Canadian Agricultural Federation joins growing chorus of support for BC salmon farmers and urges government to review Discovery Islands aquaculture ban

Fact checking the falsehoods by an anti-fish farm activist group

When it comes to aquaculture in British Columbia, we need to inform ourselves with science and not activism

By Fabian Dawson

The mantra of those wanting to spread falsehoods and fear has been that ‘if you tell lies big enough and keep repeating them, people will eventually come to believe it’. Judging by its recent report – Going Viral – the Tofino-based anti-fish farm activist group, Clayoquot Action, seems to have adopted this as a pillar for their campaign to oust fish farms from B.C. waters.

This science deficit report, snapped up by some in the media for sensational headlines, claimed that the PRV-1a Norwegian strain has infected 14 fish farms in Tofino.

Over the years, campaigns by anti-fish farming groups, like Clayoquot Action, have oversimplified complex aquaculture issues leaving British Columbians caught in a fog of competing politicized agendas, contested science, and misinformation.

This new report by Clayoquot Action is another example of activists providing fodder for the polarization in British Columbia about salmon farming.

This has to stop but the discourse around salmon farming does not have to.

The more British Columbians get involved in decisions about how and where our food is produced, the better it will be for our oceans and those who depend on it for their livelihoods.

But we have to look past the spin, hype, controversy, myths and fears, and inform ourselves as best we can with science not activism.

So, let us fact check some of the alarming claims made by this group of activists against the consensus from the scientific community.

Clayoquot Action; The goal of our ‘Going Viral’ Report was to establish the presence or absence of PRV on salmon farms in Clayoquot Sound

If this is the case, Clayoquot Action may as well close shop because it has already been established that PRV has been present in Pacific Northwest waters for decades and long before any fish farms began operating in B.C.

Testing of archived samples held by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has revealed that PRV has been present in salmonids and non-salmonid fish on the Pacific coast of North America since 1987 and possibly as early as 1977.

Dr. Jim Powell, the CEO of BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences (BC CAHS), who has over 30 years’ experience in the areas of fisheries and aquaculture sciences said PRV was detected in preserved samples prior to industrial salmon farming and would thereby indicate that the virus was present in Eastern Pacific waters prior to that time.

A study by BC’s Ministry of Agriculture which was published in 2014 in the international peer-reviewed Journal of Fish Diseases, said the local strain of piscine reovirus, is a benign virus that has long been present in fish in the Pacific Northwest. The study, titled Piscine reovirus in wild and farmed salmonids in British Columbia, Canada:1974-2013 (G. Marty, D. Morrison, J. Bidulka, T. Joseph, A. Siah, 2014), reported on the results of thousands of fresh and historical salmon tissue samples tested to understand more about the presence of piscine reovirus (PRV) in the Eastern Pacific. The study, which involved BC CAHS, concluded that PRV is present in many species of wild-sourced and farm-raised salmon. The earliest positive result, identified in a wild-source steelhead trout from British Columbia, was from 1977 and predates the start of salmon farming in British Columbia.

Kyle Garver a research scientist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and a PRV expert has also concluded that PRV has been ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest for many decades, and that it isn’t linked to any fish disease or mortality.

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.

Clayoquot Action; Scientific evidence is mounting that PRV is harmful to wild salmon

This is a big whopper because scientific evidence is actually showing the opposite.

Clayoquot Action points to the outcome of a study led by some scientists, well known for their negative perspective on the salmon farming industry. This study used an unproven theoretical approach and made assumptions to assert PRV is responsible for heart issues and jaundice in wild salmon.

Dr. Ian Gardner, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Aquatic Epidemiology, who is also part of the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative (SSHI) described the study as making “broad sweeping statements not supported by evidence.”

Dr. Kenneth Warheit, fish health and genetic specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has said activists have failed to find a single study to support the claim that PRV from open-water pens will harm wild fish.

A Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) science panel has concluded that the Piscine Orthoreovirus (PRV) poses minimal risk to Fraser River sockeye salmon, contrary to the claims being made by anti-fish farm activists. The virus also does not kill sockeye salmon or Atlantic salmon, the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS), which reviewed the latest Canadian and international data, concluded.

