Is Canada's Aquaculture Licence Safe for Wild Salmon?
Canada would like us to believe the licence they grant to salmon farmers uses the best science and the most rigourous regulations to manage salmon farms. But it is hard to see it that way when it appears their Federal Aquaculture Licence allows transfer of farm salmon that are carrying disease pathogens into net pens right on the migration routes of BC's wild salmon. Hard to believe, I know.
The transfer conditions in the Federal Aquaculture Licences puts decisions about whether infected farm salmon smolts will go into net pens in wild salmon habitat in the hands of fish farm staff and fish farm's veterinarians. Is this safe for wild salmon when these company employees simply do not have the same ability or responsibility to consider and conserve wild salmon as government?
If DFO acted consistently with its responsibility to conserve the wild salmon - a responsibility described by Justice Bruce Cohen as DFO's paramount responsibility - then DFO would evaluate each and every transfer of young farmed fish from hatcheries into open net pens. The Minister would also look at a virus like piscine reovirus, reported to spread like "wildfire," infect red blood cells and damage salmon heart muscle and she would do everything in her power to contain it, prevent it from spreading through the North Pacific, at least until it impacts were well understood. Instead, the Minister has handed away this important decision about what fish get put into a salmon in the ocean to the salmon farming companies themselves.
And so June 11-13 we ask the courts to decide: Does the Minister of Fisheries have the authority to give the power to transfer fish to fish farm companies? Is the federal aquaculture licence inconsistent with federal fisheries law including section 56 of the Fishery (General) Regulations* and therefore contrary to law.
You are welcome to attend, see below.
I initiated this legal action over a year ago, after learning that Marine Harvest had transferred juvenile Atlantic salmon infected with piscine reovirus from its Dalrymple hatchery in Sayward to its net pen facility in Shelter Bay (see blog post). Shelter Bay is located at the north end of the passage between Vancouver Island and mainland BC. This means most wild salmon from southern BC will migrate past this farm. There is no reason to believe this particular transfer was unique, it is simply one that I learned about. This is a test case. My lawyers are Margo Venton and Lara Tessaro of Ecojustice, a non-profit law firm.
A test case. The Transfer Condition is part of the standard form aquaculture licence condition template approved by DFO in November 2012. These conditions are in all 123 federal aquaculture licences issued for 2013. The decision from this legal challenge could affect all salmon farms in British Columbia.
Below is the exact text of the licence condition that is now before the Court. Note that the apparent restriction on the transfer of disease-carrying fish from freshwater hatcheries to marine net pen sites, can be over-ruled by the final condition 3.1 (iv).
3. Transfer of Fish
3.1 The licence holder may transfer to this facility live Atlantic or Pacific salmonids from a facility possessing a valid aquaculture licence issued pursuant to section 3 of the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations between the Fish Health zones described in Appendix VI, provided transfers occur within the same salmonid transfer zone as outlined in Appendix II and provided:
(a) the species of live salmonid fish are the same as those listed on the face of this licence;
(b) the licence holder has obtained written and signed confirmation, executed by the source facility’s veterinarian or fish health staff, that, in their professional judgement:
(i) mortalities, excluding eggs, in any stock reared at the source facility have not exceeded 1% per day due to any infectious diseases, for any four consecutive day period during the rearing period;
(ii) the stock to be moved from the source facility shows no signs of clinical disease requiring treatment; and
(iii) no stock at the source facility is known to have had any diseases listed in Appendix IV; or
(iv) where conditions 3.1 (b)(i) and/or 3(b)(iii) cannot be met transfer may still occur if the facility veterinarian has conducted a risk assessment of facility fish health records, review of diagnostic reports, evaluation of stock compartmentalization, and related biosecurity measures and deemed the transfer to be low risk.
Clause (iv) puts the health of wild salmon outside the pens in the hands of the facility veterinarian, and appears to allow that vet to make the choice whether to put a fish with a disease as defined in Appendix IV into the ocean, see below.
These transfer conditions do not appear to require proof that the juvenile farm salmon have been tested for diseases or viruses before transfer. The licence does not explain "risk." Risk to shareholders, the other salmon in the pens or the wild salmon?
