I knew back in the 1980s when Norwegian salmon farming companies began to move to Canada that it would not be good for the BC coast. This concern was confirmed when Patrick Moore, Greenpeace cofounder turned anti-environmentalist, showed up at a public meeting in Vancouver to defend the fledgling industry. Back then I was (rightly) concerned that they would be located in the remote bays and inlets I loved to explore by kayak. It was many years before I began to fully understand the ecological impacts.
Virus transfer from farmed to wild salmon is dangerously easy
One of the big fears is the transfer of viruses from farmed to wild salmon. When you understand the mechanism of transfer, the implications are chilling. It came out during Canada’s 2010 Cohen Commission that an infected farm can shed up to 65 billion viral particles per hour. BC’s big tides cause strong currents, which can spread these viral particles far and wide. Remember, fish breath through gills, so the water they swim through comes in direct contact with their blood and voila—those viral particles are in the wild fish!
This decade a new virus has appeared on the scene, and seems to be taking the salmon farming industry by storm. Government and industry have denied for years that the piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) is a problem. But this year a new study from the Department of Fisheries (DFO) confirmed the presence of Heart and skeletal muscle inflammation disease (HSMI) on a BC salmon farm. And a recent Norwegian study showed that PRV causes HSMI. As DFO scientist Dr Kristi Miller stated in Tofino last week, if PRV causes HSMI in Norway, it causes it in Canada, Chile, and anywhere else in the world that Atlantic salmon are reared in open-net pens in the oceans.
Norwegian viruses in Canadian waters
A couple of weeks back we were deeply saddened by the passing of Twyla Roscovich, a brilliant filmmaker whose movies changed public perceptions about salmon farming. After working with Alexandra Morton on Salmon Confidential, Twyla flew to Norway (while very pregnant) to make a short follow-up film about PRV and HSMI in British Columbia.
Dr Nylund, one of the world’s leading experts on disease in farmed salmon, told Twyla that “I can be 100% sure that it [BC’s PRV] is from the North Atlantic, because if it had been separated in a different population in the Pacific, it wouldn’t look that similar to the Norwegian virus.” He also stated “you have moved a virus from the North Atlantic to the Pacific, which is always a cause for concern because the movement of pathogens is always a danger for establishing a new disease in the new area”.
The BC government has denied the problems with HSMI for years, as it has not been detected in wild fish. However, Dr Nylund pointed out that because the symptoms of HSMI include a weak heart and muscles, if a wild salmon contracted HSMI “they will probably be eaten before they recover”.
Court case won but nothing changed
Ecojustice and independent biologist Alexandra Morton won a court case in 2015 after she caught Marine Harvest transferring fish with PRV into their open-net pen salmon farms in BC. Although the judge ordered the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to use the precautionary principle, which would stop the issuing of licenses which contravene the Fisheries Act, DFO has to date failed to comply.
Shockingly, when Marine Harvest decided to appeal the finding, DFO joined the appeal. They have since both dropped the appeal as the undeniable truth begins to emerge from DFO’s own studies. This fall Morton will team up again with Ecojustice to launch a new case, based on the new evidence which is even stronger than it was a couple of years back.
Grassroots action to get the farms out
The solution to PRV is simple: remove open-net pen salmon farms from the ocean. With two First Nations on the northern Vancouver Island occupying two salmon farms as I write, pressure is mounting to get salmon farms out of the oceans.
In the meantime, the Canadian government must prevent Norwegian companies from putting PRV-infected farmed salmon into Canadian waters. This summer Clayoquot Action sent over 5000 postcards to Prime Minister Trudeau asking him to stop the transfer of PRV-infected farm salmon into open net-pen fish farms in BC waters. Thanks to all the local guides who got the postcards signed and helped educate visitors about the damage salmon farms are doing to Clayoquot Sound’s waters and wild salmon!
Please add your voice—send a letter to the Prime Minister now.
Dan Lewis is Executive Director of Clayoquot Action.