The battle of the Broughton continues with surveillance on the seas.
AFTER MORE THAN THREE DECADES of running a whale-watching business out of Port McNeill, Bill Mackay knows the importance of understanding what is happening in the water off northern Vancouver Island and he does not take kindly to boats with blacked-out windows or people telling him he’s not allowed to ask about it.
“On the ocean, with limited visibility and a high-speed vessel I want to know who the hell is coming at me. I don’t want to be looking at blacked-out windows,” said Mackay after a group of men on a dock in Port McNeill refused to tell him what they were doing. “One guy stood in my face and puffed his chest right out and hollered at the other fellow that he was not allowed to talk to me,” Mackay said.
“That got me wondering what the heck is going on. There are at least three of these vessels with blacked-out windows. I asked if they were running drugs or doing illegal things, but they wouldn’t answer,” he said.
Part of the answer was revealed when one man opened his jacket, showing a Marine Harvest tee-shirt, but Mackay felt the incident was sufficiently strange that he wrote out a full report for Port McNeill RCMP.
“I know a thug when I see one,” he said. “I know Marine Harvest is paying the bills, but who are these guys on board?” he asked.
Blacked-out windows and GoPro camera employed by the "Coastal Logger" to monitor fish farm opponents.
The ongoing battle over 20 salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago has taken on a new twist with Marine Harvest Canada leasing vessels and hiring crews to follow independent biologist and wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton.
First Nations and activists such as Morton are strenuously opposed to salmon farms in the Broughton, claiming the farms are responsible for killing wild salmon runs. Over the last year, Indigenous protesters occupied two farms in the area for 290 days.
Amid growing tensions, BC Supreme Court last month granted Marine Harvest an interim injunction to block activists from boarding its farms or docks and established a buffer zone around the farms. However, an exception was made for Morton, who is allowed to enter the buffer zone to collect samples, provided she is in a boat of no more than 2.6 metres.
Morton, who is currently travelling on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s research vessel Martin Sheen, is collecting samples of feces and fish tissue close to the fish farms. The samples will later be tested for piscine reovirus (PRV), a pathogen that is central to two lawsuits against Marine Harvest.
The Namgis First Nation is suing Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Marine Harvest to stop the transfer of PRV-infected farm fish into their territory. Morton is suing DFO and Marine Harvest for failing to screen farm salmon for PRV before they are transferred into ocean pens. Both cases will be heard together in a case starting September 10.
Morton has studied transfer of PRV to wild fish and links to heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, which can be fatal in wild salmon populations. This spring, Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, in research led by DFO scientist Kristi Miller-Saunders, found PRV causes red blood cells in chinook salmon to rupture. (The research is a joint effort between Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Genome BC and the Pacific Salmon Foundation.)
However, nothing is simple when it comes to salmon farming disputes, and that research has been challenged by a BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences study which concluded the virus “acts in a benign fashion in BC.”
Adding to the legal wrangles, the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation has filed a title case against DFO, Cermaq and Marine Harvest—the latter two being Canadian branches of Norwegian companies—for operating in their territory without permission.
Meanwhile, nation-to-nation talks between First Nations and the provincial government are continuing while the Broughton leases are being renewed on a month-to-month basis after expiring June 20.
In addition, throughout BC, new rules requiring all fish farms to have an agreement with First Nations in whose territory they operate, will click into place in four years.
Morton believes Marine Harvest is feeling threatened by the upcoming court cases, in addition to uncertainty about whether licences in the Broughton will be renewed, and that is why she is being followed. The constant shadowing has provoked her to complain to the RCMP that she is being stalked.
“They follow us everywhere. They sat there when we were visiting people along the way, and one of the days I went out in my boat to do the sampling, and I tried to do a little fishing on the way home and they were following me there,” she said. “I turned around and went right up to their boat and they closed all their windows and doors and they took off, so I followed them and I circled them a couple of times asking why they were following me,” she said.
Morton, who has been told that the company has extensive equipment, is concerned that the surveillance will extend to her home and she fears recent computer problems were caused by cyber-hacking. It is difficult to know where the company will draw the line, Morton said. “In my opinion, this stalking behaviour in territories where First Nations are trying to evict them suggests that Marine Harvest is more aggressive than smart,” she said.
“If this was happening on the road and you had a car with blacked-out windows following you, you would definitely call the police,” said Morton, who added that the surveillance will not stop her taking samples.
Adding to the spy-thriller scenario, the company hired to do the surveillance is Safety Net Security, affiliated with Corrado Ventures Incorporated (CVI). Director Peter Corrado was given a Campbell River business licence in June for Black Cube Strategies and Consulting Ltd.
That put up alarm signals for Morton and others, as Black Cube is known internationally as a group of former Israeli intelligence specialists, with offices in Tel Aviv, Paris and London, who, according to their website, “specialise in tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.” (The firm was hired, for example, by Harvey Weinstein, to deter his accusers.)
Corrado, Black Cube and CVI spokesmen did not return calls, but Shawn Hall, spokesman for BC Salmon Farmers Association, said there is absolutely no relationship between the Israeli-based company and the Vancouver Island firm.
Member companies hired a local health and safety firm to ensure the safety of employees on the farms following the lengthy occupation of two Marine Harvest farms by First Nations protesters, he said.
“There were some boardings last year that created an unsafe work environment, and companies want to ensure the health and safety of employees in a peaceful and appropriate manner,” Hall said. Employees felt threatened by the boardings, and companies are now ensuring that comprehensive services are available to support them, he said.
“We are Canadian, so we support the right to peaceful protest for anyone, but our members have a responsibility to protect employees,” Hall said. It’s unclear why Morton would be viewed as so physically threatening to employees of Marine Harvest that she is being surveilled. Hall dismissed claims that blacked-out windows, sunglasses, long camera lenses and men ducking into the cabin when challenged present an image of a covert operation.
Morton’s lawyer Greg McDade said he finds the surveillance concerning, and it appears to show that Marine Harvest is getting desperate. “I think the fact that Marine Harvest is hiring this quite scary security firm is problematic in and of itself. This is a foreign company that wants to do business in BC waters, and then it goes and hires security people to try and deal with a respected biologist who has been doing research for 20 years in these waters,” he said. It is troubling that the company would try and harass Morton, but it is uncertain whether it’s illegal, as no one owns the ocean, and people have the right to go where they wish, McDade said.
“But, this is just not what we do in Canada. It seems completely out of proportion and out of whack to what they are trying to do, so you can only conclude they are trying to scare Alex off, and it won’t happen,” he said. “It just seems very nefarious and un-Canadian. It should be troubling to most Canadians.”
Meanwhile, Bill Mackay has come up with his own way of showing displeasure at the blacked-out boats.
Recently, with a full load of whale watchers on board the Naiad Explorer, Mackay saw the long camera lenses pointing from behind the windows. “So I asked my passengers politely if they would please give them a round of applause, which they did, and then [the men in the boat] all went and hid behind their blacked-out windows,” Mackay said.
“Now, when we encounter them, I ask all my passengers, who come from all over the globe, to get out even bigger lenses, and we point those at them as they go by and they all disappear. I can tell you they don’t want their pictures taken, but we are firing away like crazy,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith