The Federal Court has overturned a Fisheries and Oceans Canada policy that allowed aquaculture companies to transfer juvenile Atlantic salmon into open-net pens without testing them for a virus that could spread to B.C.’s wild chinook populations.
Justice Cecily Strickland ruled that transferring the fish without screening them for piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV, “perpetuates a state of wilful blindness on the part of the (Minister of Fisheries) with respect to the extent of PRV infection in hatcheries and fish farms.”
Marine biologist and outspoken industry critic Alexandra Morton welcomed the ruling, saying the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and provincial scientists have known PRV is affecting chinook salmon for years.
The 199-page decision, which deals with lawsuits brought forward by Morton and ‘Namgis First Nation, gives DFO four months to develop a new policy on PRV. It also states that DFO breached its duty to consult ‘Namgis First Nation about PRV policy.
A statement attributed to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson said the ruling is being reviewed.
“We take the duty to consult with Indigenous groups very seriously and our government is engaging in meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities and stakeholders to form our policy decisions,” he said in the statement.
He added that “strong, science-based approach to regulating the aquaculture industry is essential and that is why we have and will continue to conduct extensive research which informs our policies and regulation.”
In Atlantic populations, PRV causes a disease known as heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI), which Morton described as a temporary condition that tends to heal if the fish aren’t eaten by predators first.
Among Pacific wild fish, the effects of PRV are largely unknown, but research indicates that it causes the cells of wild chinook salmon to burst, leading to organ failure, she said.
A 2018 study led by a DFO scientist found that PRV is linked to a deadly type of anemia in at least one species of wild B.C. salmon.
“It causes different diseases in different fish, depending on how the red blood cells behave,” Morton said.
She added that open net-pen fish farms amplify virus populations because there are no natural predators that would cull the infected salmon. The virus then spreads to passing wild populations, she said.
Kegan Pepper-Smith of Ecojustice, who served as legal counsel for Morton, said the court found that DFO’s threshold for acceptable harm to B.C.’s salmon population was too high and that its policy didn’t comply with the precautionary principle.
Pepper-Smith described this as a policy of “look before you leap.”
In this case, it would mean “consider the science regarding the harm caused by PRV and the impacts on wild salmon before you set policies that may be contributing to their precipitous decline,” Pepper-Smith said.
The decision is currently being reviewed by the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association, said Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for the group. He added that the organization is looking forward to a PRV risk assessment by the Canadian Scientific Advisory Secretariat that’s currently underway.
“Supporting good science into the health of both wild and farm-raised salmon and working closely with First Nations and coastal communities are cornerstones of responsible salmon farming in B.C.,” he said in an email.
Morton said that First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago have the authority to screen Atlantic salmon for PRV following a deal with the province announced in December.
That agreement also involves a plan to close 17 Atlantic salmon aquaculture sites in the area, following fish farm occupations by Indigenous people opposed to the industry on their territories.
Those occupations stemmed from “the fear that this industry was wiping out their fish,” she said.
She said PRV screening could dramatically reduce profits in the aquaculture industry, and that inaction by DFO reflects “regulatory capture” – an outsized influence of industry on government.
“If the minister of fisheries follows the law of Canada and screens these fish and does not allow the infected ones to go into the water, I don’t think the fish farm industry has enough fish to keep farming in these waters, and I think that is the crux of the problem,” Morton said.
She said the ruling will encourage companies to move their operations into land-based closed containment facilities.
-With files from Canadian Press