Science blogger’s take on the film, my blog and Dr. Gary Marty

Stephen Bocking at Trent University blogs about environmental science, and recently did a post about the Salmon Confidential film.

He followed up with some great information from Dr. Gary Marty about the errors in science in the film.

He makes some very valid points about the film, and about this blog:

…the film provides a ready demonstration of how flat-footed an industry can be when it tries to respond to an activist like Alexandra Morton.  Science is only part of Morton’s argument: her real target is government obfuscation as it seeks to support an industry that, in her eyes, has no place on the coast.  But the salmon farmers at salmonconfidential.com focus on picking away at Morton’s scientific techniques – apparently oblivious that these techniques are a kind of theatre, aimed at dramatizing the failure of government to do the tests that she is thereby forced to do herself.  With such a clumsy response to criticism, it’s no wonder the BC salmon farming controversy is now in its fourth decade.

I agree, Stephen. This blog is a clumsy attempt at responding to this film. We as an industry could have done much better. But that’s not my call. Instead it was left to me, and a few others who helped me, to do what we could with limited resources. And like I said in my comment on your post, I’m not interested in being seen as a cheerleader for the government that regulates my industry. It’s not up to me to address the issue of government obfuscation, as frustrating as it is to see her spin ridiculous conspiracy theories around that topic. If DFO doesn’t respond and address the criticisms about them, there’s not really anyone else who can, and still be taken seriously.

And I am quite aware that her scientific techniques are theatre. The only avenue available to me is to pick apart the lies of the charlatan, which is rarely effective when the charlatan is selling a story and a feeling. But at least the facts are out there for people who haven’t made up their minds or bought into the story.

The core of the problem, as I described in this post, is that the debate over salmon farming isn’t about science and facts and actually measuring impacts and actually looking at data for the loudest opponents. It’s about emotions and spirituality and a feeling. Believing whatever Alexandra Morton says about salmon farming “feels right” for her devout followers and they are hostile to any challenge to the information she uses to make her claims.

She has devoted her life to getting rid of BC salmon farms. It is a personal crusade for her, her life mission. It has become a religious and spiritual mission. She views herself as the Jane Goodall of salmon, and basks in the adulation of her followers.

Religious figures are always divisive. How do you respond to someone who is selling feelings, and whose followers are hostile to any information which contradicts what their icon says?

Take, for example, the example of Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor. The man has been shown time and time again to be a liar and buffoon, but he still has strong supporters. Why? Because they desperately want to believe in him.

Likewise with Morton, she has been caught in numerous lies since she started opposing salmon farming publicly, but those are quickly forgotten because people so desperately want to believe in her story of one woman in the wilderness fighting against evil corporations.

It’s all about the story. The facts don’t even enter into it.

But for me, facts matter. A lot. And I hope they matter for other people, too.

They are who this blog is for.


Something fishy about ‘Salmon Confidential:’ another perspective

A great article showed up in my Google Alerts today, in which the author picks apart many of the film’s errors which I did not have time to address here. It’s well worth a read and provides another critical perspective of this film.

In the end, the film is highly selective in what they show, relying on cherry picking to remove the larger context of what the full body of scientific literature supports and does not support. The film uses misdirection, even outright falshoods, to slant the viewer towards a conclusion that the farmed salmon industry has brought exotic disease into BC, and that it is the cause of the declining productivity.

Read “Salmon Confidential, a fish out of water” here.


The final 15, and the film’s second biggest fib

The final 15 minutes of the film are the most painful because they play fast and loose with the facts, while playing on people’s emotions, while ending with a veiled appeal for donations. It’s like the passing of the offering plate after the missionaries visit your church and film laden with guilt.

In this segment Morton and friends claim to have sampled a farmed fish dropped by an eagle. They claim this fish had Piscine Reovirus (PRV, and yet again filmmaker Twyla Roscovich offers no lab reports to prove this, neither in the film or on the film’s website).