By the time a farm-load of 600,000 to 1,000,000 Atlantic salmon is ready for transfer from a hatchery into marine net pens for grow out to harvest, the company has spent millions rearing them for a year in tanks on land. Each one has been injected with a vaccine to protect them from some diseases. If they can't be transferred into the ocean pens because of disease all that money is lost, as well as, the profits from the harvest.
Salmon farms are private businesses. Unfortunately they use public or common waters to flush all their waste and that means what goes on inside the pens has potential to affect the wild fish outside the pens. The legal mandate of a private company is to put the needs of the shareholder to make money first. This means the primary focus of the people working on the farm is the profitability of the farm itself. The legal mandate of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans includes conservation and management of the public fishery, including the protection of the marine environment on which the public fish depend. So why has the Minister of Fisheries stepped back from this crucial decision?
Marine Harvest’s lawyers suggest the entire BC farmed salmon industry would be shut down if they could no longer use piscine reovirus infected fish. Therefore, it is important to them that the court believes piscine reovirus does not cause disease. Piscine reovirus is at the center of this test case, but the resulting decision will impact farm salmon infected with any virus or bacteria.
Piscine reovirus appears to cause heart damage in farmed salmon in Norway. Scientists warn a wild salmon infected with the virus might not be able to swim up a river, or even reach the river. If piscine reovirus affects Pacific salmon this way, the risk to Canada is incalculable. There is already evidence it is spreading in BC. BC government pathologist, Dr. Gary Marty reported he could not detect piscine reovirus in young wild salmon in the Broughton Archipelago in 2008 (Saksida et al 2012), but it is common to find it there today (my work, ongoing).
In Norway, non-government scientists have access to farmed salmon, but in Canada scientists who want to study farmed salmon have to buy them in the supermarket where the organs have been removed, so research is limited. One of the very few labs with access to BC farmed salmon is the BC Ministry of Agriculture's Animal Health Centre in Abbottsford. This lab has been responsible for the quarterly provincial farm salmon health audits that examine farmed salmon that have died. The pathologist at the Animal Health Centre has reported diagnostic symptoms of the disease associated with piscine reovirus, called HSMI, but inexplicably they do not believe it is HSMI. This does not make sense and deserves explanation. Download HSMI-type Lesion Reporting in BC
In his final report on the Inquiry into the Decline of the Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, Justice Bruce Cohen warned that the potential harm posed to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farm is serious or irreversible. He concluded that disease transfer occurs between wild and farmed fish, and he was satisfied that salmon farms along the sockeye migration routes have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to exacerbate endemic diseases that could have a negative impact on Fraser River sockeye.
Further, he found that the risk of disease to wild fish has not been adequately studied. This is painfully clear with piscine reovirus, a highly infectious virus, associated with devastating impact on salmon health. No on knows what is happening to wild salmon that have been exposed to massive farm salmon populations infected with piscine reovirus. Maybe it is killing them, maybe it makes them too slow to catch food, or escape from whales, maybe it is doing nothing. "Maybe" is just not good enough when it comes to Canada's wild salmon. They feed over 100 species, support coastal and interior economies, they feed the trees that make the oxygen we breathe and pull the carbon that is causing climate change out of our atmosphere.
I am very grateful for my legal team, for their brilliance and hard work in preparation for this, their workload is enormous. You can sit in on the proceedings June 11-13 in federal court, 701 W. Georgia St., Vancouver. Please respect the court, do not use your phone, laptop or any electronic device while in the building, turn your phone "mute." If you want to take notes use a pen and paper and if you want to post, tweet or email you can step outside.
I am hoping we can stop the spread of disease from farm salmon to protect the wild salmon of the Northeastern Pacific Ocean.
*Section 56 Fisheries Act:
Licence to Release or Transfer Fish
56. The Minister may issue a licence if
· (a) the release or transfer of the fish would be in keeping with the proper management and control of fisheries;
· (b) the fish do not have any disease or disease agent that may be harmful to the protection and conservation of fish; and
· (c) the release or transfer of the fish will not have an adverse effect on the stock size of fish or the genetic characteristics of fish or fish stocks.