Canada was warned in 2012 by its own scientists that a virus was infecting both farmed and wild salmon, but successive governments ignored the expert advice, saying for years that risks to salmon were low.
Justin Trudeau’s government has said it will phase out open-pen industrial fish farms off the coast of British Columbia by 2025. But both his government and the previous Conservative government were in possession of a newly released report that linked large-scale farms and wild salmon to the highly contagious Piscine orthoreovirus (PRV).
In 2012, biologists with the department of fisheries and oceans investigated the presence of the virus, which has been found in both farmed and wild salmon. In March, a federal information commissioner ordered the report be released, after a multi-year access-to-information battle between the group Wild First, which opposes open-pen salmon farms, and the federal government. Details of the report were made public on Thursday by the Globe and Mail.
Kristi Miller-Saunders, a federal biologist and an author on the study, called the delay in releasing the report a “travesty” and said its omission has contributed to longstanding doubt over whether farmed salmon were infecting wild salmon.
PRV causes anemia and jaundice in farmed salmon. But in wild Chinook, whose numbers have collapsed in recent years, the virus is associated with a different disease which causes blood cells to rupture, leading to kidney and liver damage.
Miller-Saunders said in a statement her research was the first to discover the virus in North America and that the virus was “being actively transmitted between farmed and wild salmon in B.C.”
A study last year from the University of British Columbia confirmed her work, concluding that the closer wild Chinook are to fish farms, the higher the likelihood they’ll be infected by the Piscine orthoreovirus.
The decade-old findings take on a new urgency as both the federal government and officials in British Columbia grapple with a decimation of wild Pacific salmon stocks in the region, which experts fear could have far-reaching ecological consequences.
In addition to PRV, biologists have also argued that sea lice and mouth rot, which can be fatal in salmon, is also being transferred from farmed to wild salmon.
Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist who has studied Pacific salmon for the last thirty years, has long argued that open-pen farms are responsible for the presence of the illnesses plaguing wild salmon and alleges the country’s fisheries ministry too often sides with corporate interests.
“There are scientists that genuinely care about investigating these issues. And there is the middle level of the department that is suppressing people like Dr Miller. They’re ignoring all of the outside research,” Morton told the Guardian last year amid frustration that critical research findings were being withheld.
Trudeau’s government has pledged to phase out open-pen salmon farms by 2025 – a move fiercely opposed by operators. Industry has warned the closures will result in millions of farm salmon being prematurely killed as well as the loss of hundreds of jobs and are fighting the orders in court.
“Industry should have known this was coming and seen the writing on the walls. They should have started transitioning to different kinds of enclosures. Instead, they relied for years on the government – on the department of fisheries and oceans – to hide their sins,” said Morton.
The BC Salmon Farmers Association said in a statement it would rather see peer-reviewed information about industry rather than “ad-hoc” releases through Canada’s access to information laws.