The federal fisheries minister is expected to decide in the coming days or weeks whether or not to renew all, some or none of the 79 federal licenses for salmon farms in British Columbia.
With time running out for 79 salmon farming licenses in British Columbia expiring this month, federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray came under intense pressure Friday during a meeting with the Union of Indian Chiefs of British Columbia (UBCIC) for not renewing them and doing a better job of protecting First Nations fishing rights.
And his department and the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) were criticized at the meeting by two scientists, including one from DFO, for what they said was a science body that was too heavily influenced by industry.
Murray heard from First Nations, who spoke of their frustration at having to get permission from DFO to fish for food or having to buy salmon from grocery stores in years when salmon returns were too low to allow food fishing.
Many BC First Nations believe that salmon farms are at least contributing to, if not the main cause of, the decline in wild salmon populations, and are lobbying the federal government to remove BC waters. British open-net salmon farms.
Murray is expected to decide in the coming days or weeks whether or not to renew all, some or none of the 79 federal licenses for salmon farms in British Columbia.
Meanwhile, a provincial process is also underway to phase out some salmon farms in the Broughton Archipelago.
In his address to UBCIC, Murray spoke of his “very complex mission” to develop a transition plan for the salmon farming industry in British Columbia.
One of the complications of this assignment is that some First Nations support and participate in the salmon farming industry.
“Sustainable aquaculture plays an important role when it comes to feeding a hungry planet,” Murray said. “However, the growth of this industry cannot come at the expense of wild salmon.
“Ultimately, our goal is to create an environment that encourages innovation towards new technologies, while working quickly to ensure that any potential interaction between wild and farmed fish is minimized or eliminated.”
Murray’s predecessor, Bernadette Jordan, ordered the closure of all salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area by June this year, despite advice from the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) that salmon farms would not pose minimal risk to wild salmon.
The salmon farmers went to court and the Federal Court overturned that order last month. However, this may be a Pyrrhic victory since the farms have already moved out of the Discovery Islands area.
Bob Chamberlin, president of the Wild Salmon Alliance First Nation, questioned the integrity of CSAS, suggesting that the salmon farming industry influences it.
“There is no objectivity,” he said.
He urged all UBCIC members to push for the removal of farmed salmon from BC waters to protect wild salmon.
“We’re talking about extinction,” he said.
Kristi Miller-Saunders and Gideon Mordecai (a researcher at the University of British Columbia) spoke at Friday’s meeting and earlier before the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on April 28 against the farming of filleted salmon.
They have researched Pool Orthoreovirus (PRV) and are convinced that the virus poses a risk to salmon, especially sockeye and chinook – a view not shared by a number of other scientists who have studied the virus.
Miller-Saunders is chief of molecular genetics at DFO and was a principal investigator for the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, a scientific collaboration between DFO and GenomeBC that conducted studies on salmon pathogens.
In his remarks today, Miller-Saunders said two pathogens believed to be spread by open-net salmon farms to wild sockeye and chinook are of particular concern: PRV and Tenacibaculum maritimum.
Miller-Saunders said chinook can experience “deep heat stress” in the Strait of Georgia before arriving in the Discovery Islands area, where fish farms were heavily concentrated.
“This will increase their susceptibility to pathogens and disease,” Miller-Saunders said. “Right before they are potentially exposed to high levels of pathogens from open-net culture, these fish are already stressed.”
PRV is a scientifically controversial pathogen. Miller-Saunders is convinced it causes disease in wild salmon. But experiments in Canada and the United States attempted to induce disease in healthy salmon by exposing them to high viral loads of PRV and failed, leading researchers to conclude that the strain of PRV found in British Columbia does not cause disease, although different strains have been shown to cause disease in Atlantic salmon in Norway.
Tenacibaculum maritimum, on the other hand, is known to cause tenacibaculosis, a skin disease that can be fatal in fish, including salmon.
A recent study found levels of this bacteria in wild salmon when they were in close proximity to salmon farms on the Discovery Islands.
Although infections can be controlled in farmed salmon with antibiotics, Miller-Saunders said, “farmed salmon may still continue to carry the bacteria after treatment, so the risk to wild salmon may not be contained by simple antibiotic treatment on farms. Moreover, wild salmon do not have such a health care system.”
In the Broughton Archipelago, some salmon farms have been cut under an agreement between the provincial government and several First Nations, and Rick Johnson of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation said Friday that wild salmon in that area now seems to be recovering.
“The fry that I see in my traditional territories are coming back… since the closure of the 10 fish farms,” he said. “So it works.”
The science around salmon farming has become politicized, with anti-salmon farming lobbyists promoting the work of scientists whose research suggests salmon farms pose a serious risk to wild salmon.
Mordecai said DFO prevented the research he and Miller-Saunders had done on the PRV from reaching the fisheries minister. After publishing an article with “strong evidence” that PRV poses a risk to wild salmon, he said DFO had requested a summary of the article.
But when CSAS provided the minister with its brief on its assessment of the risks salmon farms pose to wild salmon, it did not include Mordecai’s and Miller-Saunders’ research.
“I think the question we can ask is, ‘Can we trust the CSAS process?'” Mordecai asked.
The answer to that question is “yes,” according to nine scientists across Canada who took the extraordinary step of recently writing an open letter defending CSAS.
The letter followed an April 28 presentation to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.
Miller-Saunders, members of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, and a number of fish farming opponents had made presentations to the committee, in which the integrity of CSAS was questioned.
The SCCS is a scientific body that often invites a range of scientists to peer review research in fisheries and ocean science. Contributors often include scientists from outside DFO, including university researchers.
The concern raised at the standing committee hearing was that scientists contributing to CSAS assessments may also sometimes be doing research for the aquaculture industry.
“I had concerns about industry inclusion or control of these types of processes,” Miller-Saunders said during the committee hearing.
This prompted nine scientists – including the chair of the Canada Research Chair in Culture and Conservation of Fish Pathology at the University of British Columbia and the head of the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at the Atlantic Veterinary College – to write an open letter, published in the Globe and Mail on May 27.
In the letter, the scientists say “anti-salmon farming activists” criticized CSAS as unreliable “because the reports do not support activists’ claim that salmon farming causes significant damage to wild salmon”.
They go on to write that they felt compelled to write “to prevent the spread of any misinformation” and say that Canadians can trust the scientific facts and advice of the SCCS.
“The CSAS process does not selectively ignore some of the available science, as a form of bias – which may not be true of other opinions expressed presented to the Standing Committee on Fisheries,” they write.