Lawyers with Ecojustice have recently brought three court cases that touch on a profound problem with the aquaculture industry in Canada: Government agencies, companies, and professional bodies like the College of Veterinarians of B.C. are not doing enough to protect wild salmon and the marine environment on which they depend.

Most recently, we were part of an important victory for B.C’s wild salmon and the species and communities that depend on them. It all started in 2007, when a government veterinarian gave misleading advice to the B.C. government about threats posed by a dangerous salmon virus called Infectious Salmon Anemia virus (“ISAV”). ISAV poses such a significant threat to fish that it’s an internationally reportable disease. It has killed millions of salmon and caused huge losses to aquaculture industries in Chile, eastern Canada, and Norway.

We took on this case because wild salmon are a keystone species in B.C.’s marine ecosystems. In many communities, they are an integral part of life for both cultural and sustenance purposes. Currently, there is not enough scientific evidence to predict the consequences of introducing ISAV to wild salmon, but based on evidence from other places, they could be catastrophic. As such, it is extremely important that veterinarians give advice that is accurate and protective of wild salmon.

In a case with such potentially serious repercussions, the College of Veterinarians of B.C. (”the College”) needs to live up to its responsibilities as an oversight body. That means conducting an investigation to determine if any misconduct occurred and, if so, what constitutes an appropriate sanction.

In this case, the government veterinarian correctly advised B.C.’s Minister of Agriculture and Lands that the import of live Atlantic salmon eggs is a high-risk activity associated with ISAV outbreaks in Chile. However, the veterinarian falsely told the Minister that the import of live Atlantic salmon eggs is prohibited in B.C. At the time, over 28 million live Atlantic salmon eggs had been legally imported to B.C. Some of those eggs grew into fish that were placed in open net pens on wild Pacific salmon migration routes. These open net pens lack physical barriers to stop fish diseases from spreading to wild salmon.

After she learned about the misleading advice, biologist Alex Morton asked the College to determine whether the false advice amounted to professional misconduct. The College twice declined to investigate, at which point she reached out to Ecojustice for help. In December 2014, lawyers with Ecojustice launched a lawsuit on Alex’s behalf. The lawsuit sought to force the College to do its job and investigate the allegation of misconduct. After Alex launched her lawsuit, the College agreed to investigate the complaint. While it shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to get there, we are pleased the investigation is going to happen. Alex has thus dropped her lawsuit.

In June 2014, lawyers with Ecojustice were in court on another case arguing that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (“DFO”) decision to download a very important duty to fish farm companies is unlawful. This case, also brought by Alex, challenges an aquaculture licence issued by DFO. The aquaculture license purports to allow a fish farm operator to decide if it can transfer fish carrying disease agents into open net pens in waters shared with wild salmon. Alex’s position is that the license is unlawful because fish farm companies do not, and cannot, have the legal right to decide to transfer such fish into the ocean.

In this case, a fish farm company transferred salmon into open net pens in BC’s coastal waters. These fish were determined to be infected with Piscine Reovirus (“PRV”). PRV is thought to cause a deadly salmon disease called Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation, although scientific uncertainty remains about this causal connection. In cases such as this, government needs to take the lead and ensure we do not jeopardize the survival of our wild salmon. Off-loading oversight of the aquaculture industry to fish farm companies is a clear example of letting the fox guard the hen house – this is not a prudent approach to protecting wild salmon. We’re still awaiting the Court’s decision in this case.

As the aquaculture industry continues to grow and evolve, new threats to wild fish are emerging. Lawyers with Ecojustice are currently representing Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society in a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s decision to permit the manufacture of genetically modified salmon. “AquAdvantage” salmon, which the manufacturer claims can grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon, would be the world’s first genetically modified food animal to go into production.

Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society do not think the risks to the environment and wild salmon were adequately addressed by the government. The government’s assessment of the risks presented by these genetically modified salmon has been done behind closed doors. Even now, Canadians do not have access to the full review. In the simplest terms, we don’t believe the government is being careful enough to protect wild fish or their ocean habitat. Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society also believe that Canadians have a right to know what is going on.

Risky aquaculture practices have huge implications for everyone. Therefore, a cautionary approach must be embraced to protect wild salmon and our marine ecosystems. Caution requires that when decision-makers have an incomplete understanding of the environmental risks associated with a project or plan, they must err on the side of caution and impose safeguards to stop harm before it happens. That has not been the approach to aquaculture in Canada and that needs to change.