Toronto Star

Fish-farm fight ends with mandated testing for virus

Wanyee Li

Jun 11, 2019
VANCOUVER — After years of demands from advocates and a court decision ordering a rethink, the federal government announced Tuesday it will begin testing for a contagious virus in B.C. fish farms.

Advocates say they are cautiously optimistic that testing will mean no infected fish are transferred into B.C. waters, where declining salmon stocks are already facing numerous threats.

“I almost don’t have words for this. This is a new experience,” said Alex Morton, a marine biologist who, along with the ’Namgis First Nation, has been fighting for this very policy in court for years.

Morton, the ’Namgis, and environmental groups argue fish farms are “viral factories” for the contagious pathogen, Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), that is putting wild salmon at risk. Two scientific papers have also linked PRV with disease in fish liver, heart and muscle tissue.

But scientists who study the virus are divided on whether it poses a threat to wild fish in B.C. The fish farm industry has maintained the virus is naturally occurring and is nothing to worry about.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (often called the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or DFO) used to allow farms to transfer salmon from land-based hatcheries to ocean pens without testing for the virus.

In February, a federal court judge sided with Morton and the ’Namgis, striking down the government’s no-testing policy because it did not follow the precautionary principle: the idea that when there is scientific uncertainty, policy-makers should err on the side of caution. The court gave DFO until June 4, 2019 to come up with a new approach to PRV.

On Tuesday, DFO did just that. The agency announced it will now require fish farms to conduct “enhanced testing and reporting” of two diseases that have been linked to PRV: heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) and jaundice syndrome. DFO staff will also screen freshwater hatcheries for the presence of two strains of PRV that originated in Iceland and Norway.

Those test results will then go to “decision-makers” who will conduct a risk assessment before allowing or not allowing fish farms to transfer smolts from land-based hatcheries to open-ocean net pens, confirmed Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of fisheries of oceans.

“The issue around wild salmon is one that is very important to me, and I have made it a priority since I was appointed,” said Wilkinson, who noted he was the first minister from B.C. to be given the fisheries and oceans file in 15 years.

He said this announcement is part of his attempt to build bridges between scientists and stakeholders who disagreed about the threat of PRV to wild salmon for decades.

Morton applauded Wilkinson for approving tests the fish farm industry has argued in court would damage its bottom line, but added she would be watching closely to see what DFO staff do when a fish tests positive for PRV, HSMI or jaundice.

“Testing is the first step. And the reason we want (DFO) to test is to prevent the transfer of a fish with a disease agent into the ocean,” she said.

B.C. fish farm industry spokesperson Shawn Hall previously told Star Vancouver that PRV simply does not make fish sick.

When reached Tuesday via email, Hall said farmers already test for “a number of known pathogens that can impact fish health” and that “testing for this additional virus will now be part of an already rigorous process.”

He added that farmers “are committed to raising healthy food in a climate-friendly manner to help lessen the burden on threatened wild stocks.”

’Namgis chief Don Svanvik told Star Vancouver that while testing is a good first step, he ultimately wants DFO to take fish farms out of the ocean completely. He and others, including Morton, have found sea lice from fish farms has also hurt wild salmon stocks.

“There is absolutely a place for farmed fish, but put them on land. And we’ll have the best of both worlds,” he said. “Why would you want to take the chance?”

The ’Namgis First Nation has operated a land-based fish farm for the past few years, and Svanvik believes the fish farm industry should adopt this technology.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada visit the Okisollo fish farm, which has been owned and operated by Marine Harvest since 1991, for a fish health audit. They are checking the fish for sea lice, while also inspecting the health of the Atlantic salmon's gills, on Oct. 31, 2018.

Morton and the environmental group Ecojustice have gone to court twice in an attempt to force the federal government to test for PRV — and won both times. The second time, she was joined by ’Namgis First Nation. Last week, Star Vancouver found the Canadian government spent $2.26 million fighting those court battles, according to a summary document released under access-to-information laws.

In federal court on Monday, lawyers from the Canadian government and the ’Namgis struck a deal that gave the government four extra months to consult with the ’Namgis on a new PRV testing policy.

DFO also said in the coming months it will form three working groups that will provide advice to the department about risk management and fish farms. DFO will invite various stakeholders, including Morton and the ’Namgis, said Wilkinson.

Morton said she is hopeful that the minister’s decision to test for PRV is a sign he is taking threats to wild salmon seriously.

“If this is honest, as it appears it is — if this is as good as it looks, he will be rebuilding trust, and I certainly will help him with that,” she said.

“The road to trust is long. But he has certainly opened the gates.”

With files from Ainslie Cruickshank

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