farms is eather being paid by them or has their head in a bucket of sand. Our gouvernment reps should be ashamed of them selves.

  2. When we have a government lawyer, Kelliher, deliberately make personal insults to a witness on the stand this is quite revealing not only to the courtroom spectators but to the bench also.

    It reveals that Kelliher has nothing else to bring forward in response.

    I can also see that FishFarmer chose to come in here and tell us that Morton and McDade had nothing. Are we all collectively too stupid to decide that part for ourselves?

    Quoted from fish farmer;

    “I find the view of many here absurd, and have faith that the majority of people in this country can see the situation for what it is and will not fall victim to the ramblings of a bitter old man, his PR puppy, or the clan goddess.”

    We can certainly see what FishFarmer is all about. He has decided upon judgment and brought down his gavel even before the member of the bench has done so.
    And Fish Farmer would like to scold others for disrespect of the law, disrespect for the legal process, process, sheer arrogance, and on and on.

    Hey Fish Farmer; go to your bathroom and have a good hard look in the mirror. You might find the same things you don’t like about Morton and Mc Dade in the reflection there….

  3. Fish Farmer, you’re certainly entitled to your interpretation of Morton’s time on the stand, though it differs dramatically from that of the majority of spectators who shared the experience with you. What I saw was a desperate, mean-spirited, and utterly unsuccessful attempt to smear Morton – particularly by counsel for the Government of Canada. My favourite moment was when he put up the cartoon Morton had posted on her blog with government and industry scientists on the stand, their pants engulfed in flames. In his most serious Perry Mason tone: “Ms. Morton, are you familiar with the saying ‘Liar, liar, Pants on fire?…You’re not suggesting these distinguished scientist are aren’t being truthful with the Commission, are you?” Goodness, no! The shameful ass-covering by these people was indeed worthy of such a cartoon – Canada’s counsel was apparently the only one in the room (besides you) who didn’t get the joke…In any event, the data the industry and governments fought so hard to keep secret from the public is now finally on the record, thanks to the Commission. It will be interesting to pore through it all now and see just what they were all so afraid of.

  4. Morton and McDade had nothing.
    That’s why instead of bringing forward any evidence to show a causal link between fish farms and Sockeye declines they chose to go after Saksida’s funding to try and make her look less credible in the eyes of their followers.
    I am glad that the Federal, Provincial and Aquaculture lawyers held Morton’s feet to the fire in order to enlighten Justice Cohen in regards to her disdain for Canadian law, disregard of legal process, sheer arrogance, absolute lack of understanding of the Scientific Process, unrepentant disrespect and critical views of earned, accredited scientists; and complete and total belief in the fact that she has the answer and everyone who disagrees with her is a liar, working within a system which she has no respect or need for.
    Well, good for her, I’m sure that it went over well with Canadians who have worked for years building reputations as responsible, credible and caring scientists and regulators.
    I find the view of many here absurd, and have faith that the majority of people in this country can see the situation for what it is and will not fall victim to the ramblings of a bitter old man, his PR puppy, or the clan goddess.

  5. The only problem with NOT EATING FISH is the INDUSTRY/GOVERNMENT has claimed that we have now have no historical use and occupancy of the seas and its resources. In Alaska, my experience with the Cook Inlet Beluga ESA (Endangered Species ACT); Marine Mammal Protection ACT and Critical Habitat (2 yrs process approximately) status received this February–took concerted efforts of the Tribal Governments of Cook Inlet since 1997 to get to that LISTINGS/Status. Once you voluntarily STAND DOWN on the matter…. it is very difficult to go back. Their government gets you going and coming. Thanks to all who are paying attention to Mother Earth and these issues affecting all of us.

  6. Salmon are migratory beings and should not be penned at all.
    It is foolish to feed fish to fish so that people can eat salmon.

    There are some types of fish that like to eat plants and that like to live in ponds. Their sewage is good for fertiliser.
    This is described in ‘Farmer’s of Forty Centuries’ published in 1902 by FH King, a professor of agriculture.

  7. I am appalled by the obvious conflict of interest of DFO, who are supposed to be public servants… that is to serve the public. Also, we elect and pay our government to be doing the Nation’s business on our behalf and for our benefit, so why is scientific truth being suppressed and our tax dollars being used to subsidize a foreign-owned open net salmon farm industry that is jeopardizing our Fraser River Sockeye and other Wild Pacific Salmon?? And why is the news media so quiet about this? Surely this is a major scandal that should be front page news.

    I talked with a fish farm biologist and it was obvious that his priority was to totally replace the wild salmon with farmed fish.” Why let people have access to free fish when they can be forced to buy them from the farms?” So we are being robbed of this natural treasure for the greedy profit of the open net Salmon farmers. At least closed containment would prevent, or at least reduce the spread of disease and parasites, and contamination by chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, and effluent into the path of migrating wild salmon. The conversion would create construction jobs, farm jobs retained, and farm waste become useful fertilizer.

