Fraser River sockeye salmon are at “minimal” risk of picking up a virus from farmed Atlantic salmon as they pass through the Discovery Islands area of B.C., according to a summary of a Fisheries and Oceans Canada review released Thursday by the department.
But that review should not be taken as reassurance that the virus doesn’t pose a risk to wild salmon, one researcher says.
“The review is very narrowly focused,” said John Werring, senior science and policy adviser with the David Suzuki Foundation, who disputed the department’s findings of minimal risk.
“There’s no way that anybody could make that determination given the high uncertainty and the level of science that was put forward,” Mr. Werring said.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) on Thursday released a statement saying that attendees at a peer-review meeting, held last month in Vancouver, reached a consensus that Fraser River sockeye salmon were at minimal risk from piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), an infectious virus found in both farmed and wild salmon in B.C., as well as in other species of fish.
The summary findings, which are to be followed by a full report later this spring, were released days after a Federal Court decision Feb. 4 that quashed a DFO policy allowing fish farms to transfer salmon to open-net fish farms without testing for the virus.
In that decision, Justice Cecily Strickland said the transfer of fish known to have diseases that can severely impact fisheries is inconsistent with federal regulations and “represents a risk of serious or irreversible harm that … is contrary to the precautionary approach.”
The ruling gives the government four months to revise its policy.
Concerns about diseases passing from farmed to wild salmon have been a cloud over B.C.'s aquaculture industry for years, with worries increasing as some salmon species are in decline.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife In Canada said in December that eight of Canada’s 16 chinook populations are endangered, four are threatened and one is considered of special concern.
Only one, located in British Columbia’s Thompson River, is considered stable. The condition of two populations is unknown.
“Endangered” is the committee’s most serious ranking, suggesting the population is in danger of being wiped out.
Chinook salmon are a major food source for killer whales, also an endangered species.
In a technical briefing with reporters Thursday, fisheries officials would not discuss the recent federal-court decision but focused on the PRV review, which is one of a series of studies looking into the risks of disease passing from farmed Atlantic salmon to wild salmon in the Discovery Islands area.
Those studies are being undertaken in response to the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, which made 75 recommendations in its final report in 2012.
The strain of PRV showing up in B.C. appears to be less harmful to Atlantic salmon than its counterpart in Norway, researcher Gilles Olivier said. Mr. Olivier is co-chair of the peer-review committee.
“It doesn’t seem to have the same effect in our Atlantic salmon here in B.C. on the West Coast as it does in Norway,” he said.
A full report on the findings is scheduled to be published in late spring, the department said.
“This very preliminary review is just one piece of the bigger picture,” said Kegan Pepper-Smith, a lawyer with Ecojustice, which represented independent biologist Alexandra Morton, who was a plaintiff in the recent federal-court case.
An updated policy would likely consider more than potential impacts on Fraser River sockeye, he said.
“It’s impossible to envision an approach that complies with the [federal-court] judgement …if you don’t consider the full scope of impacts to these various populations that are already at risk,” he added.
With files from The Canadian Press