Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on May 25, 2018 (updated: May 25, 2018)

Something in the water: New salmon virus study stresses need to get fish farms out of ocean

Wild salmon in Adams River, BCErnest Alfred
alex-and-tatoo photo by Ivan AlexisAlexandra MortonClient
Spawning salmon swim in Adams River, BC

There’s something going viral in the ocean and we need to address it now.

A study has confirmed that a highly-contagious virus called Piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV, appears to pose a deadly threat to British Columbia’s wild salmon.

According to the government-scientist-led study, which will be released in the journal FACETS at a later date, PRV can harm Chinook salmon by entering the fish’s blood cells and replicating until it causes the cells to burst “en masse.” This can result in liver and kidney damage, anemia and death.

It’s significant news, given that up to 80 per cent of farmed salmon in British Columbia are infected with PRV and the federal government is at odds with its own scientists, maintaining that PRV is not a threat to wild salmon.

In fact, government lawyers are using this argument to justify Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc’s unlawful practice of allowing companies to transfer millions of farmed Atlantic salmon into open-net pens along wild salmon migration routes without screening for PRV.

Thanks to a lawsuit Ecojustice lawyers filed in 2015, the Federal Court has already reprimanded the minister for failing to take a more precautionary approach to protecting wild salmon from PRV, and for refusing to uphold Canadian law, which prohibits the transfer of fish carrying a disease agent into Canadian waters. Even in the face of a second legal challenge, Minister LeBlanc still refuses to screen farmed salmon for PRV, instead choosing to  a “wait and see” approach to protecting wild salmon.

As a First Nation Hereditary Chief and as an independent biologist who has studied salmon and PRV in and around Musgamagw, Mamalilikala and ‘Namgis territory off coast of Vancouver Island for more than 30 years, we have witnessed first-hand how the minister’s willful blindness is devastating wild salmon runs.

Salmon nourish the coastal ecosystems where they live. A lack of salmon, Chinook in particular, is pushing the resident orcas of the Salish Sea towards extinction. Wild salmon are also an essential part of indigenous culture and diet. It is not an exaggeration to say that our people would not exist without these fish. For us, there can be no reconciliation while open-net farms continue to threaten our way of life.

We aren’t the only ones critical of how the minister is managing fish farms. A recent report from the federal Auditor General found that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is failing to adequately manage the risk of transfer of viruses from farmed to wild salmon.

Washington State banned open-net Atlantic salmon farms earlier this year to protect wild salmon, leaving British Columbia as the last jurisdiction on the west coast of North America to allow open-net fish farming — and as new scientific evidence spells out the scope of the risk and public opposition mounts, that dubious title seems increasingly tenuous. Just last week, Washington State stopped the transfer of PRV-infected fish into open net pens, highlighting how Minister LeBlanc’s policy is seriously out of step with best practices.

Meanwhile, members of the ‘Namgis and other First Nations have been clear: they want salmon farms out now and have served the companies with eviction notices.  This fall, Ecojustice and lawyers for the ‘Namgis First Nation will be back in court to argue that Minister LeBlanc’s policy of issuing transfer licences for PRV-infected farmed fish is illegal.

An industry that holds PRV-infected Atlantic salmon in open-net pens along wild salmon migration routes is not acceptable. The minister must adopt and implement a precautionary approach to managing aquaculture — it is the law.

However, the provincial government also bears responsibility. On June 20, the provincial tenures for one quarter of the salmon farming industry will expire. All of these are situated in territories where First Nations are demanding that the industry leave.

Premier Horgan is landlord to these farms, and as such his government has a pivotal decision to make. We are calling on Premier Horgan not to renew the salmon farm tenures in Musgamagw and ‘Namgis territories, in the name of reconciliation, the Southern Resident orca, and all British Columbians present and future who love wild salmon.

It’s time to put an end to unsafe fish farming off the coast of British Columbia and become leaders in sustainable aquaculture and wild salmon restoration.

Ernest Alfred is a hereditary chief of the Lawit’sis and Mamalilikala Nations and has been involved in the occupation of Marine Harvest’s Swanson Island Farm for 260 days. Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist who is working with Ecojustice to take Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc to court over his practice of approving farmed salmon transfers without testing for PRV. Ms. Morton is an adopted member of the Musgamagw First Nations.

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