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

Clayoquot Action’s Going Viral report relies heavily on a group of activist-scientists who have been previously warned by government not to use “reckless allegations based on incomplete science” to impact livelihood of thousands of British Columbians.

 “Because some have chosen to draw conclusions based on unconfirmed information, this has resulted in British Columbia’s fishing industry and Canada’s reputation being put at risk needlessly.” DFO said.

Several of the scientists referenced in the Going Viral report have had their reports and statements debunked by government and scientific inquiries.

Clayoquot Action; DFO testimony at Canada’s 2010 Cohen Commission revealed that an infected salmon farm can shed 65 billion viral particles per hour.

An alarming number but without any context.

The bottom line consensus is that PRV-1a is a local strain of PRV, a common virus that does not make wild or farmed fish sick. Its presence does not mean disease occurs.

There are millions of viruses in every drop of seawater.

Viruses are carried by all living things and most never cause disease. Other reoviruses have been found for decades in wild fish and never associated with disease. In British Columbia, there is no link between the presence of PRV and any disease.

Viruses with the same name often occur as different types in different parts of the world. Some types might cause disease whereas others do not. PRV is an example of that.

PRV is also not a risk to human health.

By the way, the Cohen Commission, found there is no science that states salmon farms kill wild stocks.

Specific to salmon farming and sockeye, Cohen concluded that “data presented during this inquiry did not show that salmon farms were having a significant negative impact on Fraser River sockeye.”

Clayoquot Action; Three court battles have been waged (and won) to stop the transfer of PRV-infected fish into open-net pen salmon farms. Nonetheless, PRV-infected farmed salmon continue to be transferred into open net pens.

Anti-fish farm activist Alexandra Morton and the Namgis First Nation had claimed in court that salmon smolts being introduced to ocean fish farms needed to be screened for the PRV virus because it is linked to disease in salmon. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, they had argued that farmed fish with the PRV virus would infect wild salmon passing by the farms and further threaten declining salmon populations.

And they said DFO failed to properly consult with the Namgis First Nation when developing the transfer policy, thereby infringing on their traditional territorial rights.

The court dismissed their science but agreed that DFO needed to consult with the Namgis over the policy and asked DFO to review its rules around transferring baby salmon to the ocean environment.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), after an eight-month review, determined that there is no need for testing of the B.C. strain of the piscine reovirus (PRV) by fish farms, when they transfer live fish from land-based hatcheries to open-ocean net pens. This was based on the fact that all experimental exposures of the BC strain of PRV to Pacific and Atlantic salmon in B.C. have failed to induce disease or mortality.

While DFO has said, there is no need for testing for the B.C. strain of the PRV virus, it had modified the live fish transfer policy last June to compel fish farm hatcheries in B.C. to test for two foreign strains of PRV. This change only applied to fish farm hatcheries and not to DFO’s Salmon Enhancement Program (“SEP”), which also release millions of salmon smolts into the marine environment.

There are 132 SEP licences to grow Pacific salmon for release of which 18 are DFO operated hatcheries, 99 are community hatcheries and 15 are classroom facilities.

Clayoquot Action does not seem to have an issue with no PRV-testing for these hatcheries prior to release.

A Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) science panel has concluded farmed Atlantic smolts going into the ocean do not seem to have the PRV virus. “They are going to sea without PRV and they are picking up PRV once they are at sea,” the panel reported

B.C.’s salmon farmers raise fish from local broodstock in local hatcheries, and they go into the marine environment without PRV. They pick it up in the ocean, just as wild fish do.

Clayoquot Action; The government of Canada has pledged to move salmon farms into closed containment by 2025.

Not true.

Canada’s Minister of Fisheries, Bernadette Jordan has made it clear that the 2025 is the date to “come up with a plan” and is not about getting all open-net salmon farms out of the ocean in five years.

A new government report released this week that examined four emerging salmon farming production systems found transitioning all open-net fish farms in British Columbia to land-based salmon farms operations is fraught with challenges.

The report said that land-based recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) technology requires the use of large amounts of land, water, and power, and thus has a significant environmental footprint, in particular greenhouse gas emissions.

New aquaculture technologies, as well as conventional net-pen systems, will all play a role in contributing to global production of salmon states the government report concluded.

This story was updated to include a study by the BC Ministry of Agriculture, which involved the BC CAHS.