Ensuring effective oversight of aquaculture vets

Program area – Nature Status: Victory
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Infectious Salmon Anemia virus (ISAV) is an internationally reportable virus that has killed millions of salmon and caused massive losses to aquaculture industries in Chile, eastern Canada, and Norway. There is significant concern that ISAV and other diseases found in open net fish farms can spread to wild salmon and could cause catastrophic losses in BC.

In 2007, a government veterinarian correctly advised the Minister of Agriculture and Lands that the import of live Atlantic salmon eggs is a high-risk activity that contributed to the development of ISAV infection in Chile. However, he also erroneously told the Minister that B.C. does not does not import, and does not allow the import of, live Atlantic salmon eggs. At the time that the advice was given, over 28 million live Atlantic salmon eggs had been imported into the province. Salmon raised from those eggs were placed in open net pens on wild Pacific salmon migration routes.

In 2013, biologist Alexandra Morton asked the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia to investigate whether the veterinarian’s erroneous advice amounted to professional misconduct. The College refused to investigate. In December 2014, on Ms. Morton’s behalf, we launched a lawsuit against the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia arguing that the refusal to investigate was based on unlawful considerations.

As a result of the lawsuit, in February 2015, the College confirmed that it would conduct an investigation. Ms. Morton is dropping the lawsuit.

Healthy wild Salmon populations are important to our ecosystems and communities. Salmon are a keystone species in B.C. and a critical food source for many communities. Many wild animals, including eagles and bears, depend on wild salmon for survival. A significant disease outbreak in our wild salmon would be catastrophic. As such, it is extremely important that our wild salmon are protected from exposure to diseases at fish farms.

Veterinarians employed by government and aquaculture companies have become de facto regulators for this industry. As such, the College needs to exercise meaningful oversight of its members. Faulty advice provided to a Minister can have profound implications for the health of the province’s wild salmon. The public interest requires veterinarians to exercise due caution when providing advice about dangerous animal diseases.

In this era of deregulation, this victory helps protect our communities and ecosystems by ensuring public oversight of veterinary practice in BC. Veterinarians advising on issues of such societal and environmental importance need to be held to the highest professional standards and it is the College’s legal duty to ensure this occurs. With this victory, the College better understands both its duty to investigate complaints from the public and its duty to ensure veterinarians are held accountable for their veterinary practices.

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