New research has found the highly-contagious piscine reovirus — found in most farmed Atlantic salmon in B.C. — is linked to a disease in wild chinook salmon that ruptures red blood vessels and causes organ failure.
The smoking-gun research, led by Canadian scientists at the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, established the long-suspected link and found infection from farmed salmon could seriously threaten B.C.’s shrinking wild salmon populations.
“It’s the same strain of virus,” Kristi Miller, a scientist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and one of the authors of the paper, told The Narwhal.
But while B.C. continues to allow salmon farms to restock with fish that could be infected with piscine reovirus, or PRV, Washington State has prohibited Cooke Aquaculture from transferring 800,000 juvenile Atlantic salmon from a hatchery to ocean net pens because of disease risks.
The Washington fish were found to be carrying an Icelandic strain of the virus and presented an “unacceptable risk of introducing an exotic strain of PRV into Washington marine waters,” said Ken Warheit, a fish health manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“This would represent an unknown and, therefore, unacceptable risk of disease transmission,” he said.
Washington has passed legislation to phase out open net fish farming by 2022 following the escape of about 240,000 Atlantic salmon from collapsed Cooke Aquaculture pens. Escaped fish caught by fishermen in Juan de Fuca Strait tested positive for the virus according to the Wild Fish Conservancy, a science and wild-fish advocacy organization.
Tests have found that the strain of the virus found in B.C. originates in Norway, meaning it is equally as exotic as the strain found in the Washington fish, independent biologist and wild fish advocate Alexandra Morton told The Narwhal. Morton questions how much more scientific evidence is needed before Fisheries and Oceans Canada moves the open net pens out of the ocean.
“Washington State is leading the way again with decisive action against the risk of PRV-infected farm salmon to wild salmon,” Morton said, emphasizing that Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc is ignoring his mandate letter, which says he must use science to preserve wild salmon.
“His blind obedience to the needs of this dying industry has become an international embarrassment to Canadians and one of the biggest threats to wild salmon on this coast,” she said.
Morton won a 2015 lawsuit in Federal Court when Justice Donald Rennie said the minister must obey Fisheries General Regulations and ordered the ministry to begin testing hatchery fish to ensure they were not transferred to ocean pens if they had piscine reovirus.
But Marine Harvest, the largest fish farm operator in B.C, argued testing would severely impact the company. So far, mandatory disease testing has not taken place.
“I took the minister to court and I won and he refuses to acknowledge this decision so I am being forced to go through the process of taking him to court again,” Morton told The Narwhal.
“It’s an outright violation of the law. This is exactly how the North Atlantic cod went down. The government ignored their own scientists,” she said.
Morton’s second lawsuit and a lawsuit filed by the ‘Namgis First Nation, aiming to stop infected farm salmon from entering their territory, will be heard in September.
The fish farming industry in B.C. has recently been under siege, with increasing calls for the farms to be moved into closed-containment pens.
The Pacific Salmon Foundation, a partner in the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, called for a move to closed containment following publication of the new scientific paper.
“The results of this study are significant because they show — for the first time — strong evidence that the same strain of PRV that causes heart and skeletal muscle inflammation disease in Atlantic salmon is likely to cause disease in at least one species of Pacific salmon,” said Brian Riddell, president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation.
“These findings add to the existing concerns about the potential impacts of open net salmon farming on wild Pacific salmon off the coast of B.C.”
B.C. Salmon Farmers Association countered with an attack, calling the foundation’s recommendation to move to closed containment “premature and misguided.”
The research is not yet complete and does not show direct evidence that salmon farms are negatively affecting the health of wild salmon, the association said in a news release.
“Also the [Pacific Salmon Foundation] fails to consider the real-world reality that the technology to move to large-scale closed containment farming is still evolving…so this move would effectively shut our industry down,” said spokesman Shawn Hall.
Adding fuel to the debate, federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand found in a highly critical report that Fisheries and Oceans Canada is not adequately managing risks associated with salmon aquaculture.
The ongoing problem of sea lice, first identified by Morton in 2001, sprang to prominence once again, with a recent epidemic of lice at Cermaq Canada farms in Clayoquot Sound sparking a Fisheries and Oceans Canada investigation.
All eyes are on the provincial government as it considers 22 licences in the Broughton Archipelago that are up for renewal in June.
‘Namgis hereditary chief Ernest Alfred told The Narwhal that the provincial decision will be a test of whether the province genuinely wants better relations with First Nations.
“We have given them little or no choice…But there is a very slim chance that the government might renew those licences and that really scares me,” he said.
On Friday, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered First Nations protesters, including Alfred, to leave the area where they have been occupying Marine Harvest’s docks, pending a June 25 hearing of an application by the company for a broader injunction.
The court has already turned down a request by the company for an injunction that would prevent the public from coming within 20 metres of its open-net pens, saying the order does not limit use of open water outside the company’s farms.
Alfred said the protests will continue from another area.
“They don’t own this land and they don’t own our waterways,” he said.
Marine Harvest spokesman Jeremy Dunn said in a statement that the company wanted the injunction to protect employees.
“Meaningful dialogue with First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago, where we have been operating salmon farms for 30 years, remains a priority for Marine Harvest. Unfortunately, our efforts to date have not been successful, but we remain hopeful,” he said.
Morton is pleased with the attention now being focused on salmon farms, but worries that action on getting fish farms out of the water where young fish migrate will not come soon enough.
“I just hope it’s not too late,” she said.