The film uses this as an opportunity to make the film’s second biggest fib: the claim that PRV kills fish.

It is scientifically irresponsible to make this claim and no scientists in the world make this claim. All they say is that PRV appears to be linked with a disease called HSMI.

Here are some direct quotes from Morton in the film that are false, in big bold letters.

This really horrible one called piscine reovirus, it, it gives the salmon heart attacks, it weakens the heart muscles, and people I’ve talked to in Norway don’t think a salmon can swim up a river if it has this virus.

What people? Who says this? Where is the evidence that the virus definitely causes these effects?

Piscine reovirus, one of the symptoms is a soft heart.  This one is, uh, very firm (then pushing on second fish heart) and this heart is extremely soft. (poking the tissue) This is a classic symptom of piscine reovirus, the mushy hearts.

So PRV causes soft hearts, and you found a soft heart, so clearly the fish has PRV and clearly PRV causes these symptoms! Surely it couldn’t be because you are sampling rotten fish on the side of a riverbank.


One heart is “firm,” one is “mushy.” Morton’s expert analysis is that the “mushy” one must have PRV. Because there’s no other explanation for a soft heart in a rotting fish cut up on the side of the riverbank.

Thankfully the film includes some comments about PRV from Dr. Gary Marty, albeit butchered and selectively edited to make him look bad. His comments on PRV are quite clear, however:

PRV is common in Norway and BC. In Norway PRV occurs in many fish with HSMI, and some scientists think that PRV might be the cause of HSMI. However, PRV in Norway also occurs in fish with no evidence of HSMI.

In BC we have no evidence of HSMI.

PRV and HSMI — what’s the difference?

PRV (Piscine Reovirus) is a virus. HSMI (Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation) is a disease. Viruses can cause disease, but this relationship is not a given.

Research has shown that fish which had HSMI had a larger quantity of PRV in their system than fish which did not have HSMI and that there may be a link. Further research has confirmed this and has also more closely linked PRV with the onset of HSMI.

This might mean there is a connection. But it’s not as simple as finding a soft heart in a rotten fish and declaring you’ve found a fish which died from PRV, as Morton does in this film.

Recent research in Norway has shown that just changing the diet of farmed salmon makes them far less likely to get HSMI.

Clearly, the relationship between PRV and HSMI in farmed salmon is far more complicated than Morton would like her viewers to believe.

On this coast, as Dr. Gary Marty points out in the film, PRV is present in wild and farmed fish in B.C. But, as he also points out, HSMI has not been observed in any B.C. fish, wild or farmed.

It’s also worth pointing out that this particular form of PRV is now known as ASRV — Atlantic Salmon Reovirus.

We don’t know a lot about salmon and disease

Morton makes one of the most profoundly arrogant statements of the film in this section when she states:

We know a lot about salmon, we know a lot about disease and we know this is wrong.

Actually, we don’t know a lot. We don’t know for certain where our wild salmon go and what they do out in the ocean for two years of their lives. We don’t know what sort of environmental stressors and pressures they face. We don’t know if some viruses cause disease or do nothing. We don’t know what combination of environmental, dietary and viral conditions bring on some diseases.

For Morton to make this claim is a value judgment, not based in fact or science or existing scientific knowledge about fish health and diseases.

Fine. But make it clear this is a belief statement. Because although we might not know much about salmon and disease, what we do know shows quite clearly that Morton’s claims about fish farms and disease are wrong, no matter how she tries to spin it.

Citizen science

Morton’s “call to action” at the end of the film is really just a clever way for her to pass the “offering plate” around.

Working to help wild salmon is an admirable goal. But taking poor-quality samples of dead fish and passing them on to Morton to fuel her ego (and make sure you make a completely unrefundable, untraceable and non-tax-receiptable donation via one of her many websites!) ain’t gonna do it.