  8. What are the public heath implications of eating diseased fish filled with brain tumours? It would seem that DFO not only disregards the health of our wild salmon, they also are paying little head to the health of the public. Are we about to see a new epidemic of “mad fish” disease?

  9. The picture is becoming clearer and the less I like it. It appears that the salmon farms were placed on the migration routes of wild salmon on purpose. This would have helped the farms by supplementing feed and destroying the competition(wild salmon) at the same time. The salmon farmers advertising is very misleading when they say farms are good for coastal communities and jobs. It has been obvious to me for a long time that the economic benefit from salmon farms is negative if compared to commercial fisheries on wild stocks, so I have wondered why is the Canadian Government putting millions of dollars(our tax dollars into the farms). The conflict of interest in seeing how industry and goverment are working together is very disturbing, but explains a lot. It brings to mind an article I read in the Guardian Weekly titled “call for a public jury to rein in the feral elite”. The group wants a public jury to wrest the power back from a small elite, where private interest takes precedence over the public good. I am a thinking that Canada has its own feral elite and we need to make some changes so we can have accountable Governments that do not treat the public with contempt.

  10. Just to add one more consideration Damien, for our friend Trailblazer, many of us agree with the principle of closed containment in land based cages; however this solution does not address the fact the in order to feed farmed fish here in BC, a naturally occurring stock of wild fish in Chile has been decimated to the point of extinction along with the ability of local fishermen there to employ themselves and feed their own families.

    So once again I ask the question; why do we see value in nurturing a farmed fish unnaturally in these waters (or land) while at the same time destroying a naturally occurring fish in oceans belonging to other human groups?

  11. I think you’re unnecessarily complicating things, Trailblazer. The economic benefits of the open net cage industry for BC and for local communities have been vastly exaggerated. If we do envision a future for salmon aquaculture in BC, it needs to be through closed-containment. Bottom line is we need to get these farms out of the pathway of our wild salmon post haste.

  12. We live between a rock & a hard place!
    The agricultural fish industry provide well paying jobs with good benefits.
    The staff are treated well & are often unionised .
    The jobs are in areas where the forest industry is is in decline & therefore are the lifeblood of communities such as Port McNeil & Port Hardy.
    On the negative side fish farming rapes the small fish off the coast of South America denying the locals of their basic diet all in the name of “fish food’ (for fish).

    The fish processed by the fish farms ( and there is lots of it) produces ,arguably, good nutritious food that is exported world wide.
    To deny the world of this food source would be immoral at least.
    The answer would be to place the fish farms on land.
    Whilst the international fish farmers cry poverty on the matter , the truth is someways in between.
    Placing fish farms on land would reduce ,if not stop, the spread of decease plus it would create a multi million dollar construction opportunity for BC business.
    The, farming, jobs created would be sustainable whilst the construction jobs would offer a “boom”.
    With a little less greed & a little more foresite we can have our fish & eat it.

  13. Time and time again it has been proven that these public hearings are a smoke screen and that the government of any level will do what it wants and claim that there was public input into the decision. Research be damned, the government only cares about making sure industry has control. Yes wild salmon are worth more, but they cannot be controlled to benefit the people that have been awarded the governments’ blessing. Stop eat eating fish is the short term answer, revamping the political system to take proper care of natural resources is the only long term answer.

  14. Oh man… is ‘the truth’ starting to rear it’s ugly head, above the Lawyers, the courts, and the government? One can only hope!

  15. My compliments to Alexandria Morton for her tenacity. I am disappointed that the Canadian Government has been failing again and again to properly safeguard our Natural Resources, not only our fishery resources. But I am also disappointed by the evidence supplied by the scientists on whose research and findingts our society must rely to develop appropriate rules and regulations for the common good. Carry on, Alex, you are making a difference !!!!!

  16. I am a very ordinary citizen & even I can see through his hypocrisy of people protecting their jobs or God forbid, owning a share of fish farms ? ! They make themselves look bad.

    Several years ago, with a tour group, my husband & I , had a trip including a wonderful 3 days between Vancouver Island and the mainland of B.C. on a jet boat. As well as the incredible scenery, we saw fish farms. We saw the lice on young fish fry. We saw maps were fish farms are located. Almost all farms were Norwegian. We heard stories of what has happened to fishermen.

    But most of all, we met very briefly, Alexander Morton and you cannot but be impressed with the passion she feels for wild salmon and the environment, indeed our whole world it seemed to me. I have read one of her books. She indeed could be the only “pure” one. This lady I believe and surely those 500,000 pages which she bothered to cover is proof.

    It is Big Foreign Business that has taken away small independent Fisherman’s “business” and livelihood. How shortsighted can politicians be, not to see what they have done in the past but could now fix it, hopefully not too late. Maybe trusting bureaucrats was the initial mistake.

