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DFO Suppresses Science and Pushes Salmon Farms, Critics Tell MPs

The federal fisheries department should be stripped of its role in promoting aquaculture, urges MP Elizabeth May.

Judith Lavoie 13 May

Judith Lavoie is a Victoria-based freelance journalist who specializes in writing about the natural world.

Inconvenient science that does not support entrenched positions at Fisheries and Oceans Canada is frequently suppressed, often benefiting the salmon farming industry to the detriment of wild salmon, a federal parliamentary committee was told Thursday.

Witnesses at hearings into DFO science by the all-party Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans described an erosion of public trust as studies showing that wild fish are harmed by sea lice and pathogens spreading from salmon farms are sidelined or ignored by the department.

That means advice to the minister may be missing key elements while the salmon farming industry is wielding undue influence, witnesses said.

Stan Proboszcz, senior scientist at Watershed Watch Salmon Society, documented how the number of risk assessments — looking at whether farms in the Discovery Islands between Vancouver Island and mainland B.C. posed risks for wild salmon — was suddenly cut from 10 to nine. The result meant the effects of sea lice or cumulative impacts from the farms weren’t considered in the assessment process.

The change apparently came after research by two DFO scientists concluded sea lice and infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus originating in fish farms were harming wild sockeye, he said.*

The department held a news conference in 2020 showcasing assessments claiming salmon farms pose minimal risks to wild fish, but did not mention its own research showing adverse effects, even though it had been published in science journals the previous year.

The DFO website “Sea Lice on Wild Salmon” section does not link to either the contrary DFO research or external studies despite at least 13 studies strongly suggesting that increased levels of sea lice from salmon farms can infect juvenile wild salmon and, ultimately, drive B.C. wild salmon populations towards extinction, Proboszcz said.

“DFO appears to obfuscate and cherry pick science and misdirect Canadians and news media away from inconvenient science and precautionary action,” Proboszcz said.

‘Key risks were omitted,’ says Pacific Salmon Foundation witness

Andrew Bateman of Pacific Salmon Foundation said recent experiences show that an external advisory committee is needed to directly advise decision-makers and recommend further research without being subject to vested interests inside or outside DFO.

“On the aquaculture front, such a body could go a long way towards restoring trust that many Canadians have lost in the department,” he told an earlier meeting of the standing committee.

The foundation took part in four of the nine Discovery Island risk assessments and the findings of minimal risk did not reflect current knowledge or scientific consensus, Bateman said.

“Key risks were omitted — sea lice, cumulative effects and the conservation status of the sockeye stocks were ignored. The processes were neither unbiased nor independent. The risk assessments were implemented, closely managed and influenced by senior officials from DFO Aquaculture. Employees, contractors and others linked to the salmon farming industry served on the steering committee and as senior reviewers, so that conflict of interest threatened the integrity of the process,” he said.

The selective information release even raised questions from within DFO ranks. An Access to Information and Privacy request from independent biologist Alexandra Morton revealed concerns from DFO veterinarian Ian Keith shared in an internal email. “How can DFO Science not share with their health management counterparts that they have data indicating that sockeye are the most susceptible species of Pacific salmon?”

Proboszcz said DFO and the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, which co-ordinates scientific peer review and science advice for DFO, are influenced more by the fish farming industry than the need to protect wild salmon.

“This case study highlights a dysfunctional federal agency captured by the salmon farming industry,” he said.

“An arms-length-from-DFO investigation is needed examining industry salmon farming influence on DFO. Given this suppressed science and DFO’s shoddy risk assessments, B.C. salmon farm licences should not be renewed when they expire on June 30,” he said.

DFO advice to then fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan that there was minimal risk from the Discovery Islands farms was ignored by Jordan, who ordered that all the farms must close by the end of June this year.

But in April, a federal court overturned the order, ruling that Jordan breached the rights of B.C. salmon farmers to procedural fairness.

Fish farm companies Mowi Canada West, Cermaq Canada and Grieg Seafood had applied for a judicial review of the order, claiming that it prevented them from restocking their farms and did not show “an appreciation of the facts.”

Over 100 First Nations in BC said to oppose fish farms

Throughout the province, stakes are high as all open-net pen salmon companies are facing potential closures.

Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, armed with a mandate letter calling for a transition of fish farms out of B.C. waters by 2025, has insisted she intends to follow that path, but companies are actively courting partnerships with First Nations as a possible way of circumventing orders to close or move operations on land.

Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance, told the committee that more than 100 of B.C.’s 203 First Nations have confirmed they want fish farms out of their territories, although others are concerned about the economic impact and some have recently changed their minds about ousting the farms.

“I’ll leave that to you to surmise why that occurred,” he said.

At the root of much Indigenous concern is the “absolute disaster that is the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat in relationship to the open-net fish pen industry,” Chamberlin said.

“The secretariat has zero credibility with members of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance,” he said.