Please, if you want to help wild salmon, don’t waste everyone’s time pretending to be a scientist. If you really want to help wild salmon, find the local streamkeepers’ organization or enhancement facility and volunteer restoring salmon habitat or even just picking trash out of the creek. It will have a far more beneficial impact on wild salmon than attaching yourself to the personal crusade of a woman who has shown she has no scientific integrity and is willing to bend and break the truth to tell a good story.


Who am I?

Most of the comments here lately are by people who complain this blog is anonymous.

In response I have updated the “About” page.

I expect this response will disappoint some people who are looking for a name they can dismiss and an individual they can harass and bully, because that is the modus operandi of Alexandra Morton’s most vociferous followers. Shamefully, she does nothing to keep these people in line and is content to allow them to behave like cultists, who eagerly raise her to the status of a semi-divine enlightened being. She certainly seems content to accept this status.

Don’t believe me? Think I’m exaggerating? Check this glorious piece of art offered up by one of her devout:


This is the problem, right here. The debate over salmon farming isn’t about science and facts and actually measuring impacts and actually looking at data for the loudest opponents. It’s about emotions and spirituality and a feeling. Believing whatever Alexandra Morton says about salmon farming “feels right” for her devout followers and they are hostile to any challenge to the information she uses to make her claims.

To them, the whole story Morton tells just feels right, so its components must be taken on faith, and if they are shown to be flawed, people get angry and uncomfortable and attack whoever exposes the flaws in the story.

This is religion.

I have no problem with religion, and it’s fine and good and natural to have emotions and spirituality and feelings.

But when they are used as a weapon to trick people into following one woman like a bodhisattva, and used to attack other people, and used to spread lies, this is wrong.

One more point about anonymity: people who mask their identities are not necessarily liars and people who make their identities known are not necessarily truth-tellers. For the comic book fans out there, consider this example from Batman:



A vet’s perspective

Dr. Gary Marty has such an excellent way of explaining how viruses and diseases work, I figured it was worth setting up a permanent page with his reactions to the film. You can read his perspective here.


Dead fish in the parking lot

In this section of the film (around the 53-minute mark) we witness a folksy Alexandra Morton cutting samples up on the ground of a parking lot outside a grocery store.

Sampling in a parking lot grease stain while your dog lies nearby? Pretty sure this isn't how you get a good sample.

Sampling in a parking lot grease stain while your dog lies nearby? Pretty sure this isn’t how you get a good sample.

Apparently she and her people have been going into grocery stores that sell farmed salmon, purchasing the fish and then bringing them into a parking lot where they sit on the ground and cut the samples up and put them into containers to send for testing.

Stirling University in Scotland is one of the most respected international universities with an Institute of Aquaculture. They have clear procedures for how to collect samples for scientific testing, and how to pack those samples.

They don’t address concerns about cutting samples up on the pavement of a parking lot, likely because this would not occur to them that someone would think this is a responsible way to approach collection and preparation of samples for testing.

Virology Samples for Cell Culture Testing

  • Prior notification before sending samples since cell cultures required to be prepared in advance. Usually 2-3 days notice is sufficient.
  • Samples should only be taken from recently killed or freshly moribund fish.
  • For individual or pooled samples (excluding fry and fingerling fish pools) the total weight from all the organs should be around 1 – 2 g of tissue.
  • Samples should be taken as quickly as possible using clean scalpel blades between different batches or pools. They should be kept cool (2-8°C) and transported immediately to the Virology Laboratory (See packaging and transport guidelines).
  • The samples must not be frozen.
Uninsulated cardboard box, Sharpie "Keep Cool" sign, yep, we're doing SCIENCE!

Uninsulated cardboard box, Sharpie “Keep Cool” sign, yep, we’re doing SCIENCE!

Let’s see. Sampling in a parking lot. Sampling fish that have been handled by an unknown number of people since they were harvested. Sampling fish that have no internal organs to test. We’re gonna get some great results with these!

