Recent studies by anti-fish farm activist-scientists hide inconvenient truths about sustainable salmon aquaculture in Canada

Beyond the headlines about salmon aquaculture

Recent studies by anti-fish farm activist-scientists hide inconvenient truths about sustainable salmon aquaculture in Canada

By Fabian Dawson

The recent spate of aquaculture studies, pushed by anti-fish farm activist-scientists is aimed at garnering sensational headlines to oust salmon farmers from Canada’s oceans.

But when you go beyond the headlines, the studies actually show that salmon farming, especially in the waters of British Columbia, has little to do with declining wild stocks.

The studies, often littered with caveats like ‘if’, ‘should’, ‘suggests’ and ‘maybe’ are primarily non-conclusive when it comes to supporting the apocalyptic gospel of the activists that ocean farming will decimate wild stocks.

More importantly, they actually support the science and findings by peer reviewed scientific panels that show wild and farmed fish can thrive in our oceans.

However, these inconvenient truths are conveniently hidden.

Here are some examples;

New study suggests fish farms raise risk of exposure to infectious disease for wild B.C. salmon: CBC

This study released last week was led by University of Toronto PhD candidate Dylan Shea, who works closely with foreign and local anti-salmon farm activists. It suggests that the presence of active fish farms in B.C. waters can more than double the chance of finding genetic material from pathogens that cause disease in wild salmon. Of course, the presence of genetic material in the water doesn’t necessarily mean there are viable pathogens as well, admits Shea.

Further, the study did not include samples from any location where there have been no salmon farms, ever, for a more contextual conclusion.

If you scroll down the data, you will also find an unwanted finding by the activist-scientists about PRV-1, the local strain of piscine reovirus, a benign pathogen that has long been present in fish in the Pacific Northwest and one that does not make wild or farmed fish sick.

PRV is endemic to B.C., so it’s very likely you will find it whether you are sampling waters off Kitsilano beaches or Tofino or anywhere else in B.C., close to or far away from fish farms.

But the anti-fish farm activists and their scientists have maintained that PRV found in B.C. “may” also cause disease in farmed and wild salmon in B.C. and keep using this as a central pillar in their fight to kill ocean based salmon farms.

This study, could hardly detect any PRV genetic material in the 58 active and inactive salmon aquaculture sites, where samples were taken.

“Interestingly, this agent was detected only once in our data, and only in the cellular fraction,” said the authors of the study, surmising that the remnants of the virus may be in the salmon poop that has sunk to the bottom of the ocean and therefore could not be found in their surface-oriented samples.

B.C. fish farms regularly under-count sea lice, potentially putting wild salmon at risk: study: CBC

This study released last September was led by Sean Godwin, who conducted the research for his PhD at Simon Fraser University. His group analysed publicly-reported sea-louse counts from 91 salmon farms between 2011 and 2016 and compared them to audited counts performed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

They then created a “unique” model to use the historical data, not currently available numbers, to try and estimate what sea lice counts should have been in the past.

Even if one believed the numbers derived from the so-called unique model, the study clearly demonstrated that in the period analysed (2011-2016) sea lice levels on salmon farms were well below thresholds – almost certainly an unintended finding, and one buried in the data.

“In the period studied, most of the farms were below the government threshold,” Godwin, confirmed in an interview with SeaWestNews.

Research over the past decade have shown that in B.C., regardless of the presence or absence of salmon farms, there is wide variability in sea lice prevalence in coastal locations, significantly linked with ocean conditions and variations in wild hosts.

Sea lice outbreak in juvenile salmon prompts First Nations leaders to call for fish farm closures: Victoria News

This report released last June was by anti-fish farm activist Alexandra Morton, who claims to be an independent biologist. Some First Nations leaders are using it to call for an end to ocean-based fish farms in B.C.

She claimed that the high numbers of sea lice this spring is a direct result of fish farms dotted along wild salmon migration routes.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) responded to this false claim saying: “Sea lice in British Columbia during the 2020 outmigration  (March 1 to June 30) have been controlled, with no facilities violating licence conditions.”

Morton has also been throwing out some new “miraculous” salmon comeback numbers over the past few months about the Broughton Archipelago, which is seeing an orderly transition of 17 fish farms, that will be completed by 2023.

The central claim for the removal of salmon aquaculture farms in the Broughton was that the net pens posed disease transmission and naturally occurring sea lice risks to migrating wild stocks.

“The one place on this coast where the sea lice are going down is the Broughton archipelago where First Nations have removed several million farmed Atlantic salmon,” Morton told the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.

When you take a deeper dive into this study, it shows that in 2018, when the farms in the Broughton were stocked with fish, the sea lice infestation rate of sample fish was 34 percent.

According to Morton’s 2020 findings, the infestation rate is also 34 percent.

The inconvenient truth here is that in 2020 there were no farms operating along this central salmon migration route, yet the lice counts are largely unchanged from previous years.

Another hidden point in this study confirmed that wild salmon returning to their home rivers don’t show any increased rates of infection after passing net-pen aquaculture sites.

Salmon are getting sick, too: The Chronicle Herald

This study, was co-authored by Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders, a federal fisheries scientist who keeps accusing her colleagues, without evidence, that they are colluding with the aquaculture industry to suppress research.

Her study looked at tissue samples taken from 150 Atlantic salmon to find out what’s killing them in the open ocean.

Not highlighted was a key finding in the study that said “We found no significant effect of aquaculture proximity on infection profiles of wild returning adult salmon sampled in the St. John and Restigouche rivers of New Brunswick, Canada.”

It was “contrary to our expectation that proximity to aquaculture would enhance infection severity of wild populations,” according to the study authors.

The finding challenges a central claim by those opposed to ocean-based fish farms, especially on Canada’s west coast, who say that open-net pens along salmon migratory routes are detrimental to the survival of wild stocks because of pathogen and virus transmission risks.

When asked to comment on these headlines and reporting, Shawn Hall, a former reporter who now acts as a spokesman for the BC Salmon Farmers Association said: “During my journalism career mentors challenged me to hold truth to power by reading deeply into source material and asking informed questions until I really understood what was going on.

“In the same vein, when reporting on aquaculture, journalists need to read past the study headlines and hold truth to the critics.”

(Image courtesy of Mowi Canada West)