After losing two recent court cases, anti-salmon farming activists in BC have embarked on a concerted campaign to discredit aquaculture and fisheries scientists

False facts matter to BC’s anti-salmon farming activists

After losing two recent court cases, anti-salmon farming activists in BC have embarked on a concerted campaign to discredit aquaculture and fisheries scientists

By Fabian Dawson

British Columbia’s anti-fish farming crowd, licking its wounds after two recent court rulings decimated their false claims that salmon farms are detrimental to wild stocks, is now wanting “facts to matter” when it comes to aquaculture.

But there is a big caveat.

The lobby only wants their ‘facts’ to matter and not the ones published in peer reviewed scientific studies, nor the ones established by government agencies like the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), nor the determinations made by the courts.

Unable to challenge the science, the activists have embarked on a concerted campaign to discredit the scientists, especially from DFO, to drive a wedge between them and Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, to keep the Trudeau Liberals on their side.

One, Alexandra Morton, purporting to be an independent biologist, whose claims have been debunked on numerous occasions, has gone so far as to suggest she be the new boss of DFO by spreading institutional distrust of the current regime.

Another leader of this science-deficit cabal is Tony Allard, a Vancouver-based business man who serves as the chair of eco-activist groups like Wild Salmon Forever and Wild First.

Allard, in a recent op-ed entitled Who can Minister Murray trust? writes without evidence that DFO’s Aquaculture Management Directorate has been “captured by the fish farming industry.”

Let’s take a quick fact-check on his misrepresentations.

Allard claims Canada is generally blessed with an able and honest civil service.

One disquieting exception is the Aquaculture Management Directorate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) which for decades has culpably mismanaged science to engineer policy outcomes to favour the industry it is supposed to regulate, rather than to discharge its mandate to protect and conserve wild fish on behalf of all Canadians.

Fact Check: Allard has no evidence to back this claim. In fact, the reverse is true. Salmon farming is the most regulated industry in the agricultural sector in BC and is comprehensively managed by the federal and provincial governments on all aspects of its operations. Further in BC, the salmon farming industry’s high standard of environmental responsibility has been recognized by multiple independent, global environmental certification systems. It’s the salmon farmers, not the activists, who have been calling for years for a Federal Aquaculture Act to streamline regulatory and licensing processes. In 2020, the House of Commons recorded that least 10 formal review processes and multiple scientific investigations have concluded that B.C. salmon farms pose no more than a minimal risk to wild Pacific salmon populations. In 2017, claims like the ones being regurgitated by Allard triggered a $100,000 government investigation into alleged BC government’s collusion with industry. The inquiry found no evidence of “dubious data or conflict of interest,” as claimed.

Allard claims that in 2011, a DFO scientist, Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders, identified PRV in British Columbia (BC) and discovered that it was likely causing a fatal disease in endangered Chinook. But DFO refused to allow her to publish that research, citing the objections of industry collaborators.  DFO also refused to release her research under the Access to Information Act. The Information Commissioner, reviewing this refusal, found DFO had no lawful reason to withhold this evidence of harm to wild Pacific salmon.

Fact check: First off PRV has long been present in wild salmon in Pacific Northwest waters predating salmon farming. All experimental exposures of the BC strain of PRV to Pacific and Atlantic salmon have failed to induce disease or mortality, according to consensus by a broad range of fisheries scientists including the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS). Secondly, the inconclusive finding by Dr. Miller-Saunders stating PRV is responsible for heart issues and jaundice in wild salmon has been challenged by the other two scientists involved in the study, Dr. Sonja Saksida formerly with the BC Center for Aquatic Health Sciences and Dr. Gary Marty, the senior provincial fish pathologist at the Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford.

Since the start of the study in 2011, which was initiated by Chinook farmer, Creative Salmon in Tofino, it has been clearly mandated that all authors must agree to the contents of the paper before it is officially released. That consensus has still not been reached and the study has not been subject to a peer review. While the public release of the study was delayed, key components of the report, have been in the public domain for a decade. Dr. Miller-Saunders, herself, made it public on Dec 15, 2011, at the Cohen Commission inquiry hearings where she described Creative Salmon as “a very forward-thinking, cooperative and responsible company”, adding “I did not discuss with them ahead of time exactly what I was testing for there.”

Allard’s claim that DFO collaborated with industry researchers to produce flawed research in this case, is false. What was flawed and remains so is Dr, Miller Saunders’ findings according to multiple globally renowned fish health scientists. This dubious claim based on questionable science, has led to prominent fish health specialists in the Pacific Northwest recently calling on regulatory agencies to avoid making policy changes until full investigations are conducted on such findings related to organisms that are not significant to fish health.

This so-called hushed-up report has “caused needless public concerns…the overall scientific consensus was that the northeastern Pacific variant of PRV-1a is not a significant disease-causing agent in Pacific salmonids contrary to the misinformation claiming the virus is a threat to wild fish populations and resource sustainability,” said the fish health specialists.

Allard claims that with DFO’s Aquaculture Management Directorate captured by the fish farming industry, Minister Murray faces one of the most important aquaculture decisions in BC’s history: whether to renew fish farm licences, all of which expire in June 2022. She must be wondering whom in her department she can trust. The only option is for Minister Murray to make these licensing decisions herself for she surely knows what her predecessor Bernadette Jordan knew, that DFO’s advice will be indistinguishable from the fish farmers’ demands. Fortunately, Minister Murray has repeatedly shown she puts wild Pacific salmon first.  British Columbians can remain confident that Minister Murray’s June 2022 decision will be the right one, and a step forward in the Prime Minister’s mandate to remove open net-pen feedlots from coastal BC by 2025.

Fact check: There is no mandate to remove open-net salmon farms in coastal BC by 2025. The mandate refers to coming up with a plan to transition open-net salmon farms by 2025. The government has already made it clear that this transition, does not necessarily mean ousting fish farmers from the oceans to land-based operations, which Allard wants. The agenda to remove salmon farms in BC waters is pushed for by Allard and his allies. It is their advice and suggested wording that is indistinguishable from what is in the mandate letter. Canada’s Federal Court has realised this by ordering the government to set aside its decision to phase out salmon farms in the Discovery Islands, which is part of the overall strategy by the Trudeau Liberals to satisfy the anti-fish farm activists, who have threatened the party to withhold their votes. The courts, both here and across the border in Washington State have determined that salmon aquaculture poses no more than a minimal risk to wild salmon. On the Canadian side, The Federal Court has also decried the lack of procedural fairness accorded to the fish farmers, signalling that if there is any collusion it is between the government and the activists.

Allard claims in one segment of his recent op-ed that   “All those claims have been proven false.” 

Fact check: This part is true, if Allard is talking about himself and his allies in the anti-fish farm lobby in BC.

(File image courtesy of DFO shows work being done at one of its labs)