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A prominent B.C. environmentalist has started a private prosecution against the province's largest aquaculture company, alleging that migrating salmon fry were ending up in fish farms along the West Coast.

The court case stems from an incident on June 16, when several people reported seeing small pink salmon mixed in with much larger salmon from a fish farm operated by Marine Harvest Canada Inc., biologist Alexandra Morton said yesterday in an interview from Port McNeill, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

Pink salmon are from a highly protected population, she said. "The taxpayers spent huge amounts of money protecting [the pink salmon]and now they [the pink salmon]are in the farm and in the [fish farm's]boats, and I cannot even get an answer from the Fisheries Department: Did they go look? How many are there? What are you going to do about it? Is it happening on all the farms?"

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Ms. Morton, who has lived around fish farms for more than 20 years, said she reluctantly decided to challenge the company after seeing incidents involving many fish farms that she believes were infractions of federal regulations.

"These are things that are going to affect the whole area I live in, and, ultimately, the whole coast of B.C.," she said.

In the court action filed Tuesday in B.C. Provincial Court, Ms. Morton alleges that Marine Harvest Canada possessed wild pink salmon without a licence. Ms. Morton is represented by Jeff Jones, a lawyer in Port McNeill who prosecuted violations of Fisheries regulations on behalf of the federal department from 1983 to 2004.

Clare Backman, a spokesman for Marine Harvest Canada, said yesterday the incident had been investigated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "We understood they decided not to proceed further. We now have to wait and see what happens," he said.

John Lewis, an acting area director in the department, said a Fisheries officer who investigated the allegation discovered that pink salmon fry were "incidentally" caught and transported with the farmed fish.

After discussions with the Fisheries officer, the company redesigned its process for capture and transportation of the fish, he said. A subsequent inspection found that the changes in the process had been effective. "Marine Harvest has made some adjustments in their operations to minimize the risk of this happening," he said.

The Fisheries Department issued a formal letter that remains part of the company's compliance history. Also, the issue has been referred to an advisory panel on aquaculture, Mr. Lewis said.

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Ms. Morton said she had received calls on June 16 from a person who saw "little salmon" fall out of a bucket used to scoop Atlantic salmon out of the hold of a boat. Initially, the person thought the fish were young Atlantic salmon, raised on a fish farm. But they were subsequently identified as juvenile pink salmon.

"This was confusing," Ms. Morton said. "No one farms pink salmon. What were these doing in that boat?"

Ms. Morton said she was told the fish came from a nearby fish farm, where they raise salmon for their eggs to make more farmed salmon. She went to the farm and saw lots of little salmon jumping in the pen, she said.

"There was no trouble telling which fish belonged in there and which did not," Ms. Morton said. Full-grown Atlantic salmon are about 11 kilograms and the little salmon looked like they weighed significantly less, she said.

Ms. Morton said she believes pink salmon, migrating past the fish farms, may have been attracted to the pen by the commercial feed provided to the farmed fish. The smaller pink salmon slipped into the pens through netting that was sufficient to contain the larger Atlantic salmon. However, the openings were too large to keep out the pink salmon.

"These fish were migrating," she said. Their migration was interrupted once they were in the pens. "They need to get out of there and continue on."

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She said she asked the local Fisheries enforcement officer to investigate, and, after receiving no response, decided to initiate the court action. The case is scheduled to be in court next Tuesday.

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