Book Review: Not on My Watch by Alexandra Morton

Book review posted by Rick Lindgren, Counsel, Canadian Environmental Law Association

Not On My Watch by Alexandra Morton

After European settlers first arrived in North America over three centuries ago, rampant economic growth, urban development, and large-scale industrial activities have often resulted in environmental degradation and resource depletion at the local, regional, and national level.
These consequences, in turn, have caused detrimental (and disproportionate) impacts upon Indigenous communities in Canada that have previously safeguarded and sustainably managed natural resources for millennia. Moreover, these communities depend on the continued existence of such resources in order to exercise treaty and aboriginal rights (e.g., fish harvesting) protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

But what happens if harmful impacts to fisheries are caused not by toxic chemicals or habitat disturbances, but by the deliberate commercial introduction of non-native fish into local aquatic environments? What is the appropriate regulatory and policy response to such risks, particularly where aquaculture facilities are proposed in the unceded territory of Indigenous communities without their free, prior, and informed consent? How should the precautionary principle be factored into governmental decision-making about the licencing of aquaculture facilities, particularly those which feature net-pens in the open ocean?

These and other fundamental questions are addressed in Alexandra Morton’s recent book Not on My Watch: How a Renegade Whale Biologist Took on Governments and Industry to Save Wild Salmon (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2021). This well-written autobiography chronicles the author’s decades-long battle to protect migratory wild salmon from the ecological threats posed by raising Atlantic salmon in numerous net-pens in the Pacific Ocean.

As a field biologist whose work originally focused on orcas, Ms. Morton’s attention, scientific experience, and advocacy activities shifted to wild salmon after she moved in 1984 to a remote community on the British Columbia coastline. Working with concerned neighbours, commercial fishermen, non-governmental organizations, and hereditary leaders of Indigenous communities, Ms. Morton began to closely study and document debilitating diseases and parasitic outbreaks that were affecting wild salmon migrating through waterways occupied by ocean-based fish farms.

Not surprisingly, the aquaculture industry (and its supporters) bitterly disputed the results of her extensive research that drew causal links between these adverse impacts and the ongoing operation of industrial fish farms in the area. In addition, court injunctions were issued to prohibit Ms. Morton and her colleagues from approaching, boarding, or inspecting the fish farms in question.

Similarly, her investigative work received little weight from key provincial and federal officials. According to Ms. Morton’s book, both levels of government appear to have prioritized the private interests of fish farm proponents over the sustainability of wild salmon populations, the interests of local tourism operators, commercial fishermen, and recreational anglers, or the rights of coastal Indigenous communities that depend on wild salmon for food, cultural, ceremonial, and other purposes.

The book also describes how she has presented her methodology, data, findings, and conclusions in different settings and venues, including scientific journals, private gatherings, public meetings, media events, government offices, the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, and various court proceedings over the years.
For example, Ms. Morton was a party in precedent-setting litigation in which the British Columbia Court of Appeal confirmed in 2009 that Parliament has exclusive constitutional authority to regulate finfish aquaculture on the Pacific coast.

Similarly, a judicial review application brought by Ms. Morton resulted in an important 2015 judgment of the Federal Court that affirmed the governmental need to apply the precautionary principle when considering activities that may cause serious or irreversible environmental harm (e.g., authorizing hatchery-born salmon to be placed in pen-nets in the marine environment without fully pre-testing or treating them for harmful diseases that can be spread to other fish).
Ms. Morton’s highly personal recounting of her efforts to save wild salmon is expressed in a lively, vivid, and engaging manner. Her book is not a dry scientific tome or detailed technical paper; instead, it is a riveting and inspirational tale that includes considerable high-seas drama featuring inclement weather, police boat patrols, surveillance by mysterious security personnel, and tension-filled Indigenous occupations of some fish farm sites.

The noted climate change advocate Greta Thunberg has frequently admonished politicians and government decision-makers to “listen to the science.” Since this sound approach is also applicable in the fisheries context, Canadian regulators would be well-advised to carefully consider – and more importantly, duly act upon – the alarming conclusions of the salmon research outlined in Ms. Morton’s book.