“A so-called science peer review process that allows a proponent fish farm company, industries and industry associations to participate from the beginning to the end of this process is utterly and completely lacking of any measure of objectivity or credibility. Canada’s environment, wild fish and citizens deserve far more from government,” Chamberlin said.

Science must be removed from DFO managers so the fisheries minister can be given clear, unbiased recommendations, Chamberlin said.

First Nations must be central to a revamped DFO that must no longer be “a captured regulator of the fish farm industry,” he added.

Strip DFO of aquaculture promoter role, says MP May

Consistent stories from witnesses underline the need for change, said Saanich-Gulf Islands Green MP Elizabeth May, who is not a committee member, but was given time to speak.

“What we see relating to science and DFO and the aquaculture industry is not incompetence, not scientific illiteracy, but deliberately dishonest efforts to block science, keep a minister in the dark and advantage the industry,” she said.

“If there’s rot, don’t we want to cut the rot out and figure out how to get rid of that conflict of interest so that we are not constantly trying to chase real science and get it in front of a minister whose department should provide that minister with real science?” asked May suggesting aquaculture could be removed from the fisheries department and transferred to the department of agriculture and agri-food as is done in other countries.

The first step is to follow through on the commitment to move the industry on land and then to remove the conflict of interest, leaving DFO to protect the wild fishery and healthy ecosystems, she said.

“But we have got to get right to the heart of the motivation for people within the department suppressing science and lying. It is driven by a conflict of interest that is embedded in the legislation,” she told The Tyee.

The department is charged with both promoting aquaculture operations and protecting oceans and wild stocks.

May told The Tyee that she had hoped that DFO had learned its lesson after the destruction of the North Atlantic cod fishery.

“DFO malfeasance destroyed one of the largest animal populations on the planet,” she said.

“They’re doing the same thing now on aquaculture.... We’re dealing with a department that, at least culturally, is determined to do everything it can to protect the industry instead of protecting the salmon,” she said.

In 2012 the Cohen Commission recommended that promotion of salmon farming should be removed from DFO’s mandate and that a new position of regional director general with responsibility for wild salmon should be created, but, despite DFO claims to the contrary, there has been little movement on either recommendation.

Morton, a long-time researcher and opponent of fish farming, said, although several senior DFO staff have left, the next generation is “riding the coattails of a long history of deception of the B.C. public.”

A possible start would be to reassign staff to move the industry on to land and ensure there is outside oversight of the science, as well as assurances that there is a conduit within DFO to ensure the minister is given correct scientific information, she said.

The public must also be assured they are getting the complete story, and gaining that trust is more difficult in the wake of a recent revelation that a federal study showing the piscine orthoreovirus was spreading through B.C. fish farms was suppressed for a decade. The virus causes jaundice and anemia in fish and is associated with organ failure in Chinook.

The study was written by DFO senior research scientist Kristi Miller-Saunders, but the department blocked the release until earlier this year when the federal information commissioner ordered it released.

Miller-Saunders, who researches salmon genetics at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, appeared at an earlier meeting of the standing committee and said the study was the first to document the presence of PRV in the Pacific Northwest.

“It definitely could have informed a lot of the work moving forward,” she told the committee.

“Everywhere else in the world PRV is known to be a disease agent and all strains of PRV have been shown to be capable of causing disease in salmon — in Pacific salmon and Atlantic salmon. The research from my lab would back up that international viewpoint,” she said.

The delay in the release was due to a disagreement with industry veterinarians on the interpretation of the science, said Miller-Saunders, adding that she has concerns about the influence of industry in peer review processes, but hopes a new conflict of interest document might help.

BC salmon farmers rep says accusations are untrue

Submissions to the committee were roundly criticized by Brian Kingzett, BC Salmon Farmers Association science and policy director, who told The Tyee that many statements were untrue.

For example, claims by Morton that sea lice levels dropped dramatically in the Discovery Islands after the removal of farms is not accurate, Kingzett said.

“We showed that sea lice levels in the Discovery Islands during our five years of monitoring by independent, actual biologists with Indigenous guardian oversight has always been low and remained unchanged,” he said.

Results of scientific studies never favour one side and, as new science comes forward, the process is renewed, he said.

“The current and oddly chosen witnesses to the [Standing Committee] review of DFO science have all decided to gang up on the DFO/CSAS process and results,” Kingzett said.

Most of the witnesses are activists who have a formed opinion and disagree with the final conclusions, he said.

“So they are claiming conspiracy. It is unethical and disappointing,” Kingzett said.

The standing committee will hold at least two more meetings on DFO science before compiling the study to be presented to the House of Commons.

The DFO did not reply to questions by publication time.

*Story updated at 9:10 p.m. on Sunday, May 15, 2022 to correct information about research on diseases transmitted from farmed salmon to wild salmon.  [Tyee]

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