Immediately after assembling these samples Morton claims that three of the samples have tested positive for ISA. There are no other details provided – not the name of the laboratory, and no mention that the early “presumptive positives” were later proven to be inaccurate.

Morton makes no reference to the fact that all preliminary screening tests for ISA virus in BC were shown to be false positives in the essential follow-up tests. DFO’s lab has successfully identified ISA virus in salmon farms in Atlantic Canada so clearly if the virus is there, they have the capacity to find it. Thousands of high-quality samples of wild and farmed salmon in BC (samples which meet the criteria defined above) have all tested negative for the ISA virus.

The film then shifts to a long list of concerns about food – and how mothers especially “should buy local stuff – go look at it.” “We’re guinea pigs in a big experiment.” Oooh, it’s all very scary but short on facts.

Is there a real doctor in the house?

Morton makes a hilariously ridiculous and broad claim about doctors and nurses telling her that disease in farm animals is one of the biggest source of epidemics in humans.

Actually, diseases in other humans are the biggest sources of epidemics in humans.

She goes on to talk broadly about people dying of “bacterial” outbreaks: listeria, e.coli, hoof and mouth disease, mad cow disease.

It’s true that people can get diseases and bacterial infections from animals, and some deadly viruses have infected humans via livestock. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic may have come from birds and pigs. But it spread because there was a World War going on at the time. The unprecedented, massive movements of soldiers and people during the war undoubtedly contributed to the severity of the pandemic.

In more recent times, the deadliest outbreaks have come from vegetables. In the last 40 years, nearly half of the food-borne illness outbreaks in the United States were caused by some kind of vegetable, fruit or nut. The worst food-borne illness outbreaks in North America, which killed dozens of people, were because of cantaloupes and spinach.

If Morton wants to make broad, scary claims about food safety, she should include this sort of contextual information.

Canteloupes have killed more people than mad cow disease

More deadly than mad cow disease.

Her throw-away comments also show that once again, Alexandra Morton does not know what she’s talking about when she tries to scare people with hoof-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease (hoof-and-mouth) very rarely ever affects humans. It is not dangerous, unless you are a cow.

It is very different from Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease, a common childhood illness. The animal disease and the human disease are completely unrelated.

As for mad cow disease, only three people in the United States have ever died in connection with it.

In 2011, 30 people in the United States died from eating bacteria-contaminated cantaloupe.

In today’s world of cities isolated from farmland, and big farms following strict food-safety policy, diseases from livestock are rare. Most food-borne illnesses we have to deal with are because of human error.

One more thing, which Morton conveniently ignores in her scary tale, is that fish are cold blooded animals. Humans are warm-blooded animals. Viruses have evolved very differently in cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals. You have more chance of dying from eating cantaloupes than you do from a fish virus suddenly mutating inside of you.

To see why this is dumb, let’s assume for a moment that the fish in the following pictures had the boogety-boo ISA virus particles in its flesh, the most virulent fish virus out there.

piece of salmon fillet

How likely is it that even one viral particle will survive this process and somehow make a quantum leap of evolution to suddenly affect human beings? That would be like dinosaurs evolving into birds in one generation.

More conspiracy theories

The film devolves into another conspiracy theory with a look at Bill 37 and the Animal Health Act, claiming they will make it a crime to report farm animal diseases. Vincent Gogolek from the provincial government states that the position of the industry and the government was almost identical –but he doesn’t say what part of the industry!

Morton leaves a perception that the salmon farming industry and government are in collusion about this. When we checked the BCSFA website though we found this update dated May 31, 2012:

Update: According to news this morning (May 31, 2012), the Bill has been pulled for further review. We leave this update here for clarification in future discussions.

There has been a significant amount of misinformation circulated about the proposed provincial Bill 37 and the potential impact it may have on reporting of animal health events in British Columbia.