  17. If we all just stopped eating fish the fish farms would disappear. Then the oceans would have a chance to stabilize, and we could show how committed we are to wanting salmon to be wild and free. Otherwise all of us are guilty of farming fish whether in pens or out in the wild blue.

  18. Unfortunately, official denial tied to the revolving door between government bureaucracy and other high places with large corporate interests has been going on for a long time, but accelerated from the 90’s on, especially with centralization of systems, from wild fish catch licensing, timber harvesting, various forms of mining, etc.

    We do need regulation to control excess, but it’s not happening at the top, more the opposite.

    Just look at the government ministers and their aides, who came from the upper echelons of respective industries, notably energy and agriculture. No different here.

    They don’t understand Ms. Morton because there’s no financial renumeration for her (maybe a book?), therefore she must be one of those “wackos” who don’t understand capitalist economics above all else, including its subterfuge and coercion.

    We need a complete systemic clean up and rejuvenation, not just political leader or party, not just unjustified government employee layoffs for contradicting the essentially, out of touch, financially gaming elite.

    Truth to power”, lets hope justice Cohen sees through the official smokescreen and rules in favour of the ocean ecosystem for the long term.

  19. We have to get control of our bureaucracies. We have to get rid if the Liberals obviously. The NDP is hopeless ,lets face it. WE have to shake things up. WE have to draft up legislation regarding conflict of interest, lobbying and industry and government collusion , with real teeth and real penalties for the perpetrators. This has to be placed in front of provincial candidates and they have to state if they support it. Alexandria Morton is a model citizen,we all must follow her model on how to be a citizen.

  20. trying to imagine the pro side of fish farms is not unlike the nazis of yore describing auschwich as a health spa

  21. I find it passing strange that a government agency (DFO) is tasked with both liasing with private ,for profit , fish farms And the protection of our “wild” salmon @ the same instant– What an unholy and unseemly pursuit

  22. As a retired veterinary pathologist that worked on infectious disease I have three areas of concern on this hearing.
    1. For scientists to disavow all their relevant publications on this disease situation is almost unprecedented. These publications are scrutinised by independent scientists involved in the same field before publication.Does It also mean that are these scientists now only producing knowledge that will support the industry?
    2. There also appears to be a high degree of political interfence in this situation. Thus all the government scientists, both federal and provincial, working in this field are saying they got it wrong. Is it possible they are concerned for their jobs? It has to be realised by the general public that research both in government and universities is done for the benefit of companies and industry as public (taxpayers’ money) has to be matched very often by money from industry. In short the fox is in charge of the hens.
    3. There does appear to be circumstantial evidence that the presence of fish farms does affect the survival of wild fish. Thus fish stocks passing fish farms are decreasing while those that don’t are increasing. How come?

  23. Thanks Reginald. For some added background on the history of the global industry and this pattern of deception, obfuscation, government collusion, and ecological calamity, also check out my documentary “Farmed Salmon Exposed”: It covers Chile, Norway, Scotland, Ireland, and BC (basically everywhere the industry operates except the Canadian Atlantic Coast – sorry about that 🙂

  24. If you really want to know how corrupt the salmon farming industry in Canada is and has been, all you have to do is start investigating where it all began,In the Bay of Fundy.
    For years illegal chemicals,rooten politicans,bruecrates ect.. have been using like a grave train here,no consideration to land owners,fishermen,whale watch industry,public navigations,ect…
    The is purely no over watch this industry here allowed to kill and control our waters.

    1. Yes and all the credit should go to the Atlantic Salmon Federation. What is their newest idea to save our salmon I wonder?

  25. I just don’t get it… the wild salmon are worth more economically then the farmed. Doesn’t business, work on that level?
    It seems sadly, as a society, we fall further into the abyss of darkness.

    “Truth Is The Grand Simplifier” Wil Schutz

  26. Agreed, MA – part of the problem is that we have so little info on this. But the gyst of it as I understand is that the Harper Budget Office has decreed out of the blue that DFO labs can no longer accept any outside funding, beyond their internal budget allocation (who the heck knows the justification for that). Miller has been very successful at recruiting just such funding to supplement her lab’s important work. Just so happens that her lab will be affected by this budget change far worse than any other – she told the Commission that whereas some labs would lose funding for one or two staff, in her case it would affect 11 EMPLOYEES – basically her whole technical team. Probably just a big coincidence…Or not. As a result, Miller’s funding is up in the air at its most critical juncture. This is an outrage that needs to be resolved – and I sincerely hope Justice Cohen will spell that out in his final report. The public and media need to stay on top of this too to ensure Dr. Miller has all the resources she needs to fully carry out her work.

  27. More information on the “Harper” governments interference with Dr Miller’s funding would be interesting. The buck stops where?

  28. Yes, “robust” indeed. I also found her interpretation of the Precautionary Principle to be straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

  29. for me the gaffe of the day was the use of the word ‘robust” robust research from the conflict of interest DFO/industry woman
    need a machine like a lie detector that registers evasiveness

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