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Fishy business

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Salmon Confidential is as much about endangered scientists as it is about endangered fish. The film centres on Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist of the do-it-yourself variety, as she tries to figure out what is causing British Columbia’s salmon stocks to dwindle. A keystone species, salmon have been in decline since the 1990s, resulting in repeated closures of the commercial fishery. One possible explanation, out of many interplaying stressors, is that pathogens from open water salmon farms are being transmitted to wild stocks. The fact that aquaculture ramped up in the 1990s lends weight to this link. However, not everyone is as keen to get to the bottom of the issue as Morton.

The film exposes the murky waters of fisheries science and policy. At the centre of the fishy business is the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which has the conflicting mandate of both promoting the aquaculture industry and protecting wild salmon. Fish farm operators are permitted to keep disease records confidential, and federal scientists are discouraged from discussing their research findings in public. In one case, four labs tested wild salmon for the presence of disease. Three independent labs found evidence of infection; one government lab did not. Photographing one of many dead wild salmon that turn up regularly in local rivers, Morton remarks: “DFO does not want to know what this fish died of.”

In response to the crisis, Morton has founded an informal Department of Wild Salmon. Through this community-based approach to science, she trains citizens to test fish for the diseases that government insists don’t exist. Akin to efforts to protect endangered species, the program is an attempt to revive the role of science in policy making.

The People and the Sea Film Festival and Cinema Politica St. John’s present ‘Salmon Confidential‘ on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m., Memorial University, Arts and Administration Building, Room 1049. Professor of Fish Ecology, Dr. Ian Fleming, will be on hand to provide an East Coast perspective.

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