Since many of these comments refer to salmon aquaculture, BC’s salmon farmers would like to set the record straight. Since December 2010, BC’s aquaculture industry has been under the regulatory control of the federal government. As such, sampling and auditing of fish health is carried out by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and federal staff. Some fish health findings are federally reportable through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. This proposed provincial regulation would not directly affect salmon farm reporting.

Let me make this clear: this Bill would have never affected salmon farm reporting. But it would affect chicken, beef, turkey, pig and other animal farmers. Morton did not contact them for comment.

The web posting from BCSFA goes on to say:

BC’s salmon farmers work hard to share information about fish health with the public over and above what is required by government. The most recent proactive communications regarding a finding of Infectious Hematopoietic Necrosis (IHN) is an example of our farmers being upfront about challenges when they genuinely exist. Our farmers have shared information about findings — both confirmed and suspected — locations, actions and potential impacts each step of the way.

Our member companies understand the challenges with such open reporting about animal and farm health: providing significant amounts of information does create the risk that it will be misrepresented or used by those opposed to salmon farming to create undue fear. This is a threat we see regularly — and it is a significant challenge to overcome.

This sounds familiar – if you have watched this video in its entirety to this point you might well be concerned about this. Wonder if that has factored into industry’s decision about what information to provide?

However, we understand the public’s interest overall, and remain committed to sharing information and context to help alleviate concerns. Once again: fish health reporting will continue as it does today through the DFO and federal government offices.

More questions? Contact us at the BC Salmon Farmers Association and we’d be happy to help answer them.

Hmm, not really much there, is there? Salmon farmers are providing information and this Bill doesn’t apply to them.

In closing, here is a picture of what happens to things in your stomach.



Deformities, more Lie-SA and ‘European viruses’

Here we get to what appears to be intended as the “turning point” of the film, where the plucky protagonists decide to “do something about it.”

However, like the protagonist in the film “Memento,” the main characters in this documentary are deliberately deluding themselves into believing something that isn’t true, and trying to get other people to believe it too.

The narrative here is that “there must be something out there killing wild salmon, it must be coming from salmon farms, and anyone who says otherwise must be covering it up.”

To support this narrative the film has to rely on conspiracy theories that get wilder and wilder. At first the filmmakers just believed it was salmon farmers covering up the “truth.” Then it was salmon farmers and DFO. Now it’s salmon farmers, DFO and CFIA, the agency responsible for ensuring Canada’s food supply is safe. Just like in “Memento,” the conspiracy has to grow to support what he so desperately wants to believe.

The protagonists in Salmon Confidential are deluding themselves into believing they are doing the right thing, like Leonard in the 200 film Memento.

The protagonists in Salmon Confidential are deluding themselves into believing they are doing the right thing, like Leonard in the 2000 film Memento.

There are several heavy topics in this section of the film, and to the film’s credit, the first piece draws attention to an uncomfortable issue for salmon farmers that should be resolved.


Alexandra Morton and some of her followers go to grocery stores to buy the worst fish they can find. And they succeed. The film parades a procession of deformed fish, mutants, poor performers and fish with open sores. They are repulsive to look at and Anissa Reed remarks, “You just gotta laugh… this is actually a food source?”

I’m going to say something here that will probably upset some people in the salmon farming, processing, wholesale and retail businesses.

She’s right.

It’s shameful that these fish were ever allowed to make it to market.

It’s shameful that someone can go into a grocery store seafood counter, ask for a whole fish and get one of these placed in her shopping basket. This should never have happened.

These are utility-grade fish, which make up a small percentage of salmon farmers’ total harvest. However, someone confronted with these wretched fish in a grocery store display case isn’t going to know that. It’s quite likely a wholesaler bought these utility fish from a farm, and then turned around and sold them as a higher grade to make a bigger profit. This is not cool.

But it’s not the norm, however the film portrays it.

This is what most farmed salmon looks like — premium quality fish.

The reality is, the vast majority of fish grown and sold by BC salmon farmers are premium grade and are great-looking fish. Utility fish, like the ones shown in the film, do exist but are intended only for secondary processing, i.e. cutting off the good fillet portions, smoking them or making other value-added products.

