Conservation meets true crime in ‘The Salmon People’

When Alexandra Morton moved to Canada, she came to study whales. They had been the focus of her investigation at Marineland in California. She came to British Columbia to find and study a family of whales. But when that family finally left the British Columbia coast, she Morton didn’t. She stayed because she found out that something was seriously wrong.

Not with the whales, with the wild salmon that people were finding in the crystal clear waters of BC.

In the last 20 years, millions of wild salmon have not returned to BC to spawn. Morton, a tenacious rubber academic with a knack for seeing cracks in the facade, was determined to find out why. What he found was an existential threat to the West Coast ecosystem. And at the center of it all was a government agency that worked closely with the fish farming industry at the expense of wild salmon.

When investigative journalist and podcast producer Sandra Bartlett read Morton’s 2021 book about the catastrophe and its aftermath, she wanted to bring the story to a national audience. Bartlett sent Morton a podcast about the story. She agreed, and Bartlett went to work in April 2021.

Through 10 hours of interviews with Morton, a visit to BC’s Discovery Islands, conversations with scientists, and thousands of pages of documents, freedom of information requests, and witness testimony from a government investigation, Bartlett began to see a pattern. .

“The more I read, the more I realized there was a big problem with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans,” says Bartlett. “There seemed to be some inconsistencies in the way they behaved, and that allowed the fish-farming industry, it seemed to me, to pretty much do whatever they wanted.

“That is not a good thing, for a government agency to cede control of regulation and responsibility to industry. I have written many stories over time about governments not doing what they are supposed to do. This seemed like another story like that to me.”

When First Nations communities in BC learned about diseases in fish farms and the risk to wild salmon, they sprang into action. A group of First Nations youths occupied three fish farms, one of them for 270 days before being removed by court order. But that was not the end. First Nations communities began to move to remove fish farms from their land.

These actions were a real-life manifestation of one of the key findings of a groundbreaking 2012 government report on the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. The report made it clear that contact between wild fish and fish farms increases the potential for disease transmission to wild salmon.

Namgis Hereditary Chief and Chief Elect Councilor Don Svanvik, who appears in the podcast, has been a commercial fisherman for most of his life, though not recently as salmon populations have dwindled.

The Salmon People, a new podcast from @NatObserver, reminds us that our delicate environment extends far beyond what our eyes can see. #wild salmon

“We are salmon people,” he says. “When I was little, he helped my mother and grandparents process fish for our winter food. It is in our creation story. Salmon are an amazing species, and the really simple thing is for humans to get out of their way.”

Bartlett, who has been working as a freelance journalist for the past 10 years after careers with CBC Y NPR, handled the fieldwork herself, with the expectation that a major broadcaster would pick up the podcast. No one bit – they did not think a story about salmon could be interesting.

Get into Canadian National Observer, which partnered with Bartlett to co-produce and platform the podcast. Since the beginning, CNO has been a place to tell original and compelling stories about climate and the environment that others don’t tell, so the salmon people it was a natural fit.

“I’m always excited when a story grabs me from the first moment,” he says. CNO founder and editor-in-chief Linda Solomon Wood. “That’s what happened to me when I heard the first episode of the salmon people.”

the salmon people builds on the success of CNOThe debut podcast series of 2021, race against climate change, which earned a nomination for Best Climate Solutions Reporting from the Canadian Journalism Foundation. This new collaborative podcast consolidates CNOA commitment to telling impactful and creative climate stories.

“It’s all about the storytelling,” says Solomon Wood. “Whether he’s cooking dinner, stopping in traffic, working out at the gym, or taking a walk, we want to give him a beautiful, immersive experience he won’t forget.”

the salmon peopleThe climate report from reminds us that our delicate environment extends far beyond where our eyes can see. When Bartlett visited the unspoiled splendor of Echo Bay in Discovery Islands with Morton and a fisherman, he experienced a “silence I never remember hearing.”

“I thought, ‘This is one of those things you see in movies where you have a paradise that hasn’t been touched by people,’” she says. “But he made me realize that the salmon below the surface needed to be protected just as much as the beauty I could see around me.”

the salmon people these are radical changes, both culturally and literally. It is a sad story but it is also marked by a deep sense of care and responsibility for the environment.

“It is a crime that we have not protected wild salmon,” says Solomon Wood. “So, this is a true crime story. And a love story. It is heartbreakingly beautiful. What could be more amazing than that?

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