As the Federal cabinet meets to determine the future of salmon farming in British Columbia, anti-salmon farming activists are conjuring up more falsehoods to vilify the sector

Aquaculture: activists push an imaginary problem with an imaginary disease

As the Federal cabinet meets to determine the future of salmon farming in British Columbia, anti-salmon farming activists are conjuring up more falsehoods to vilify the sector

By Fabian Dawson

The threat by the Namgis First Nation in British Columbia to reactivate litigation that challenges the government’s fish transfer policy, is “focused on an imaginary problem with an imaginary disease”, says a leading fisheries scientist.

The Namgis, perennial opponents of ocean-based aquaculture that helps prop up their floundering land-based fish farm, recently served notice that it will reactivate its judicial review application against testing for the PRV virus before restocking open-net pens with farmed salmon.

With the backing of anti-fish farming activists, the Namgis claim in a media statement that farmed fish with PRV would infect wild salmon passing by the farms, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Dr. Gary Marty, a veteran fish pathologist, who for the past two decades worked with the Animal Health Centre of BC’s Ministry of Agriculture said PRV causes minor lesions in some BC Pacific salmon, but the disease is rare and barely detectable.

“The (Namgis) press release expresses concern about the DFO policy not to test for the PRV before fish are stocked into open marine net-pens in BC… However, BC salmon farmers have not stocked fish with PRV into the marine environment for the past 6 years,” he said.

“I find it telling that the press release includes no quotes from licensed medical professionals or certified fish pathologists. I am not aware that any of these professionals think that the form of PRV that occurs in BC is more than low risk to wild Pacific salmon,” Dr Marty told SeaWestNews.

“Based on my 20 years of experience diagnosing and studying disease in BC wild and farmed salmon, I interpret the Namgis press release as one that describes a lawsuit that is focused on an imaginary problem with an imaginary disease,” he said.

Other independent assessments of the threat of PRV have also concluded that “the PRV virus poses a low risk to wild species of Pacific salmonids.”  

One study, published in Scientific Reports, was conducted by scientists from the Pacific Biological Station and the provincial government’s Animal Health Centre. The other, published in Frontiers in Physiology, was conducted by scientists at the University of BC and the Pacific Biological Station.

The studies found that the strain of PRV found in B.C. fish to be benign.

DFO has said PRV has long been present in wild salmon in Pacific Northwest waters and all experimental exposures of the BC strain of PRV to Pacific and Atlantic salmon in BC have failed to induce disease or mortality. This suggests PRV in BC has a low ability to cause disease.

In 2015 and 2019, Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) assessments concluded that PRV, attributable to Atlantic Salmon farms in the Discovery Islands area, poses no more than minimal risk to Fraser River Sockeye Salmon abundance and diversity.

Prominent fish health specialists in the Pacific Northwest have also stated that the dubious claims based on questionable science about PRV, peddled widely by anti-aquaculture activists, are causing unnecessary controversies over salmon farming in BC leading to a waste of public resources.

In a peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Aquatic Health, the study calls on regulatory agencies to avoid making policy changes until full investigations are conducted on the so-called “new” findings related to organisms that are not significant to fish health.

“The activists and their activist-scientists are trying to create controversy where there is none to influence the Federal decision on   expiring salmon farming licences in BC  ,” said an industry official.

“Their aim is to spread fear not facts about salmon farming,” he said.

The government is currently considering renewing the licences of dozens of salmon farms in British Columbia, pending a transition process for the industry.

The National Post reported that Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier will put forward a plan this week to renew the existing licences of open net-pen Atlantic salmon farms for another eight to 10 years, giving the sector time to transition to systems that reduce interaction between wild and farmed salmon.

Bowing to demands from activists, who have mounted a campaign to discredit all government science that shows salmon farming in BC poses less than a minimal risk to wild stocks, the Liberal government has already shutdown 40% of salmon farms since 2020.

The aquaculture detractors, including some cabinet ministers, have also been signalling that the government should ignore the rights of First Nations, who see salmon farming in their traditional territories as a pathway for economic reconciliation. Currently in BC, all the existing salmon farms are supported by the First Nations communities that they operate in.

Salmon farming in BC directly and indirectly employs over 700 Indigenous people and provides $120 million in total annual direct and indirect economic benefits to First Nations, with $42 million going directly to Indigenous communities.

Taken as a whole, the entire sector generates over $1.142 billion of direct economic activity in BC annually supporting approximately 6,000 direct and indirect jobs.

(File image shows Dr Gary Marty)