Ottawa accused of suppressing fish virus research in British Columbia despite warnings it could harm wild salmon


An Atlantic salmon during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish hatchery near Campbell River, British Columbia, October 31, 2018.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Environmentalists accuse the federal Department of Fisheries of suppressing information about a virus that could cause heart, skeletal and muscle diseases in farmed salmon in British Columbia – a disease they say is spreading beyond farms and endangers wild salmon populations.

The disease, called heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, or HSMI, is caused by pool orthoreovirus (PRV), which has been detected at salmon farms in British Columbia. The federal government has known for more than five years that VRP found in the province can lead to HSMI. In 2016, Espen Rimstad, a Norwegian fish virus experttold the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in an email that samples of the virus the government sent him from British Columbia had caused the disease in fish under laboratory conditions.

The email was obtained by Alexandra Morton, an ecologist and biologist who has spent 30 years studying the impact of fish farms on wild salmon. Ms Morton made a freedom of information request in 2017, received a redacted version of the email in 2019, then appealed those redactions and received the full document this summer.

BC First Nations and conservation groups say Ottawa failed to disclose the email in a number of risk assessments and consultations on the impact of fish farms in BC, even though he had a duty to do so. Fisheries regulations state that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans cannot allow fish farms to be stocked with disease-carrying fish.

Wild First, an advocacy group, alerted the House of Commons Fisheries and Oceans Committee to the email in a July written submission. The document stated that the government had “suppressed this research” and that it “has not referenced, ignored or avoided disclosing this evidence in its risk assessments and advice to DFO decision makers, and in consultations with First Nations”.

“By suppressing Dr. Rimstad’s research, DFO avoided its regulatory obligations in order to benefit industry,” Wild First wrote. He and other groups like him oppose open-net pen fish farms, where commercial fish swim in pens in the ocean. They want salmon farms away from open waters.

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Tony Allard, president of Wild First, said in an interview that the government tried to conceal the contents of Dr. Rimstad’s email by redacting it. “DFO knew PRV was causing disease and let the industry supply their farms with PRV-infected fish anyway,” he said.

The first recipient of Dr. Rimstad’s email was Kyle Garver, a scientist with the Department of Fisheries. In an email to The Globe, Dr Garver vehemently denied that his department tried to cover up Dr Rimstad’s PRV research, and said hearing such accusations was ‘frustrating’ because the opposite was true. .

He said the department and Dr. Rimstad had followed the “preliminary experiment” with further studies.

“This preliminary finding was by no means suppressed, but rather discussed with other scientists and managers, and follow-up studies were actively pursued,” he said. “These studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and my group continues to investigate PRV and will continue to make these results available to the public.”

Dr Rimstad told The Globe that there should be more research into the impact of PRV on different varieties of salmon. He said in lab tests, the virus had little effect on Pacific sockeye salmon.

He cautioned against extrapolating a lab test result from one species to the entire population of wild Pacific salmon, which includes five species in British Columbia.

“One must be very careful in assuming that the results of controlled experimental parameters will be valid for a natural, wild setting,” he said. “The conditions of an experimental challenge at an experimental station where the fish are well cared for, living in a controlled environment, with no natural enemies around, etc., are quite different from the survival of the fittest that wild fish experience.”

According to Gideon Mordecai, a marine biologist and virologist at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Fisheries and Oceans, PRV can cause blood cell breakdown and organ damage in fish.

Brian Kingzett, director of science and policy for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, an industry group, said there is no scientific evidence that PRV has harmed the wild salmon population in British Columbia. He added that fish farms supply 90% of the salmon consumed in Canada. and are closely monitored for viruses and other pathogens that could be transmitted to wildlife.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the form of PRV found in British Columbia causes population-level effects of HSMI in wild salmon,” he said. “Salmon farming can help reduce pressure on wild salmon stocks.”

According to the association, BC fish farms employ more than 4,700 people and contribute $1.2 billion to economic activity annually.

Ms Morton said when three fish farms were removed from the Ahta River pink salmon migration route, the number of fish increased more than 11 times in one year.

“I have no doubts about the effects of farms on the ability of wild salmon to survive in the wild. I saw this with my own eyes,” she said. “The fish that passed the farms had pale gills, bulging eyes and dark skin. But when the farms were removed, the swimming pink salmon looked big and beautiful.

The Namgis First Nation, which has depended on salmon for thousands of years in British Columbia, launched a successful lawsuit against the Department of Fisheries for failing to protect wild salmon from the virus. In 2019, the Federal Court found that the government’s PRV policy did not fully adhere to the precautionary principle – the idea that decision-makers should not wait for scientific certainty before acting to prevent potential harm.

Bob Chamberlin, president of the Wild Salmon Alliance, a group of First Nations across British Columbia, said wild salmon are essential to the province’s Indigenous culture and must be protected from diseases carried by farmed fish . “This is about food security for BC First Nations,” he added.

Erik Nosaluk, spokesman for Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, said there were “still knowledge gaps” about the impact of PRV on wild populations in the Pacific. He added that wild Pacific salmon face “unprecedented threats” and the government is taking action to protect them.

“This includes reducing or eliminating all manageable risks to wild Pacific salmon populations by moving away from net-pen salmon aquaculture in coastal BC waters,” said he declared.


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