Operation Virus Hunter

First Nations, environmentalists, and a scientist team up aboard the RV Martin Sheen to gather data and deliver the message that fish farms are unwelcome in unceded traditional territories

Katja Walther

On July 18, 2016 Sea Shepherd Conservation Society announced Operation Virus Hunter, a campaign dedicated to researching open-pen salmon farms along Canada’s west coast. The group teamed up with Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist whose research into fish farming goes back thirty years.

Aboard the RV Martin Sheen, Sea Shepherd’s 81 foot research sailing vessel, Morton was able to take a closer look than ever before at the practices of salmon aquaculture. Her research included taking mussel samples to determine the extent of introduced viruses into BC’s waters, collecting data and evidence at farm sites, and documenting fish behaviour. Within the first few weeks of the campaign it became obvious that Atlantic salmon, grown in the millions at each farm, were dying off due to diseases. There is widespread concern that the salmon farming industry’s use of open-net pens exposes the wild Pacific salmon of this coast to the risk of disease transfer.

Wild Pacific salmon not only sustain the fishing industry, they are foundational to west coast life. As a keystone species, salmon are vital for moving nutrients from marine- to land-based ecosystems. The nourishment they provide, ecologically speaking, is a catalyst for growth up and down the food chain. Their decaying bodies, carried inland each year by bears and other animals, provide an influx of nitrogen and other nutrients. (One University of Victoria study discovered “peak years when individual Sitka spruce derived 80 per cent of their nitrogen from the isotope found in ocean-going salmon.”*)

Looking closely at a map of the west coast, one would find that not only have companies established their fish farms along wild salmon migratory routes, but the majority of farmed sites are found on unceded and traditional First Nations territory.

In teaming up with the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Nation, the crew of the Martin Sheen expanded their fight. No longer was Virus Hunter a campaign solely focusing on fish farms; its focus was broadened to the systemic issue of present-day colonization. The nation’s website states: “Government has ignored Dzawada’enuxw leadership and allowed the fish farming industry to grow. Today one-third of the BC salmon farming industry is using Dzawada’enuxw territory to grow Atlantic salmon.”

On August 12, Sea Shepherd escorted and documented Tribal Council member Melissa Willie as she delivered notices to farms within her territory outlining her nation’s disapproval of the indus- try. A few days later, using the Martin Sheen and its outboard inflatable, hereditary chiefs joined Willie in returning to the farms, this time armed with eviction notices. After serving the notifications, Dzawada’enuxw chiefs were informed by farm employees that they were not welcome and were trespassing. After explaining to employees that it was in fact the farms that were trespassing on the unceded territory of the Dzawada’enuxw, the chiefs, accompanied by Morton and Sea Shepherd crew, proceeded to investigate the farm.

“We, the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw, view the destruction of wild fish by the fish farming industry as part of the long history of genocide forced on our people by the governments of Canada.”

On August 18 and again on the 24, the Martin Sheen, along with boats from the communities of Gwayasdums (Gilford Village) and Namgis (Alert Bay), arrived at the Midsummer Island (Marine Harvest) and Sir Edmund (Cermaq/Mitsubishi) fish farms to perform cleansing ceremonies. Over 50 nation members visited the farms, which are located in Dzawada’enuxw territory. In a statement to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the tribes said: “We, the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw, view the destruction of wild fish by the fish farming industry as part of the long history of genocide forced on our people by the governments of Canada. Salmon are essential to our well-being and the well-being of our world.” Children and elders walked around the farms performing ceremony to prepare themselves for the fight ahead.

The days to come would see a delegation of Hereditary Chiefs and band members join the Martin Sheen and direct the vessel from that point on. Making their way slowly south, the company was welcomed by Hereditary Chief George Quocksister Jr. and Campbell River First Nations. Linking arms, the community blocked traffic and marched to Marine Harvest’s office to deliver an eviction notice. Upon arrival, the group found that doors had been locked and a security guard posted to keep the band members from entering the building.


Further south, the K’ómoks First Nation also held a welcoming ceremony, sharing songs and dances, and uniting under a common cause. Members from the community flooded the dock in support, showcasing the rising encouragement for the Dzawada’enuxw Nation. Upon arrival in Nanaimo, the ship was once again greeted by local First Nations and a march was held, ending in ceremony and speeches from Hereditary Chiefs and visiting nations. “The people who are benefitting from these farms are benefitting over the suffering of our people,” said Dzawada’enuxw Hereditary Leader Farron Soukochoff of the farms’ foreign shareholders.

An ex-yacht with a sparkling blue hull, mermaid bowsprit, double mast, and enclosed teak wheelhouse, the Martin Sheen draws attention wherever she goes. No eyes could turn away when she entered the downtown Victoria marina. In full regalia, the Dzawada’enuxw delegation gathered at the bow to sing, drum, and demand the attention and support of onlookers. Upon docking they led an armada of supporters, halting traffic as they went, to the front steps of the BC Legislature. Over 500 strong, the crowd cheered as speeches were made by chiefs, members of the community, and supporters, including Elizabeth May of the federal Green Party. Spilling onto the legislature lawn, allies linked arms in a show of support and connection.

Three days later on September 6, Nations from up and down the coast, led by the Dzawada’enuxw, met in Vancouver at the art gallery. The crew of the Martin Sheen were incredibly proud to stand with and follow the leadership of the Dzawada’enuxw Nation, not just on this day, but throughout the entire campaign.

Putting the voices of those most affected by the issue at the frontlines was important for Sea Shepherd because, as an organization that has been working to steward our oceans for decades, we recognize that the Dzawada’enuxw Nation and their allies have been doing so for thousands of years. Operation Virus Hunter was unlike other Sea Shepherd campaigns in that it worked to reinforce the importance of connecting environmental work and decolonization. The Martin Sheen now travels south on to its next campaign, but the Musgmagw Dzawada’enuwx nation and their allies continue this fight, and Sea Shepherd stands by them.

At the time of this writing, the eviction notice delivered to the Marine Harvest Office in Campbell River by Chief George Quocksister Jr. has gone unnoticed, and fish farms continue to operate in Dzawada’enuwx territory. Marine Harvest has filed a lawsuit (which critics are calling a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation or “SLAPP” suit) against Morton and unnamed “others” for trespassing on three of its farms, seeking damages, costs, and an interim and permanent injunction. However, awareness and opposition are growing. A video Morton shot by sticking a camera into a tank at one of the fish farms has gone “viral” and been viewed on Facebook over one million times. Nations and a growing number of allies are continuing the fight to remove fish farms from their territories. Though the Martin Sheen has travelled out of these waters, the ship has left quite a movement in its wake.


Send a message to your MP asking them to support Bill C-228, which proposes a transition to closed-containment aquaculture from open net pens. Go to salmon.advokit.ca and http://findonnelly.ndp.ca/take-action-to-support-bill-c-228.

Katja Walther was a crew member on- board the R/V Martin Sheen during Operation Virus Hunter.

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