Because there’s nothing wrong with the meat on these fish. It’s all safe for human consumption, and has met all health and safety standards. These fish are not sick or diseased, they are just ugly to look at.

Again, let me stress this point: salmon farmers do not sell sick fish. Whatever they may look like, these fish were not sick and are perfectly safe for human consumption.

But I understand why no one would want to eat something that looks like that. But remember, deformities in nature are a natural occurrence. In the wild, deformed animals tend to get picked off by predators. But farming changes that dynamic by keeping all animals safe and that’s not a bad thing. It is a more efficient use of our limited food resources.

And before you turn your nose up at farmed salmon because of this, remember that delicious free-range organic chicken you had for dinner last night might have come from a deformed bird for all you know. But it was safe, nutritious and delicious, no matter what the bird may have looked like.

More Lie-SA

Morton and friends use their grocery store experience to take another whack at the ISA pinata of lies. They claim to have received more “positive” results, but offer no proof.

These are again likely preliminary “positive” results which were proven in follow-up tests to be negative, just like the ones they mention in the beginning of the film.

If they had actually got positive results in follow-up tests, you can bet every dollar you have that the news would have been trumpeted across the world and that you would be able to go on the CFIA and OIE websites and see the results listed there.

But they aren’t.

That’s because again, what we have here is Morton and friends trying to trick people into believing that preliminary screening test results are definitive. They are not. Again, would you go make out your will if your doctor said you had some rare fatal disease based on one blood test? Or would you go for follow-up testing?

‘European viruses’

The film goes on to claim that grocery store fish test positive for “European” viruses, i.e. viruses which are known to occur in fish in Europe but not on the Pacific Coast of Canada (like ISA). They claim to have found Salmon Alphavirus (but offer no proof for this claim).

The film repeats misinformation about this virus which Morton posted on her blog months ago. It was corrected by the BC Salmon Farmers Association who state that scientists have tested BC farmed salmon for this virus and have never found it; also, farmed salmon have never exhibited signs of illness associated with this virus.

The film also claims to have discovered PRV, Piscine Reovirus (again, no proof is offered).

Inaccurate claims about this virus were dealt with months ago by salmon farmers but the film continues to repeat them.

In this case, the film offers the counterpoint of Dr. Gary Marty (previously presented in a negative light), who explains that he found PRV in both healthy and sick fish, did follow-up testing and didn’t consider the virus to be a threat.

Morton responds with this.

“…an incredibly careless attitude towards wild fish. It’s a huge threat.”

Really? Marty’s careful scientific approach is a careless attitude? Because what he described was genuine concern and a proactive plan to better understand the status and effect of this virus on both farmed and wild fish in British Columbia – years before Morton decided she was suddenly a fish disease and virus expert. Where Dr. Marty questioned, assessed, analyzed and critiqued, Morton only makes claims.

She goes on to pass a moral judgment, a statement based on feelings, not science.

“We know a lot about salmon, we know a lot about disease and we know this is wrong.”

Actually, even after decades of research, we still don’t know a whole lot about disease or about salmon. Experts at the Cohen Commission talked about how little we know about what happens once salmon move into the North Pacific, what the effect of warming ocean temperatures are, and what kind of natural diseases they could be battling. This is why both DFO and CFIA have undertaken extensive surveillance programs on BC salmon, and why organizations like BC Genome are leading research projects that look at a wide range of viruses and pathogens to determine what’s out there, how long it has been there and what effect it may be having.


Deformities in fish are gross but natural, but should have never been sold in a grocery store. Still, they are safe to eat and salmon farmers sell no sick fish. ISA virus was NOT found. There’s no proof presented for Salmon Alphavirus or Piscine Reovirus, which are not necessarily “European” viruses. In the case of PRV, there appears to be no threat associated with it in BC.


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