B.C. fish processing plants discharging effluent ‘lethal to fish,’ audit finds

Government inspections found majority of facilities are in violation of old, outdated permit conditions

A majority of B.C.’s fish processing facilities are out of compliance with their permits and some are discharging effluent “acutely lethal to fish,” according to a provincial audit report released Wednesday.

“This audit clearly tells us more work needs to be done to ensure our coastal waterways are safe for all wild fish stocks,” B.C. environment minister George Heyman said in a statement.

“The industry has been largely operating under an outdated permitting regime, going back several decades.”

The environment ministry conducted the audit after an underwater video filmed by photographer Tavish Campbell showed a stream of bloody effluent pouring into the water from farmed salmon processed by the Browns Bay Packing Company near Campbell River.

The bloody wastewater was tested and found to contain piscine reovirus (PRV). The virus has been linked to a potentially deadly disease known as HSMI that causes heart lesions and organ hemorrhaging in fish, heightening concerns about the impact of open-net pen salmon farms on the health of diminishing wild salmon populations.

Waste from fish processing plants includes “offal and other solids created during eviscerating, skinning and, filleting and also the process water that is used in fluming, butchering and cleaning,” according to the audit report.

The audit found that 72 per cent of the processing facilities examined were out of compliance with their permits, also noting that most of those permits lack the “foundational requirements” for environmental protection.

“Permits that are decades old aren’t satisfactory to protect the environment,” Heyman told The Narwhal.

“We need to review our permits more frequently.”

The ministry will begin that process by focusing on the highest volume fish processing plants, Heyman said.

Farmed salmon represent almost 70 per cent of all seafood processed at B.C.’s facilities, which also process wild salmon, other wild finfish, farmed trout, and other seafood. The audit examined 18 facilities, five of them exclusively dedicated to processing farmed salmon.

While the majority of the infractions were administrative, such as failing to post signage, more serious violations included poor effluent discharge quality and exceeding permitted discharge volumes.

Sixty per cent of the facilities whose effluent was examined as part of the audit were out of compliance with discharge volumes, including the Browns Bay Packing Company, and 50 per cent were out of compliance with discharge quality standards.

“The results of the fish toxicity tests show that four out of six effluent samples taken are acutely lethal to fish in the lab environment, meaning that the toxicity tests resulted in 50 per cent or more fish mortality,” the audit report stated.

No assessment for the presence of PRV was conducted.

Campbell commended the environment ministry for commissioning the report, calling it a “good first step.”

“I found it very distressing to dive in Brown’s Bay and see this blood coming out and have an idea that it was infected with this virus that was harming wild salmon. It feels good that there’s been a response,” he told The Narwhal.

“But it’s certainly not the end to my work to try to bring about more awareness of these viruses.”

Campbell said he’s surprised and dismayed that the audit used outdated information on PRV, drawing on a March report by the B.C. Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences instead of a paper published in May by scientists from DFO and the Pacific Salmon Foundation that highlighted a link between PRV and disease in Chinook salmon.  

“They’re not taking into account the latest science that says that PRV is a risk to wild salmon.”

“We’re calling on the government to recognize that these viruses, and especially PRV, do pose more than a minimal risk of harm to wild salmon,” he said.

The audit pointed out that the only test method currently available for PRV involves detecting genetic material present in effluent, and that B.C. lacks adequate lab capacity to monitor and report on viruses.

Heyman said the ministry is aware of the most recent study on PRV and “that’s exactly why we want to work with the federal government to reduce the impacts of PRV on fish stocks to the greatest extent possible.”  

Green Party MLA and environment spokesperson Sonia Furstenau said the audit findings illustrate why the government should adopt recent recommendations to reform B.C.’s professional reliance model, which puts industry in charge of its own environmental monitoring.

“Many British Columbians were horrified, like I was, to see Tavish Campbell’s videos of blood water effluent that prompted this audit,” Furstenau said in a statement.

“It is no wonder people don’t trust the process when we must rely on private citizens and the media to bring such serious issues to light.”

The audit comes on the heels of an announcement by the B.C. government that starting in 2022 it will only grant tenures to salmon farm operators who have reached agreements with First Nations.

Heyman said the government is taking immediate steps to ensure permits are updated and strengthened at fish processing facilities.

Among the environment ministry’s new recommendations are to modernize existing permits to include “additional environmental protection provisions, such as more rigorous discharge requirements and increased monitoring,” and to require fish processing facilities to review and update their standard operational procedures “to reduce the volume and maximize the safety of effluent discharged into the environment.”

Furstenau said adopting both the professional reliance recommendations and the environment ministry’s recommendations “will go a long way to restoring the public’s trust that government is looking out for their health and safety, as well as the long-term sustainability of our natural resource sector.”

Campbell, a campaign spokesperson for the environmental group Wild First, said the farmed salmon industry must be transitioned out of the water and onto the land.

“That really is the only solution to stopping the spread of these viruses — to grow these salmon in closed containment systems on land.”

“When we’re talking about the blood water I think it’s really important to acknowledge the fact that even if the processing plants improve the treatment of their effluent these farmed fish that are infected with PRV are still being raised in open net pens, just miles down the channel from these processing plants.”

Adam Olsen, Green Party MLA and agriculture spokesperson, pointed to the release of infected blood from farmed fish as another reason why the NDP government should keep its promise to transition away from open-net pen finfish aquaculture.

“Wild salmon are culturally, economically and environmentally essential to our province, yet we are allowing them to be hit at every stage of their development,” said Olsen. “Now we learn they have also been exposed to ‘acutely lethal’ levels of effluent.”

Of 91 different groupings of B.C. wild salmon, only 28 are expected to have sufficient numbers for a healthy population in 2018, according to DFO.

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