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Policy On Deadly Virus In Farmed Salmon Deemed Illegal, Court Rules

Government gets four months to stop allowing millions of salmon to be introduced into BC waters without screening.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 6 Feb 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Nikiforuk is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

The Canadian government has breached its duty to consult with First Nations and is breaking its own fishery rules with a policy that currently allows millions of farmed salmon to be introduced into the ocean without testing for a potentially deadly virus, the Federal Court of Canada has ruled.

Justice Cecily Strickland gave the government four months to revise or examine the scientific basis for its non-testing piscine reovirus (PRV) policy, but did not specifically order the government to begin testing.*

Strickland’s 201-page decision also found the federal government wasn’t upholding the Fisheries Act or the precautionary principle with its current policy allowing companies to introduce young salmon into fish pens without testing for PRV.

According to the Fisheries Act, the minister can issue licences allowing fish farms to transfer hatchery-raised smolts provided “the fish do not have any disease or disease agent that may be harmful to the protection and conservation of fish.” The industry transfers 16 million to 52 million smolts a year into B.C. fish farms.

The government broadly interpreted the law to mean transferring infected fish was legal even “where there is potential harm to a fish or where potentially certain fish will die,” the ruling found. The government also argued the potential harm had to be large enough to affect an entire species or ecosystem before testing was required.

Strickland found that interpretation, “while purporting to adopt the Wild Salmon Policy definition of conservation,” doesn’t comply with the law or the principle of protecting wild salmon.

“We were right once again and the government and the industry were wrong again,” said wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton.

Morton sued the government in 2016 for putting wild salmon at risk by not testing for PRV. The ’Namgis First Nation, which opposes fish farming on its territory, later joined the lawsuit.

In 2015, an almost identical lawsuit on the same issue produced a Federal Court ruling that concluded that the transfer of infected smolts with PRV was “inconsistent” with the law and the precautionary principle.

PRV was first identified in Norway in 2010, the birthplace of Atlantic salmon farming, and is now found anywhere fish farms operate — in Chile, Scotland, Norway and Canada.

The Canadian fish farm industry and the federal government initially argued that strains of the virus found in Pacific waters were harmless and showed no signs of causing disease.

But in 2017 Norwegian researchers proved that the virus causes heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI), a deadly disease that has been crippling fish farms since 1999.

Symptoms, which include weight loss, abnormal swimming and listlessness, usually appear in PRV-infected smolts six to eight months after their transfer to fish farms.

In 2017 a study by the Pacific Salmon Foundation found that farmed Atlantic salmon infected with PRV did develop and die from HSMI in B.C.

That study, noted the judge, contradicted the DFO’s research, which found that the B.C. strains of PRV did not result in HSMI.

The ruling said that study shows “that PRV may potentially have adverse effects on ’Namgis’ Aboriginal rights if HSMI is transmissible to and has different impacts on wild Pacific salmon than it does on farmed salmon, which issue is not adequately addressed in the science underlying the Minister’s PRV Policy.”

Research by DFO scientist Kristi Miller also “reported a weak, but significant, association between PRV infection and spawning migration losses in Chilko Lake Sockeye Salmon” in 2014.

A 2018 study also found PRV was linked to jaundice and anemia in farmed Chinook salmon.

About 50 per cent of wild Chinook salmon populations in southern B.C. are considered endangered due to a variety of factors including loss of habitat, overfishing, climate change and disease.

“Why has the government been refusing to test for a virus that causes the cells of Chinook salmon to explode?” asked Morton.

The government argued that its best scientific advice showed that wild fish do not get disease from PRV. But Strickland said the court couldn’t “locate such a definitive finding in the record.”

The government “failed to specifically consider a relevant factor, current wild Pacific salmon health and status, in the context of the prevailing scientific uncertainties surrounding PRV and HSMI,” she concluded. That made its decision to allow the transfer of infected fish “unreasonable.”

Both the government and the industry said they would need time to study the decision.

“We take the duty to consult with Indigenous groups very seriously and the Government of Canada is engaging in meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities and stakeholders to form our policy decisions,” said a DFO statement.

PRV is not just a problem at fish farms but is also released in blood plumes from salmon packing operations such as Brown’s Bay Packing north of Campbell River.

The company recently applied to the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy for permission to set up a dilution zone for its bloody discharge.

The Campbell River Environmental Committee has asked the provincial government to uphold the Fisheries Act and “reconsider use of critical fish habitat to form a key part of their waste management process.”

Story updated on Feb. 6, 2019 at 9:15 a.m.

*The headline and text marked with an asterisk were change on Feb. 11 to accurately reflect the court ruling.  [Tyee]

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